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September 15, 2005

ND's Zbikowski enjoys role as leader

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Everyone at Notre Dame thinks Tom Zbikowski is a little crazy, even Zbikowski himself.

''Yeah, there's no way around it,'' he said.

The 5-11, 200-pound strong safety and amateur boxer with the buzz-cut hair and intense stare is both the brains of 10th-ranked Notre Dame's secondary, its emotional leader and the player who everyone else on defense loves to talk about - and poke fun of.

''Just look at the way he looks. He looks like a kamikaze pilot on a death mission,'' defensive coordinator Rick Minter said.

Zbikowski looked like a man on a mission last week against Michigan. He intercepted a pass on the 1-yard line to end one scoring chance by the Wolverines and returned a punt 19 yards to the Michigan 33, setting up Notre Dame's final field goal in its 17-10 victory.

This week's opponent knows about Zbikowski, too. He played a major role in beating Michigan State 31-24 last season. He intercepted a pass at the Michigan State 35 and returned it 22 yards to set up Notre Dame's first touchdown, then on the next possession he stripped the ball from running back Jason Teague and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown. He forced another fumble and led the Irish with nine tackles.

''That's just the way Tommy is,'' cornerback Chinedum Ndukwe said ''He goes out and tries to make things happen.''

Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton remembers Zbikowski's performance.

''I think you have to be aware of where he is on the field,'' he said.

Zbikowski finished fourth on the team in tackles last season, and is second so far this year with 17 with has both of Notre Dame's interceptions. But it's his attitude that his teammates and coaches admire most.

''I think life is about attitude, and I think he brings a good one to the table,'' Minter said. ''He has the ingredients of what I like in most of our players - good character, hard working, a little attitude.''

Zbikowski attributes much of his attitude to his father Ed and older brother, E.J. He said when he played football as a youngster his father coached his team and was harder on him than the other players, chewing him out regularly.

''He used to beat on me,'' Zbikowski said. ''My brother is the one who taught me what football was about.''

Tom Zbikowski has had far more success fighting in the ring than he did against his brother. He was a Silver Gloves national finalist in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and has a 60-13 record. He's also taught some of his teammates to box.

Zbikowski grew up admiring two former Chicago Bears: Walter Payton and Jim McMahon. He liked Payton for his preference to run over tacklers rather than around them. He liked Jim McMahon because of his carefree attitude.

His coaches and teammates say Zbikowski has those attributes as well.

''He is wired a little bit different,'' specials team coach Brian Polian said. ''When he comes out of a big collision, he's got a smile on his face. Tommy never hits somebody and has to shake the cobwebs out.''

Coach Charlie Weis describes Zbikowski as reckless, making it sound like a compliment. He said Zbikowski is going to make more plays than he misses, but when he misses he might miss them big.

''That's what happens when you're a very aggressive player,'' he said. ''I'd rather him be aggressive and just be a good decision maker - to decide when to lay it all out there and when to be a little more cautious.''

In other words, maybe a little less crazy. But not too much.

For more coverage of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, check out IrishIllustrated.com.

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