|Wednesday, September 25
Updated: October 10, 10:47 AM ET
Diary: Dealing with the pressure
By Tom Zbikowski with Wayne Drehs
Special to ESPN.com
For the first time since the recruiting process started seven months ago, I'm starting to get annoyed.
Not only is the mail piling up, but the phone won't stop ringing. In a three-hour span last Wednesday, eight different coaches called. Before I could put the phone down after one conversation, it would ring again.
But if I keep having days like last Wednesday, it's going to have to change. Right now, I'd say about 30 schools are actively recruiting me. I'm thinking about shrinking that list in half. But we'll have to see. I'm not somebody who has an easy time telling people no. And in this case, that's not a good trait to have.
Notre Dame, after its 4-0 start, is putting the pressure on me and some other players that I know in the area to commit early. I realize that would put an instant end to my recruiting annoyance, but it isn't something I'm interested in. I want to take all my visits, weigh all my options and wait until signing day to finalize my decision.
As I see it, there's no reason to commit early and I'm not sure why Notre Dame keeps pushing for that. Every other school has told me that I'm a good enough player that they'll wait for me. But not the Irish. They hint that if I don't commit early they might not have a scholarship for me. And I don't understand that.
As for the phone conversations, not all of them are grueling. One guy I really enjoy talking with is Boston College defensive backs coach Bob Shoop. His brother John is the offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears. I grew up worshiping the Bears, so when Bob calls, we talk very little about our teams and instead talk about the Bears or boxing. We usually talk for 20 to 30 minutes.
A lot of times, it's awkward talking to these guys -- especially the ones you don't really know. I mean, there's this stranger on the other end of the line and it's the same old thing, "How's your team, here's what's new with my team, blah, blah." It's kind of like an ugly girl hitting on you. You're really not interested until you get to know their personality a little bit. And even then you're not so sure.
But it isn't that way with Shoop. Besides him, I really hit it off well with Lester Erb from Iowa and Dirk Koetter, the head coach at Arizona State. Ron Vanderlinden, the linebackers coach at Penn State and former head coach at Maryland is one of the nicest guys I've ever spoken with. He's like a kindergarten teacher. And Andy Heck, a grad assistant for Virginia who played for the Bears from 1994-98, is also great to talk football with.
But in each of these conversations, I try to be careful. Everyone has warned me that coaches will tell you exactly what you want to hear. But I don't get that feeling when I talk to the guys from schools like Virginia, Iowa, Boston College or Nebraska. When the coaches at these schools tell you that you're one of the top guys they're targeting, you believe them.
Sometimes with Notre Dame, I'm not always so sure.
Last Friday, Nebraska quarterbacks coach Turner Gill and defensive line coach Jeff Jamrog came to my game against Schaumburg. It was really special. The Huskers had a bye week and it meant a lot to me that Gill and Jamrog would use their free weekend to see me play. We won our game 35-7. I carried the ball 12 times, running for four touchdowns and 102 yards. I also threw for 154 yards and another score. I hope that impressed the Husker coaches.
But this week's game, no matter who is in the stands, will be bigger. Our opponent, Prospect, is the only team we lost to last year. They were the eventual state champions in Class 7A and to be perfectly honest with you, we hate their guts.
This entire off-season, every mile I ran, every weight I lifted, and every pass I threw was geared toward beating Prospect. If you ask any player on our team, they'll tell you this is the team we want, this is the game we've circled.
Prospect is currently ranked No. 7 in The Chicago Tribune area rankings, while we are ranked No. 6. Another area newspaper ranks them the No. 1 team in Class 7A, while we are No. 2. It should be the marquee game in the city that night -- as many as 10,000 fans are expected.
There is a ton of bad blood between both teams. We don't get along. Last year, they beat us in the regular season and then again in the playoffs -- and there were all sorts of cheap shots from both sides. But they got the last laugh as watching them celebrate on our field and then go on and win the title was gut-wrenching.
Friday night is our chance for revenge. Prospect stands in the path of where we want to go. Now it's our job to move them.
Hello, is Tommy there?
Tom Zbikowski: I'm not sure that I want to be the top dog, but I think I'd rather go to a place like Iowa or Boston College where I can help take a program to the next level. I'd rather go there than to a school that wins every year regardless if you decide to go there or not. You think of a place like Florida. If you win the SEC, they're like, "Great. You're the 20th team to do that." You go to Virginia and win the ACC or Boston College and win the Big East and it would be a big, big deal. The fans are so hungry.
At an early age, you are living out every kid's dream. Do you find yourself getting a big head, or is modesty something you've worked on? I'm a freshman in college and would give anything to play for the Huskers, but you actually can. So how do you not get an ego? Be honest.
Tom Zbikowski: I don't know if modesty is something you actually sit down and work on, it's just the way my family is. I have two older siblings plus my Dad and Mom. If I ever did get cocky, I would get my ass kicked. Even if there's a comment where I'm kidding around, they tell me to shut up. Besides, the way I see it, getting offers and all this attention doesn't mean a thing until I prove it in college.
Does Eric Crouch's early retirement from the NFL make you think that defense might be better suited for someone of your abilities in the long run
Tom Zbikowski: I don't know if playing quarterback in college is what affected him. I mean, who's to say that if he played receiver for four years at Nebraska the same thing wouldn't have happened? If anything, playing quarterback increased his visibility and might have even helped his NFL chances. So it hasn't affected me at all.
What are some of your pre-game regimens? I.E.- lucky shirt, socks, music you listen to? Good luck in your season and your hunt for a state championship!
Tom Zbikowski: Thanks Phil ... I always listen to the speech from "Any Given Sunday," at the end of the movie. The one Al Pacino gives to his team before they take the field. As for a lucky shirt, I always wear this Polish American t-shirt that has a Polish flag on one side an American flag on the other and a bald eagle between the two. I've worn that under my pads for the last four years.
As an athlete with speed, strength, vision and plenty of heart, when are you going to come Down Under and give rugby a go? How would you feel about playing with no pads?
Tom Zbikowski: I do it every winter in the snow. It's a blast. Rugby is a little bit of a slower game, but those guys are bad-asses. I would love to give that a shot. That's my kind of game.
Send in your questions and Tom will answer a few in his next diary update.
ESPN.com is following quarterback/defensive back Tom Zbikowski on his journey from high school to the college ranks. Zbikowski will be writing a diary about his recruitment, and we will file regular reports on the recruiting process through Signing Day on Feb. 5, 2003.