ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – Tom Zbikowski sometimes drifts away in thought while driving a family friend’s Cadillac Escalade.
And the former Notre Dame safety known for taking a direct route to the end zone ends has swerved off the road while thinking about this weekend’s NFL draft. The enormity of his past, present and future winding into one weekend is even too much for him to overcome.
“I’ve been in the car fighting back tears,” Zbikowski said. “Just when I played, I always played trying to represent, too, like all the guys I played with when I was younger, all the guys I played with in high school.”
Zbikowski could have been in this situation after the 2005 and 2006 seasons.
As a junior, he began to make a name for himself as a hard-nosed safety and punt returner with a nose for the ball and a penchant for making big plays.
“That was the first time when you start getting chills that I might get drafted,” Zbikowski said of his junior season. “Now that it’s getting closer and closer, I mean, it’s like you’re driving around and like ‘All right, you hear whatever team it may be for that day, like what can I do with their uniform.’ ”
Zbikowski had planned to enter the draft a year ago, but a 2006 season marred by injuries changed everything. He almost missed the opener at Georgia Tech because of an injured abdominal muscle.
Against Purdue, he took a hit on a punt return that he described as a shoulder injury. In actuality, it was nerve damage in his neck.
“That was one of the most painful things I’ve gone through,” Zbikowski said. “I couldn’t lift my arms.”
He still played and reinjured his abdominal muscle. It sent Zbikowski from an All-American destined to be a high draft pick to a player wanting to stay in school a fifth year to prove he wasn’t damaged goods.
He didn’t want teams to look at him poorly, but sticking around also gave scouts more time – three years by the time he finished in 2007 – to analyze his game despite 80 tackles, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and two recovered fumbles last season.
“You would think that when you’ve played as much as he has, that’s a good thing,”
NFLDraftScout.com senior analyst Rob Rang said. “Some teams look at it as a bad thing that they’ve seen the players so much they know the strengths and weaknesses and the weaknesses almost override their value. The perception by some is that he’s been overhyped and it’s worked against him. It’s caused him to be one of those guys that has dropped down a little bit to where he’ll be underrated.”
Rang said Zbikowski has late-second or third-round value, but he’ll likely go in the fourth round.
After Zbikowski returned from a postseason vacation to St. Maarten, he moved from Arlington Heights into a Candlewood Suites about 20 minutes away in Warrenville, Ill.
He secluded himself close to his Naperville, Ill., training site like he prepared for a boxing match instead of the NFL combine, training three times a day, six days a week from mid-December until mid-March with NFL wide receiver Kevin Kasper.
“Two of the most competitive people you’d meet,” Zbikowski said. “We had busted lips, going at each other all the time.”
During the training, Zbikowski often slept two hours a night, waking up in Room 318 excited for the combine and a chance to prove doubters wrong. He would run imaginary 40-yard dash starts in his hotel room and work on his abs.
“I wanted to beat everybody,” Zbikowski said. “I’d think I’d be sleeping eight hours, flip over and it’d be 2 in the morning and I’d be wide awake.”
Zbikowski became a personal-fitness freak, and it helped in Indianapolis. He ran 4.44 in the 40-yard dash and did well in the rest of his agility drills.
“It’s something for me, I don’t know why, I like to prove people wrong,” Zbikowski said. “I like to have a challenge in front of me that it’ll take a lot for me to get there but eventually, I’ll get it.
“It’s something either a lot of people don’t understand or a lot of people don’t know about me.”
On Saturday, the first day of the NFL draft, Zbikowski will head out with the group friends he plays to represent, trying to pass the time. The next day, his mother, Sue, estimates 150 people might end up in a tent set up by the Zbikowski’s to celebrate his future.
“The best part is now that I’m home hanging out with my friends again a lot more often, it’s not the talk of being grateful for what you got,” Zbikowski said. “It’s like ‘Dude, you’re what we all wanted to be. What we always dreamed of having, it’s right in front of you.’ ”