|Thursday, January 16
Updated: January 17, 11:50 AM ET
Going to Notre Dame is a dream come true
By Tom Zbikowski with Wayne Drehs
Special to ESPN.com
As the nerves continued to build, my mom and sister cranked the Notre Dame fight song in the basement.
Finally, a car.
I ran outside, met Coach Willingham before he could gather himself, and delivered the news. "Coach, I'm coming to Notre Dame. Want to come in?"
He smiled. Gave me a firm handshake. And then we walked in the house. That was my moment.
The decision was hands down the most confusing thing I've ever had to deal with in my life. And in the end, it came down to picking pieces of paper out of a hat. A Notre Dame hat.
This past weekend, I slept over at my sister Kristen's house to get away from the recruiting circus. Sunday morning we woke up and, for the first time all weekend, started talking about where I wanted to go.
I didn't know. I told her that we were going to put the names of the three finalists -- Iowa, Nebraska and Notre Dame -- in a hat. Each of us would pick one and we'd tally the score, just for fun.
We eliminated Nebraska, since I decided I didn't want to play quarterback and really wasn't sure about the changes in their coaching staff. So it came down to Iowa and Notre Dame. Everybody picked -- Kristen, her husband Lee, my 3-year-old niece Hannah, even the dog, Barney, dipped his head into the cap and picked one of the two pieces of paper.
With the score tied at 2-2, I picked last. "Iowa."
So I go, "Let me pick again. I want a redo."
Kristen stopped me. "Hold on!" she said. "Why are we playing this game? You just decided right there. Why are we playing this game?"
I told her I wanted some reassurance. And she's like, "OK, so pulling pieces of paper out of a hat is going to give you piece of mind? That's silly."
And she was right. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't shake Notre Dame. That place can set me up for life. If I get hurt, if I realize I'm never going to play professionally, a degree from the University of Notre Dame will take me further than a degree from Iowa or Nebraska.
That's no knock on those schools. They are tremendous places. But they just don't have the deep alumni ties and the lifelong opportunities that Notre Dame provides. If it were purely a football decision, I would have picked Iowa. But it's a life decision, so I'm going to play for the Irish.
Still, the fact that I was down to pulling names out of a hat should tell you how close this was. In the end, Notre Dame was No. 1, Iowa was No. 1½ and Nebraska was No. 2.
My boyhood dreams have come true. Last night, after Willingham left and my house finally calmed down, I laid in bed and thought about just that -- putting on the uniform for the first time, running out of that tunnel on game day, having a cubby hole in that locker room saved just for me. It gives me goose bumps.
Early on in this process, a lot of people ripped me for some of the comments I made about Notre Dame. It was the only school I publicly criticized throughout the recruiting process. And now I'm playing for the Irish. How?
I use the analogy of when you're a teenager and you get your first crush. It's so strong, so passionate, that you pick on the girl, you steal her sandwich, put gum in her hair, do anything you can so she doesn't know you feel the way you do. Once she catches on and lets you know she feels the same way too, you fall head over heels. That's what it's like with me and Notre Dame.
I grew up worshiping that place. I went to my first college football game there. But during recruiting, I couldn't understand why places like Iowa were sending so many handwritten letters while Notre Dame didn't seem to want me as much.
In the end, it wasn't a problem. Coach Willingham's visit showed how important I am to Notre Dame's future. And what a visit it was.
Even though I didn't tell my dad that I had chosen Notre Dame, he called Coach Willingham's secretary to find out what the coach likes to eat and then spent much of Wednesday running around getting Oberweiss juice, special chocolates, chicken salad, all this stuff.
Kristen made Coach a Motown CD with the song, "Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher," which is supposedly his favorite. He loved it.
We made Coach drink out of a glass with the Polish flag. And at one point, Coach Willingham put Hannah on his lap and started reading to her about fish from the encyclopedia.
Later, my neighbor, Todd Burkoth, came over to supposedly "ask for a cup of sugar." He knew Coach was going to be there so I think he wanted to take a peek. Coach sort of sensed that and was like, "Hey, if you want to stay it's no big deal, come on in and sit down."
So Todd stayed. It was a riot.
It was a real comfortable, family atmosphere. Coach got to know me and my family. And we got to know him
The hardest part of making this decision has been telling the coaches from Iowa and Nebraska, "No." I phoned Turner Gill late Wednesday and he was awesome. Turner, who was supposed to come by the house Thursday night, wished me luck at Notre Dame and went on and on about how great it was to meet me. He is the classiest guy; the ultimate professional and I hope our paths cross somewhere down the road.
Talking with the Iowa coaches hasn't been as easy, but they, too, understand that I'm doing what I feel is best for me. Contrary to what some might think, the decision had little to do with Kirk Ferentz interviewing with the Jacksonville Jaguars last week. That first news story about his meeting with the Jags is what turned me on to Notre Dame some more, but in the end, it didn't play a part in my decision.
I chose Notre Dame because it's the best place for me.
Three hours after meeting Coach Willingham in the driveway and delivering the news, he prepared to leave. But not without one final message. As he rose from the dining room table, he put his arms above his head, just like his does after the Irish score a touchdown, and said, "Coach Willingham is happy. Coach Willingham is happy."
Well, so am I.
ESPN.com is following quarterback/defensive back Tom Zbikowski on his journey from high school to the college ranks. Zbikowski is writing a diary about his recruitment, and there will be weekly updates on the recruiting process through Signing Day on Feb. 5, 2003.