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The Boxing Irish

Times Staff Writer

Payment was settled at an upscale eatery only chop blocks from the stadium where Knute Rockne coached.

It was a Friday.

It was raining.

There was a Dame involved.

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After eating his lunch, five soft-boiled eggs, the squashed-nosed “advisor” to an eligible college football captain peeled an “Andrew Jackson” from a wad of bills and said that ought to cover it.

The football player, who’d had a club sandwich, paid nothing.

A sidekick nicknamed Bozo, who works for a man in Las Vegas, witnessed the transaction.

Instead of Exhibit A at an NCAA hearing, this scene was only a promotional appetizer to Round 1 at Madison Square Garden.

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Tonight, on the undercard of a junior-welterweight title fight, Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski makes his professional debut at the boxing mecca where George Foreman made his.

Pinch me?

Or is that punch me?

Zbikowski is set to fulfill a fantasy, fighting in “the Garden” after having played football at Notre Dame Stadium.

You could live 10 lives, and be Jim Thorpe in one of them, and not pull this off.

“There are bigger arenas than Madison Square Garden, but it’s the actual place, the significance of it,” Zbikowski, a heavyweight, says between bites of his free sandwich.

Several football teammates, including quarterback Brady Quinn, are expected to attend. Only a previously scheduled charity event will prevent Irish Coach Charlie Weis from being ringside.

Sometime after the four-rounder against Robert “Ring My” Bell of Akron, Ohio, Zbikowski will report to training camp for what many think could be a run at the national championship by Notre Dame.

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The boxing sidebar is no joke, not a publicity stunt and, in the eyes of the NCAA, not a problem.

What a preposterous premise, though, amateur football and compliance officers teaming up with spit buckets and matchmakers.

“It’s unique,” Kevin White, Notre Dame’s director of athletics, says. “I grant you that.”

Not only is no one going down for this, it’s all on pay per view.

The NCAA manual is thicker than a sub sandwich. Nowhere, though, does it prohibit an active Notre Dame defensive back from signing with Top Rank promoter Bob Arum and divvying up a $25,000 purse.

NCAA athletes have long been allowed to compete professionally in other sports under bylaw 12.1.2 -- Stanford quarterback John Elway moonlighted in the New York Yankees organization -- but no one can remember the other sport being boxing.

People invoke the name of Jeremy Bloom, a former Colorado kick-returning dynamo who lost his 10-rounder with the NCAA in an effort to keep endorsement money earned as a freestyle skier.

That was different, the NCAA says. Bloom was allowed to accept World Cup payouts but not endorsement money -- and the same rule applies to Zbikowski.

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He can bank his share of the $25,000, less expenses, and his likeness and image can be used to promote the fight.

Said NCAA spokeswoman Jennifer Kearns, “He’s not doing anything that’s against our rules.”

So there you have it: Top Rank and the NCAA, all square at Madison Square, in a joint promotion.

What next: Pete Carroll cuts a deal with Butterbean?

*

When it began, last January, Arum laughed off a phone call from Mike Joyce, a Chicago boxer-turned-lawyer looking for an arm to promote a Notre Dame safety with two years of football eligibility left.

“You’re wasting your time,” Arum recalls saying.

How could the kid take a fight paycheck, then take the field against Georgia Tech?

But he could.

Arum phoned Notre Dame and was told so by Mike Karowski, the school’s associate athletic director for compliance.

“God forbid, if I do anything and the kid loses his eligibility I’m not going to take the heat,” Arum says.

Everyone signed off on it, notably Weis, the deal maker or breaker.

“That’s going to be a heck of a summer job for him,” the coach said after being assured no NCAA rules would be compromised.

Promotional bells sounded in Arum’s head:

Ding ... active Notre Dame player ... ding ... Polish descent ... ding ... from Chicago ... ding ... with a back story out of central casting.

It was possible Arum could carve out space on his June 10 card headlined by Miguel Cotto versus Paulie Malignaggi.

So what if Zbikowski couldn’t fight?

But he could.

When not returning a 60-yard punt for a touchdown against USC, and thinking he helped stuff Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart at the line of scrimmage on last year’s memorable “Bush Push” ending, and this spring being named a Notre Dame team captain, Zbikowski was adding to his body of boxing work.

His record is what you’d expect out of the murky amateur chronicles: 76-15, 75-15, 66-13 or 60-13.

“It’s always been part of my life,” Zbikowski, who has started 24 consecutive football games for Notre Dame, says of the fight game. “I never really thought of it as anything exceptional or extraordinary.”

*

A boy boxer, under his father’s tutelage, ducks in and out of every gym joint in Chicago. At 11, Tommy fights five bouts in one week.

He remembers a Silver Gloves bout so savage it “could have been fought in a phone booth.”

“Zibby” takes fights at the Robert Taylor Homes projects and at Stateway Gardens.

Places where, Tommy says, “We’d run in and they’d padlock the door.”

Places where punches -- and sometimes bullets -- flew.

Places where you hit the bag and hit the deck.

Once, coming out of Stateway, Dad hit the gas as bullets sprayed around his car.

“Don’t know if they were aimed at us,” Tommy says. “But they were gunshots and they were close.”

The Zbikowski story is a slice of Chicago-style deep dish: middle class, blue-collar, Catholic. Mom Sue is of German descent, but Ed’s parents came from Poland. The Zbikowskis worshiped “Da Bears” and still, about once a year, Tom visits George Halas’ mausoleum.

Dad owned bars before selling out and moving the family in 1990 to suburban Arlington Heights, to a house on a cul-de-sac. Ed now works in graphic arts; Sue’s a banker.

The family -- Mom, Dad, E.J., Kristen and Tommy -- took sports so seriously that, during baseball season, the dinner table doubled as the third base coaching box.

Ed says, “If you needed salt and pepper at the Zbikowski house, and didn’t know the indicator, you were in trouble.... If you missed the sign, you didn’t get supper.”

Tommy’s boxing career spawned as an offshoot of near tragedy, at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic in the 1980s, in a room where rosaries are said.

E.J., the oldest child, was hooked to tubes as he awaited brain surgery that entailed four holes being drilled into his head.

“I was totally helpless,” his father recalls.

It was in this hospital haze that Ed met Harold “Hackie” Reitman, an orthopedic surgeon from Florida, whose daughter Rebecca also faced life-threatening surgery.

Reitman was an amateur boxer -- yes, a doctor who could deck you.

A friendship was forged.

Both children survived to escort each other to a “Sweet 16" dance. E.J. is now his brother’s boxing manager.

The Zbikowskis visited Reitman on Florida vacations and fell into his hobby.

“I guess some people go to Disney World,” Tommy says. “We went to a boxing gym.”

Tommy was 5 on his first trip and watched from the ring apron -- but that wouldn’t last long.

*

The boxer had his sandwich boxed and watched a reporter and a public relations minion battle for the tab, the squashed-nosed advisor mediating with his roll of $20s, and the NCAA nowhere in sight.

Zbikowski had just completed his last final exam, in Polish studies -- “I should get a B, just because of my last name” -- and set out toward his 21st birthday, May 22, and a whirlwind summer.

He changed into workout clothes at his Notre Dame locker stall, next to the one used by Ambrose Wooden, the Irish cornerback who came a blade of six-inch grass at Notre Dame Stadium from disconnecting Leinart’s fourth-and-nine pass to Dwayne Jarrett in last October’s made-for-TV thriller.

Remember?

“I don’t like to talk about it,” Zbikowski says of the 34-31 defeat.

For an hour, strength coach Shawn Gaunt pummeled Zbikowski with a medicine ball during a workout that included reverse-grip bench presses and various grunts, after which Zbikowski struck boxing poses for a photographer.

Sporting a cut physique of 5 feet 10 and 210 pounds, Zbikowski delivered air uppercuts below the banner serving as a mantra for next year’s football team:

“9-3 IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH.”

Zbikowski keeps his fight gear in the trunk of his car, always at the ready. He has never stopped boxing, even after being recruited to Notre Dame by former coach Tyrone Willingham, sliding in amateur fights between seasons.

After a bout March 15, Zbikowski walked into Weis’ office.

“He was alone,” Tom said. “I knocked on the door and he said, ‘What did you do now? How much trouble are you in? Or is this about boxing?’ ... He had all the bases covered.”

Tom said he had a fight lined up.

“Where?”

“Madison Square Garden.”

Zbikowski recalls, “His eyebrows kind of rose a little bit. He’s from Jersey. He knows the significance of Madison Square.”

The off-season has been anything but as Zbikowski juggled schoolwork, footwork, football and an old-fashioned barnstorming tour.

He returned to Chicago after finals, sparred at the venerable Windy City Gym, jetted to Florida for more promotion and a tuneup session with famed trainer Angelo Dundee, who has known Zbikowski, through Hackie Reitman, since Tom was a kid.

Dundee is trying to take the “bounce” out of Zbikowski’s delivery but says the boxer has legitimate skills.

“I wouldn’t be involved with a joke,” Dundee says. “He’s got what a lot of our fighters don’t have today: amateur fights. The foundation has been laid.”

Arum says Zbikowski reminds him of “a young Jerry Quarry,” but no one is getting carried away.

This is a one-fight deal, with options.

“I’m under no illusions,” Arum says. “This may be the last we see of him.”

Zbikowski insists he is not worried about injuries in a sport where they sometimes haul you out on a stretcher.

“In my entire life, I’ve never missed any football games or anything because of boxing injuries,” he says. “I’ve heard plenty of stories about guys getting hurt playing pickup basketball in the summertime.”

(A few weeks after this interview, USC safety Will Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury playing pickup basketball.)

Zbikowski expects to graduate in December and then consider his NFL options.

His mind is taffy-pulled between sports, but he knows football is the logical line to financial security -- and that no NFL team will permit him to box.

His “dream scenario” of becoming “Super Bowl MVP and heavyweight champion,” is farfetched -- but how many kids even get to dream it?

Still, there’s a chance he could someday resume fighting.

“We don’t know,” Ed Zbikowski says. “What happens if football doesn’t work out?”

Why today?

Because, as Tommy underscores, “After 80 amateur fights, the next step is, obviously, to fight professional.”

Why now?

The timing was right, the coach said yes, it pays better as a summer job than cooking at Denny’s.

The disaster scenario is Zbikowski, on his back, looking up at Madison Square Garden and the hype transforming to farce.

Think any fall opponents would rub that in?

“Oh yeah, I understand,” he says. “There’s risk in anything you do. That’s why I’m training so hard. I hate losing.”

Notre Dame, too, could take one in the ribs.

“If there was going to be some worry about me being able to play, I obviously wasn’t going to take the fight,” Tommy says.

The school’s compliance department has manned all stations for this unusual tale of the (red) tape.

“There are some things that can go wrong,” Karowski, the compliance man, admits. “Tommy and his dad, and those folks, need to be careful. If ever there’s a question, Tommy and his dad need to defend it. If the NCAA comes to me on the 12th, I’ll say, ‘Tom, turn it over.’

“He knows. He wants to play football. He won’t screw it up.”


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