INDIANAPOLIS — Chuck Pagano coached Tom Zbikowski for four years in Baltimore, so when he had a chance to run his own team in Indianapolis, one of his first moves was to bring Zbikowski with him.
"He is invaluable because he played in the scheme," Pagano said of the safety. "He's another voice. He reinforces everything. Players take to other players. Here is what they are talking about. Sometimes they can put it into terms they understand better. They pound the message home. If there is any doubt, trust the system, play the technique, it will work out."
Zbikowski helps set the tone with the Colts that made the Ravens an AFC powerhouse.
"You are expected to play full tilt here every play," Zbikowski said.
Pagano said Zbikowski, who grew up in Arlington Heights and went to Buffalo Grove High School before playing collegiately at Notre Dame, earned the respect of his teammates by working hard in the offseason.
So now Zbikowski is the Colts' starting strong safety and one of the building blocks of Pagano's new regime.
In four years with the Ravens, Zbikowski played mostly on special teams and in defensive packages. He came into training camp last year with the inside track to start, but lost out to veteran Bernard Pollard.
In the previous offseason during the NFL lockout, Zbikowski had returned to his first love — boxing. He had three victories in Madison Square Garden, the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas and the Boardwalk Hotel in Atlantic City.
Zbikowski had a blast, but looking back on it he wasn't sure it was the best thing for his football career.
"It's not that I wasn't focused last offseason," he said. "But this offseason when I spent every waking minute thinking about this season, I understand I wasn't as focused then as I am now.
"It was a lesson learned. You need to step away from football sometimes, but I don't think your focus needs to be on another sport. Some of the best advice I got from (my father Ed): You have to miss football to be good at it because you have to be hungry. You do have to step back.
"But my focus wasn't where it should have been. I think I was riding a little too high from a couple of knockouts."
Still, Zbikowski has no regrets about his time in Baltimore. He said he enjoyed learning from seasoned pros like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin.
"As much as I didn't enjoy being in a backup role, it was an apprenticeship well served," he said. "And it was four years of not taking too much physical abuse."
Now he is ready to take his NFL career to the next level.
As was the case with the Ravens, Zbikowski feels he is surrounded by teammates who love to play the game and buy into the team concept.
For the time being, Zbikowski has put his boxing gloves in storage.
"Out of sight, out of mind," he said. "Every once in awhile I'll catch myself throwing some punches. It helps you keep loose. It's a good workout for cross training. I really wanted to spar, but I made a conscious decision to keep it at a distance. It's too addictive, get a little taste of it, then I get a little adrenalin rush."
Someday though, chances are very good he will return to the ring.
"I tell myself I won't," he said. "But I don't see myself staying away forever."