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March 29, 2006
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NEW YORK - Long before he was intercepting passes and punishing runners in the shadow of Notre Dame's Golden Dome, Tom Zbikowski was a boxer.
He began boxing a month before he turned 10, got a license on his birthday and was fighting amateur bouts near his suburban Chicago home within several months - years before he turned the Fighting Irish from a nickname to a literal description.
''It got in his blood,'' his father, Ed, said.
Inspired by the hours he and his father spent watching boxing while he grew up - ''That's all we did,'' Zbikowski said - he's climbed into the ring in such far-flung locales as Las Vegas and Ireland, eaten dinner with Jake LaMotta and trained in the same Chicago gym Andrew Golota sometimes frequents.
Now, with spring football practice in full swing and expectations for the Notre Dame football team high, Zbikowski is readying for another step in his secondary sport - his professional boxing debut.
The 5-foot-11, 202-pound Zbikowski, who sports a 75-15 amateur record, will be fighting at Madison Square Garden on June 10 on the undercard for the WBO junior welterweight championship bout between champion Miguel Cotto and Paulie Malignaggi.
Zbikowski's opponent hasn't been picked yet.
''I would have done this for free,'' Zbikowski said Wednesday at the news conference announcing the card, ''just to fight in Madison Square Garden.''
With a smile, he quickly added: ''Maybe I shouldn't have said that.''
As for Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, he had a simple message when he heard about his star safety's boxing plans: Don't get hurt.
''He just wanted to get all the details cleared up and then he gave me permission,'' Zbikowski said.
Notre Dame has said that Zbikowski is free to promote the fight, though he can't promote any commercial products. The NCAA allows college athletes to be professionals in one sport while remaining eligible to play another NCAA sport, as long as they don't accept commercial endorsements.
Colorado football player Jeremy Bloom lost his eligibility in 2004 when he refused to give up his skiing endorsements.
For all of his boxing ambition, Zbikowski remains committed to football. Apparently, that doesn't faze the fight's promoters: When Bob Arum introduced Zbikowski on Wednesday, he first signaled for the Notre Dame fight song to be played.
''I thought that he would have been a better boxer than a football player, because being a football player you have to have size, you have to have speed,'' said Ed Zbikowski, himself a former amateur fighter. ''It's a lot more difficult to get a scholarship for football than it is to go into the gym and go box.''
So far, Zbikowski has done just fine in a helmet and pads.
A third-team All-America last season, he was fourth on the team in tackles with 71 and led the team with five interceptions. He was also was 13th in the nation in punt returns, averaging 14 yards a return.
He believes the Irish have a shot at the national title this season and he admitted Wednesday that it was tough to be in New York promoting his fight while his teammates were back in South Bend practicing.
Heading into his senior season, Zbikowski is undecided about his future. If he draws interest from the NFL, he'll surely give it a shot. But, if not, he can always climb back into the ring.
''We'll see where it takes me,'' he said.