Toughness emanates from Buffalo Grove quarterback Tom Zbikowski's face, and it starts with a nose that has been broken three times.
When Zbikowski was 9, his face stopped a 16-inch softball lined off the bat of older brother E.J.
Three years later he was sparring with a highly regarded 22-year-old boxer and surprised him with a hard body punch. Instinctively, Luis Perez landed a hard right smack in the middle of Zbikowski's face.
Break No. 3 came a few years later during another sparring session.
But don't be deceived by the crunched cartilage. Zbikowski is as big a hit in the ring as he is on the football field, where he has attracted scholarship offers from 30 colleges and plans to visit Notre Dame, Iowa, Nebraska, Arizona State and either Boston College or Virginia.
A 6-foot, 190-pounder, Zbikowski was timed at 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Northwestern's football camp this summer. By this time next year, he could be lining up at quarterback for Nebraska and working on his dream of boxing in the Olympics.
Although most schools project him as a defensive back, Cornhuskers coach Frank Solich envisions Zbikowski as an Eric Crouch-type quarterback, the ex-Cornhusker who won the Heisman Trophy last season.
Then again, Windy City Boxing Club trainer Sam Colonna has Olympic gold in mind for his pupil and says a successful pro career isn't out of the question.
But for now, the two sports complement one another.
"A lot of my footwork and agility in the ring helps me when I'm playing quarterback," says Zbikowski, who passed for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for 1,050 yards and 19 TDs last season. "Getting hit with a punch makes me that much tougher for football. Having to survive that extra round against a superior fighter helps me reach down for a little extra in the fourth quarter."
In the ring he has a 60-13 amateur record and was a Silver Gloves national finalist in 1998, 1999 and 2000. At 12 he was the youngest member of a Chicago boxing team that competed in Northern Ireland, where he outpointed a 15-year-old Irish boxer.
"Tommy's doing well sparring against pros and current Golden Gloves national champions," Colonna says. "If he can win a national Gloves title next spring, that would earn him a shot at qualifying for the national team and possibly the Olympics. If he keeps developing, he could make a good pro.
"He's a likable kid, and if he does well in college football, Tommy would have football fans and boxing fans following his pro career. There have been football players like Ed 'Too Tall' Jones who tried boxing.
"But this kid was a boxer first."
At the moment, Zbikowski is focused on leading Buffalo Grove to a state championship.
"At our first scrimmage last week, as soon as Tommy got into the huddle, everyone was hush-hush," Bison wide receiver Scott Harrington says. "We all got dead serious. Tommy's a natural leader who makes you want to follow him after you see how hard he works."
All that boxing conditioning since he was 9 combined with workouts at various speed-enhancement camps enabled Zbikowski to cut his 40-yard dash time from 4.8 seconds as a freshman. He finished sixth last spring in the 100-meter dash at the Class AA state track and field championships.
"He is one of the most competitive persons I've ever met," says Harrington, Zbikowski's close friend since the second grade. "He'll compete at anything."
Buffalo Grove's seniors were 9-0 as freshmen, and 13 starters return from last year's 10-2 quarterfinalist in Class 7A. Zbikowski started the last four games of his sophomore season, leading the Bison to its only three victories.
"There aren't too many guys who can turn a broken play into a long gain like Tommy has done," Buffalo Grove coach Rich Roberts says. "It's rare to find a guy who could play quarterback, running back, wide receiver or defensive back. He was also a very good wrestler his freshman and sophomore years, but that ended when he decided to put more time into boxing."
Eddie Zbikowski has imparted to his youngest son his keen appreciation of the sweet science. Tom has had dinner with Jake LaMotta and a sit-down with former middleweight champ Gene Fullmer.
"Last February I got into the ring with Tommy when his sparring partner was late," Eddie Zbikowski says.
"I'm in pretty good shape for a 60-year-old. But he hit me with his best punch, a left hook to the body, and it knocked the wind out of me. Two rounds later I was still hanging on the ropes."
Tom Zbikowski began boxing as a means of self-defense at a gym in Palatine. His dad, who grew up in the city, took his son to Hamlin Park three years later and Tommy began sparring with 1996 Olympian David Diaz. Three years ago Zbikowski came under the tutelage of Colonna, who also works with Diaz and other top local fighters.
"Boxing has given Tommy more confidence in every aspect of his life," said E.J. Zbikowski, who is three years older and 6 inches taller than his brother. "We used to fight a lot as kids, but we've grown out of that.
"Besides, even if I get mad at him now, I couldn't catch him."
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