For this week’s Throwback Thursday post I thought I’d dust off another book from my Notre Dame book shelf. What book have I picked? Jerry Barca’s “Unbeatable: Notre Dame’s 1988 Championship and the Last Great College Football Season.” Jerry does an incredible job of sharing the magic that happened both on and off the field that year, and includes backgrounds of your favorite players from the 1988 Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football team. I’d like to share a few excerpts from the book this week, focusing on one player, my friend and classmate, Chris Zorich.
Just nine starts into his college career, Chris Zorich had already become a cult figure. High school football players started wearing belly-showing half jerseys to look like Zorro, the beast who played nose tackle for the Fighting Irish. Before the Miami game, a group of Notre Dame students pulled names out of a hat to determine which one would win the privilege of painting his body with Zorich’s number 50.
“I had no idea. I was out there trying to have fun - and really survive,” he said.
Zorich is a sports rarity. In the lionization of athletes, his story is more truth than fable. He went to the same high school as Chicago Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus. He grew up with his mother, Zora, in a one-bedroom apartment in a two-story brownstone on the corner of Eighty-first and Burnham on Chicago’s South Side. Rent was $140 a month. Zora, a diabetic on welfare disability, received $200 a month. She slept on the couch, and Chris slept in the bedroom.
When the money ran out each month, Zora put young Chris on her bike and pedaled to the local supermarket shortly after closing. There she parked next to the Dumpster and lifted Chris over her shoulders into the trash. He picked through what the grocer had thrown out, handing his mother partly rotten meat and produce. Zora would cut away the spoiled parts, and they had their food until the next check came or until they needed to return to the Dumpster.
“She did the best she could, but there were times things were tight,” Zorich said.
Dope fiends, drug dealers, gangs, and prostitutes colored the neighborhood scene. No one went to college. If someone graduated high school, it was a major accomplishment. Zorich never knew his father, but that was never an issue. Most kids in the area didn’t know their dad. There were only about a half-dozen dads in the neighborhood of about sixty families.
He wanted to play football when he entered Chicago Vocational High School as a freshman, but Zora refused to sign the paperwork allowing her boy to participate in the violent sport. In his sophomore year, Chris begged and pleaded with Zora to sign the permission slip. She refused. On the way to school the next day, Chris forged her name.
He lied to his mother, telling her he was getting home late because he was in the school play and participating in other school activities. The ruse fell apart when Zora found his football gear in the apartment.
“You’ve been lying to me, haven’t you?” she asked, confronting Chris. She sat him down on the couch and told him she was doing her best to raise him on her own.
They talked for several hours. Chris told her football taught him discipline and he was around people who set goals. She allowed it, but she didn’t see him play until the last game of his senior year. She was too worried he would get hurt. Chris had the assistant principal and some friends bring her to the game and sit with her in case she got upset witnessing her son on the gridiron.
“Oh my God. You’re good,” she told Chris after the game.
At Notre Dame, Zorich found a utopia. There were tree-encircled lakes, with ducks and squirrels to hand-feed. The dining hall had all-you-can-eat food. Some students complained about it. Not Zorich. He didn’t even share his. People left bicycles unlocked overnight in front of dorms. “And they were still there in the morning,” Zorich said. “Are you kidding me?”
His freshman year, he did not play a down. On the night before home games, he slept in his dorm while other classmates, ones who had a chance to see action, stayed with the team.
He moved from middle linebacker to nose tackle in his first year. Playing on the scout team during a practice leading up to the Michigan State game, he caused havoc for the first-team offense when he put a hand on the ground on the defensive line. After practice, Holtz announced to the team that they had found the next nose tackle.
His weight room sessions were performances. He curled as much as the punter bench-pressed, and he bench-pressed 500 pounds.
While Zorich grunted and maxed out on the bench, Ricky Watters leaned over in his face and mocked his stutter. The next thing everyone saw was Zorich chasing Watters around the weight room until the flanker escaped. Zorich wouldn’t forget. Later, at training table, he might sneak behind an unsuspecting Watters, who had sat down to eat, and clamp a headlock on his tormentor.
Part of Zorich knew it was in jest, but he only knew one way to react. “Where I’m from, when you talk shit, you’ve got to back it up, and that meant fighting,” Zorich said.
If you’d like to read more about Zorich and the rest of the guys on the Unbeatable 1988 team, and everything that went into creating that magical season ... go check out Jerry Barca’s book for yourself! (Once you start it, you won’t want to put it down.)
If you’re not the book reading type, Jerry Barca was also one of the producers of the Hesburgh film, and if you haven’t watched it yet ... what are you waiting for?? You can watch it on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, and if you’ve got Amazon Prime, you can watch it for free!
Have you guys been reading any good books during your time staying at home? Please share with me ... I’m always looking for something good to read.
Cheers & GO IRISH!