2 paths to glory

Notre Dame-Navy memories remain vivid for former opponents

November 15, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

Tom Zbikowski and Reggie Campbell crossed paths on four occasions during their college football careers, a few times even meeting up when the hard-hitting Notre Dame safety and the elusive Navy slotback came face mask to face mask at the end of a play.

"It was always tough playing against them," Zbikowski, now a rookie with the Ravens, said this week. "It was always a physical game; you're always sore the next day. I got a lot of respect for those guys. Those are the guys who are protecting our country."

Nearly a year removed from their college careers, Zbikowski and Campbell are following the typical career paths for players who achieved as much as they did at Notre Dame and Navy. While Zbikowski is beginning what he hopes to be a long NFL career in Baltimore, Campbell is in the early stages of a military career, learning to become a pilot at the Naval Air Station outside Pensacola, Fla.

They could have become teammates in Annapolis.

As a junior in high school outside Chicago, Zbikowski briefly considered going to Navy and eventually following his father and grandfathers into military service.

Recruited as a quarterback, Zbikowski was also an amateur boxing champion who talked with the school's boxing coach, Jim McNally, as well as a couple of assistant coaches on former football coach Paul Johnson's staff.

But it was the opportunity to play quarterback for the Midshipmen that attracted Zbikowski.

"I wasn't set on where I wanted to go; that's one of the schools that offered [a possible quarterback spot]," Zbikowski said. "Once I started getting some bigger offers, it kind of took a back seat."

Zbikowski wound up at Notre Dame. Despite the mixed results over his career, starting with the turmoil of seeing Tyrone Willingham fired after Zbikowski's freshman year and ending with last year's 3-9 disaster, Zbikowski never regretted his decision to play for the Fighting Irish.

One of the most storied programs in college football lived up to its billing for Zbikowski.

If anything, what Zbikowski enjoyed the most was going on the road, as Notre Dame will do today when it plays Navy at M&T Bank Stadium.

"Every time we walked into another stadium, there was that much hatred for you," said Zbikowski, who also played on teams that went to back-to-back Bowl Championship Series games his sophomore and junior years. "To me, boos were the best thing to hear when you're on the road. That's what kind of draws you there also."

What attracted Campbell to Navy was simple: a chance to play Division I-A football.

Johnson, now at Georgia Tech, was the only coach aside from Fisher DeBerry at Air Force to offer the undersized running back from Sanford, Fla., a scholarship. Campbell acknowledged that he nearly changed his mind during the year spent at the Naval Academy Preparatory School.

"It was a time where it was like, 'I don't know about this,' " Campbell said. "NAPS, that was where we started building relationships with the guys I played football with. We kind of helped each other. It helped mold us into what we became."

What they became was the foundation of a team that went to four straight bowl games during Campbell's career that concluded with him being second only to Napoleon McCallum among Navy players in all-purpose yardage.

Campbell said he believes that what Midshipmen have to endure off the field, especially as plebes, gives them the grit that carries onto the field during games to play teams with bigger, stronger and faster athletes. "You know there's a few things you can trust about a person before you even know their name," Campbell said. "You know they're going to be committed to doing the things that are required to win."

Campbell said once he got to Navy he never really thought what it might be like to play at a bigger school, knowing there was little likelihood of any BCS program showing much interest in a 5-foot-6, 168-pound running back who was small even by Navy standards.

But Zbikowski said it crossed his mind what it would have been like had he chosen to go to Navy.

It usually happened the week of the Notre Dame-Navy game.

"Our coaches weren't trying to strike fear in us but trying to explain how much this game means to them, and how much football and practice means to them," Zbikowski said. "They would talk about how practice is their best part of the day. We would think, 'That's got to be terrible.' It makes you realize they're a lot harder things than football practice."

Kirk Woolfolk, Navy's strength and conditioning coach for the past 11 years, knows intimately about the work ethic of athletes at the academy and those at big-time programs. A former football player at Arkansas, Woolfolk spent three years at Notre Dame before coming to Annapolis.

"I'm a little biased right now because the kids here, I think their work ethic is probably a little better," Woolfolk said. "Don't get me wrong, those kids [at Notre Dame] work hard.

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