One week into Ravens training camp in 2008, coach John Harbaugh pulled aside safety Tom Zbikowski to share a company secret.
Harbaugh confided that if it were up to him, Zbikowski would be anywhere other than the Ravens practice field flailing around like the out-of-shape rookie he was.
“I was 225 pounds with a beer gut, and John told me, ‘I really wanted Craig Steltz because he’s bigger and more athletic,’ ’’ recalled Zbikowski, the 86th overall selection in the third round of the 2008 NFL draft. Steltz went in the fourth round to the Bears, 34 picks later.
“I knew (Ravens general manager) Ozzie Newsome and (then-defensive coordinator) Rex Ryan wanted me but John didn’t, so I was like, ‘Point taken, coach, I’ll get my (stuff) together,’ ’’ Zbikowski said. “That’s why I liked playing for John. He was like me, brutally honest.’’
The truth that Zbikowski lost his zeal for football perhaps hurts him less than the loyal fans who followed the former Buffalo Grove (Ill.) high school star to Notre Dame and through a five-year NFL career that ended abruptly in August when the Bears released him. As Zbikowski sipped a beer Friday at his favorite suburban lunch spot, he sounded like a man relieved to be reduced to spectator status when two of his former teams meet Sunday at Soldier Field.
Last spring, the game was circled on Zbikowski’s calendar. Now, Chicago’s biggest Ravens fan will watch happily on television and root for buddies like Harbaugh and linebacker Terrell Suggs.
“Come on, the Ravens drafted me,’’ Zbikowski said, smiling.
As for the Bears, Zbikowski’s injured shin that caused him to miss the last five games of 2012 never recovered fully enough for him to make an impression in training camp. So Zbikowski understood getting cut, despite the Bears’ problems at safety.
“It was the easiest training camp I’ve been involved with, schedule-wise, but I couldn’t move, so I don’t blame them,’’ Zbikowski said.
Having seen Zbikowski show uncharacteristic lethargy at training camp, I asked if his heart was in it.
“No, not really,’’ he answered. “It hasn’t been for awhile. Football got old to me. … I enjoyed my first two years in the NFL because it was a challenge. I was playing with the best. But after awhile you don’t care whether you win or lose because you’re still getting a paycheck. I enjoyed high school and college much more.’’
Unhappier than ever as a Colt despite starting 11 games, Zbikowski drank heavily to dull the ache. He liked to drink and was good at it.
“I’m the only guy who can drink six beers, then spar 10 rounds on the same day,’’ said Zbikowski, an accomplished boxer.
Alcohol had become such a part of Zbikowski’s routine the night before games that he compared it to a superstition. His ideal mix: four glasses of scotch and four Guinnesses. Of the 64 NFL games Zbikowski participated, he estimated at least 12 were played with a massive hangover.
“Get a little messed up, sneak a girl into your room, feel on top of the world,’’ Zbikowski said. “I had some of my best games off of benders — some of my worst too. My two best seasons ever were 2005 (at Notre Dame) and 2009 (in Baltimore) when I was the most out of control drinking, so I thought, hey, maybe I should go back to that.’’
But for the first time, Zbikowski felt his nighttime activities affecting his game-day ability.
“I was drinking too much,’’ Zbikowski said. “I got fat.’’
To lose weight, Zbikowski began taking a diuretic — “A water pill,’’ he called it — banned by the NFL that he claims led to a four-game suspension. If Zbikowski had made the Bears, he would have been ineligible until Week 5. Embarrassed, Zbikowski most regretted creating the perception that he’d used a performance-enhancing drug.
“I don’t want that label of a guy who took a PED because as much as I’m a hustler, I don’t like cheating,’’ he said. “I never even thought about that. I don’t take protein shakes. I drink coffee, green tea and eat food. That’s what I’ve done my whole life.’’
These days, Zbikowski enjoys life more than ever back in his hometown. His family notices.
“I always thought Tommy overachieved and got everything out of everything in life he could, so he’s content,’’ said Ed Zbikowski, Tom’s father.
Tommy Z the notorious partier says he no longer drinks in binges nor relies on painkillers like he often did as an NFL player. He recently stepped back into the ring for the first time in two years, proudly sporting a bruise on his right eyelid. He wants to fight competitively again only if measuring his brain’s response produces “some kind of medical value.’’ He expects to begin Chicago Fire Department academy training next month.
“I’ve had an extremely blessed life and I saved three-quarters of my money, so I can do whatever I want and I want to be of service to a community,’’ said Zbikowski, who would be a third-generation firefighter. “Firemen show up in scary situations. They’re symbols of pride, of faith, of what’s good in society. I like to live dangerously.’’
A relaxed, mischievous grin covered Zbikowski’s face.
“Plus, I’ll have 10 times the stories as a fireman I did as a football player,’’ he said. “And at least I can tell these to women and children.’’Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun