CHICAGO — CHICAGO--CHRIS ZORICH, the All-America nose tackle for Notre Dame, is one of the fiercest college linemen ever to play football.
Off the field, he is also one of the game's gentlest souls. His teammates call him "Flowers."
He has often said he draws his inner strength and compassion from his mother, Zora, who raised Zorich without a father in a housing project on the tough Southeast Side of Chicago.
As he did every day, Zorich talked to his mother by telephone on Tuesday from Miami, where Notre Dame was playing in the Orange Bowl. He told her how much he loved her and that he would see her on Wednesday.
Just as he told her he would, Zorich left Miami before the rest of the team yesterday morning, but he never got to see his mother alive.
The body of Zora Zorich, 59, was discovered by her son yesterday afternoon in her Chicago apartment, according to South Chicago District police. She was taken by ambulance to South Shore Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
When Chris Zorich arrived at home, there was no answer at the door. He looked through a window and saw a figure lying on the floor.
xTC Zorich, the strongest man on the Irish football team, broke through the door. It was his mother's body on the floor. She had died sometime after watching her son playing his last game for the university they both came to love.
She died of natural causes, according to police and the owner of the funeral home to which her body was released.
"It's a shock," said Blaise Zorich, Chris' uncle. "The kid comes home from the Orange Bowl after playing his best game ever . . . and he comes home to find his mom dead."
Zora Zorich had no fancy credentials, no resume under her name. But she had a wisdom and a quiet fierceness about life that allowed her to raise a son as a gentleman in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago.
"She's the type that if you handed her a glass of water, she would look at it as if it was the finest champagne there is," said John Potocki, who coached Zorich at Chicago Vocational High School. "She would appreciate it, thank you and say how great it is. And that's how she raised Chris."
Zora was the daughter of Yugoslavian immigrants. She had diabetes and her disability income was about $200 a month.
She and her son had a difficult time in the neighborhood. Zorich's father was black. Zorich has never known him; he left Zora when she told him she was pregnant with Chris.
Zorich was beaten and bullied by neighborhood thugs when he was a boy. When he asked his mom why he was called "honky," she told him of his mixed blood.
"People told me I should tell him his dad had died in the war or something," she had told a reporter. "But I told him the truth. That his dad was black, that we were never married and that he left."
She was mugged several times, but never sought to leave the neighborhood.
The violence, hatred and ridicule that she and Zorich experienced while he was growing up made a mark on Zorich.
"Chris had a lot of hate in his heart because of how he was treated on the streets," Potocki said. "I told him he had to channel it and he found that he could take out his aggression on the football field."
Through his relentless hard work, his motivation has always been his mother. Often, when he spoke to reporters Zorich would say how he hoped a pro career or other use of his college degree could help him finally move his mother out of their neighborhood to a more pleasant haven.
Zorich is scheduled to graduate in May.
A Notre Dame captain, voted the nation's best college lineman, he is on the brink of a pro career. Former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh says he may be a late first-round pick in the NFL draft.
"He's OK," Blaise Zorich said of Chris. "He said he knows his mother saw him play, that she left happy. He said he knows that she is in a good place."