By Jordan Rabinowitz
Former Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski made headlines last year when he decided to retire from the NFL at just 28 years old, with mileage left in the tank, to become a firefighter. But a year later, he still has no regrets.
"I miss the people in football, it's not that I wanted to leave that,” Zbikowski said over the phone from Chicago. "I think it was the culture. It was time for me to venture out and find something new in my life."
The decision to walk away from football was "no big thing” according to his dad, Ed, and Tom agrees. “I think the choice wasn’t that tough. It was just the adjustment afterwards. It’s taken about a full year and I’m still working on it. But I think the decision was a lot easier than I thought it was gonna be."
It’s been particularly odd for Zbikowski, who says “having an extensive amount of down time doesn’t really play well with my personality.” But next month he begins a six-month stint at the Chicago Fire Department academy, where he will train to become a third-generation firefighter, joining his grandfather, uncle and brother.
He had hoped to enroll in the academy in March, but there was a backlog of applicants, so he and 20 others were deferred until the fall.
“The firefighter thing I’m becoming more and more excited about," Zbikowski said. “From the outside looking in -- not that it was a backup plan -- but I knew I needed something in line to do as soon as I was done playing football. I’m not really one to take too much time away from things.
"I feel like it’s all the good things that I liked about the football life: the camaraderie, dealing with the chain of command, having a common bond with someone that's next to you, male or female. Dealing with the things you've got to deal with and still doing so much good for the community is something I really look forward to. I think I'm going to flourish at that kind of organization that a lot of proud people have done in Chicago for many years."
Zbikowski is also a passionate boxer who's been getting in the ring since he was nine years old and trains with Javan "Sugar" Hill, nephew of late legendary trainer Emanuel Steward. But along with departing football to start his new life as a firefighter, his other passion had to take a backseat too.
“It’ll be painful to have to put boxing on hold,” Zbikowski said. “But having perspective on things, the fire department is what I’m gonna make a career out of and is more important than trying to have a couple of prize fights here and there."
Clearly, Zbikowski is a man of many interests, which further makes his decision to leave the NFL more palatable to people still perplexed at giving up that kind of fame and paycheck. Not only is Zbikowski content no longer playing football, he hardly even watches the game anymore.
"Football's boring, man," Zbikowski said. "I don't really like watching football that much to be honest. I don't know if that’s weird or if other people are like that. Chuck Pagano, now that he's the Colts head coach, they’re the only team I really watch with a careful eye because of the relationship with Chuck over the years. He was my first position coach in Baltimore and has always been a good friend to the family and a very good mentor, friend, coach to me over the years."
By the sound of it, Zbikowski was simply done with the game and that was just his life's natural progression.
“You know it’s not gonna last forever, as much as some people want it to or think it will," he said. "God knows you’re not gonna make those weekly checks doing anything else, but at some point how important is money to you?”
In fact, he's also done with even identifying himself as a football player.
“I’m looking more or less to close that chapter and just be known as me,” Zbikowski said. "No other job are you really just labeled like you are as an athlete -- 'You're Tommy, you’re the football player.' You know? No. I’m me. I’m just me. I'm the personable, fun-loving, adventurous person. No label, no nothing."
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