Sunday, May 20, 2007

A(nother) Notre Dame Hall of Famer: A Mother's Day Wish for Chris Zorich

Yes, I know what you're thinking. Mother's Day was a week ago. That is true, with the exception of two distinct groups of people. The first is devout Catholics, who due to their love for the Blessed Mother, every day in May is Mother's Day. The other is Chris Zorich.

The first part of this story is pretty straightforward and extremely inspiring. Last week, Christopher Zorich, Fighting Irish defensive lineman, from 1988-1991, was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame—conveniently located in South Bend, Indiana. Always the underdog, Zorich's saga is not unlike Rudy's, if Rudy had biceps like tree trunks and ran the 40 like a rabbit instead of a robot. Abandoned by his father and raised by his mother, Zora, in a one-room apartment at 81st St. and Burnham Avenue in Chicago, "the baddest part of town," Chris didn't always have enough to eat and was beat up by neighborhood toughs regularly, but did have one constant; the unmitigated love of his mother. So it hurt Chris tremendously the only time he went against her wishes, forging her signature so he could play football at Chicago Vocational High School. Here, he could dish out the punishment instead of take it, use his anger constructively instead of hold it in. Of course running (or shall we say "fleeing") was free, but Chris was too poor to afford weights so he stole two sewer caps and tied them to a bar, lifting them until he was a rock and he became such a terror for Vocational that, despite his short stature, he was offered a scholarship at Notre Dame. And this time Zora signed the slip—as soon as she was assured Notre Dame was in Indiana and not France!

Well as any Notre Dame fan of the Holtz era can tell you, Zorich not only found South Bend but helped lead the Fighting Irish to the National Championship in 1988, and 1st Team All-American Honors for himself in 1989 and 1990 capping his career with an MVP Award in the 1991 Orange Bowl, an almost unheard of honor for a defensive lineman.

But if Zorich's best and last game for the Irish was the best of times athletically, it was definitely the worst of times for him emotionally. After Notre Dame's heartbreaking 10-9 loss, Chris flew home to Chicago to find his diabetic mother dead literally of a broken heart. Chris' mom, his best friend, the woman he called twice a day all through college, the one person he truly lived for, was dead. And in some ways Chris has never been the same.

Not that his time since his Irish career has been wasted. After a decent seven-year pro career under Champions of Faith Coaches Mike Ditka and Dave Wannstedt, Chris went back to Notre Dame to earn a law degree, and now splits time between this and motivational speaking. Moreover, he is president of The Christopher Zorich Foundation, no doubt the best charitable organization in Chicago. Concentrating on his old neighborhood, Chris personally leads a door-to-door distribution of turkeys on Thanksgiving, toys on Christmas, and of course, flowers on Mother's Day.

And yet, in my mind, something is missing. I contrast Champions of Faith Coach Ray Meyer, well into his eighties, visiting his wife of nearly fifty years at her grave site every week for nearly twenty years with Chris, not yet forty, visiting his mom's grave every week for the same span of time, and it's just not the same. For Meyer left a family as well as coaching legacy, while Zorich is divorced, with no children, "alone except for my dogs." Amazingly Zorich, a Lutheran, went through Notre Dame totally devoted to his mother but never developing a love for Our Lady. He prayed before Bears practice every morning at Holy Name Cathedral without receiving communion. His mom's funeral was in a Catholic church and she was buried in a Catholic cemetery, but despite all this close contact, Chris (perhaps out of respect for his mother's own religion) never converted to the Church he has for so long lived in the shadow of.

Make no mistake. With his discipline both on and off the field, combined with his natural ability to relate to the poor, this Fighting Irish Hall of Famer is not far from crossing the threshold of sainthood. But just as one cannot truly become a saint unless he is within the Church that honors them, Chris' love for his earthly mom can never really be put in perspective outside the religion that honors Our Lady. Perhaps we should ask Zora herself to lead the former Chicago Vocational star to the faith where Chicago can be a vocation, and Notre Dame can not only be his Alma Mater—but his Mother as well.

1 comment :

JimAroo said...

Thank you so much for today's piece on Chris Zorich - I was familiar with the outlines of his story but I always assumed he was Catholic. After all a good southside ethnic name, Notre Dame football, and he loved his Mom - what else would I think.

On this the birthday of my earthly queen, Mary Theresa, we will pray for Chris Zorich so he can be re united with both of his mothers!