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Penn State, Eagles Star Zordich Comes Full Circle

Written by: on Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014. Follow Don Leypoldt on Twitter.

 

If there ever was a kid born to play football, it was little Michael Zordich.

Michael’s dad couldn’t be in the delivery room when Michael was born in Phoenix in the fall of 1989. Dad had to work…and Dad was making a delivery of his own.

The elder Michael Zordich was in Texas Stadium starting as safety for the Phoenix Cardinals. “During that game, I picked off a pass and took it in for six and it secured the victory,” the ex-Cardinal remembered. “That was a great memory in my NFL career for sure.”

Did he take the game ball to the hospital? “You bet I did,” Zordich chuckled. “It was kind of neat too because the night before, I got a call at 2 am. Larry Wilson was our GM and one of the greatest safeties of all time. I got a call from him to tell me that I had a baby boy. It was kind of surreal.”

Michael Zordich would score three other touchdowns- three pick-sixes and one fumble return- in his 12 year NFL career as a safety. It was an additional pick-six that set the stage not only for Zordich’s prolific professional career, but the return to greatness of a football dynasty.

The 1984 Penn State Nittany Lions finished 6-5. They might as well have been 1-10. It was the first time in 14 years where Penn State did not go to a bowl- in an era where only elite programs went to bowls. People were wondering if Joe Paterno was over the hill as head coach. Seriously.

The barely ranked Lions opened at Maryland in 1985. The Terps were ranked 7th in the country and had national title hopes. For sure, this would be the first time in 21 games where Maryland finally beat their rivals to the North.

Senior Zordich made certain that that wasn’t going to happen. Playing Hero, he picked off the very first Maryland pass of the year and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown. Penn State won 20-18, finished 11-0 and allowed at least 18 points just twice more during the regular season. Although PSU lost to Oklahoma in the national title game, no one predicted that they would come close to making it that far.

“We were a young team my junior year. We had a lot of juniors and sophomores playing,” Zordich recalls. “The bottom line is I think that team matured and took the responsibility and leadership duties. I really attribute that to being the big turnaround.

“And we were a very close football team. We did a lot of things together both offensively and defensively. Sometimes you can get cliquish on one side of the ball but I remember us being a real solid group,” he concluded.

Zordich grew up in Youngstown, OH, just minutes from the Pennsylvania border. Picking Penn State was “a pretty easy decision” for him. He was an All-American at Happy Valley in 1985 and got drafted by the San Diego Chargers in 1986.

The Chargers cut Zordich, but he quickly latched on with the New York Jets. Zordich played two seasons in New York, where his offensive coordinator was Rich Kotite and his defensive coordinator was Bud Carson. Although Zordich was primarily a special teams player in Gotham, he was learning to adapt to the NFL game.

“In college, the hashes were much wider but in the NFL, the ball was in the middle of the field on every play,” Zordich pointed out. “You had to adjust to that part of your game in terms of how coverages go and reading receiver splits.

“But other than that, the game is the game. You have to go tackle the guy with the ball.”

Zordich signed with the Phoenix Cardinals as a Plan B free agent in 1989. He soon found his way as Phoenix’s every day starter. He also teamed with Hall of Fame cornerback Aeneas Williams in the Cards’ defensive backfield for three of those seasons.

“I remember when we had a little spat. I was in my fourth year and he was a rookie. I was yelling at him because he was in the wrong spot and he got angry. I’ll never forget that,” Zordich grinned.

“He was a feisty guy. He worked his tail off all of the time,” he continued. “Obviously, he is one of the best that ever played the game. But what is even better than all of that is that he is just a super guy. He is one of the nicest guys that you’ll ever meet.”

In 1994, Zordich left Williams and the Cardinals and signed a two-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. His head coach was…Rich Kotite and his defensive coordinator was…Bud Carson. Zordich’s familiarity with their system and his own understanding of the game made for an easy transition from Cardinal to Eagle.

One new thing that Zordich finally got to experience in Philly was playoff football. The 1995 Eagles clinched the Wild Card, returning to the post-season after a three-year absence. And the Eagles didn’t just play any Wild Card game. They routed Detroit 58-37; the Birds scored 31 unanswered points in the second quarter and Zordich picked off a pass.

“I played for the Jets in 1987 and 1988 and the year before I got there, they had played in the AFC Divisional game. I was walking into a good football team but during those two years, we didn’t do anything as far as the playoffs went. Then I went to Phoenix and we were never there,” Zordich explained.

“So after seven years without the smell of the playoffs, and then getting to Philly and competing for playoff spots and getting into the playoffs and winning playoff games, that was truly an exciting time.”

Zordich played five seasons as an Eagle. He picked off four passes in 1994 and led the team in tackles in 1996. He loved the atmosphere in Veterans Stadium, and miraculously stayed healthy during his time on the Vet’s notoriously poor playing surface.

“The seams in the field were bad. I can remember we were playing the Buffalo Bills and Jim Kelly threw a pass. My foot hit the seam of the field and my foot slipped,” Zordich recollected. “And in that split second, I missed the ball. I will never forget that. It sounds like an excuse but it’s a story that happened and it is real life. It took my attention off the ball for a split second and they completed the pass unfortunately.”

Zordich retired in 1998 after a fruitful career where he picked off 21 passes and recovered 11 fumbles. Zordich’s most impressive accomplishment transcends the box score- it was his stamina. He started 79 of his 80 Eagle games.

“I worked my rear end off. I had a lot of sweat equity in the game and because of that, I was able to stay injury free,” he noted. “I had played in 135 (consecutive) games and then I hurt my leg, which bummed me out because I had a nice little streak going. And then there was a game where I rolled my ankle the first or second play of the game. In 12 years, I missed two games.

“I’d like to say that it was a lot of the hard work, and I understand that luck is involved too if I had gotten my body in one of those crazy positions one of those times. If you can stay healthy and you’re good enough,” he pointed out, “they’re going to keep you in there and you’re going to play.”

Zordich returned to the Eagles in 2009, first as a quality control coach and then as safeties coach. “You always try to improve fundamentals. Your eyes, your feet, your hips, your hands…those are all important parts of the game so every day in individual periods you are trying to work on position specific drills,” he explained coaching in the NFL. “It does help because it’s a muscle memory thing.

“There are times when you coach (players) up a certain way and there are times when they are good enough where you are going to let their ability speak for itself. You have to be careful but you’re there to coach so you have to coach. The fundamentals will never go away in this game and that is something you continue to preach and work on every day in practice.”

In between stints with the Eagles, it was time to be a Dad and a husband to Cindy, who Zordich met at Penn State. Baby Michael grew up to be a 245-pound fullback for Penn State. He garnered national attention as the Nittany Lions’ bedrock when turmoil hit the program. The younger Michael is now on the practice squad with the Saints. Michael Zordich’s daughter attended Penn State; his son Alex played quarterback at the University of Buffalo.

I had ample opportunities to move to other teams to coach, or stay in Philly and coach, and I chose at that time in my life to move on with my family and watch my kids grow up,” Zordich pointed out.

“If coaching is something that you want to do, you have to know you want to do that because it is a time consuming business. That is your life during the season,” he recommended. “My advice to a young person is that you have to be willing to sacrifice. You have to get in early and you have to work your butt off. And your networking can never stop. You have to continue to build relationships with folks because you never know who that person is going to be.”

Zordich reminded that when he was an Eagle, their quality control coach was a young nobody named Sean Payton and their offensive coordinator was a 31-year old whippersnapper named Gruden. Both have since won a Super Bowl as an NFL head coach.

This past season, Zordich served as the safeties coach and co-special teams coordinator for Youngstown State. The Penguins went 7-5 in 2014, with two losses by six or fewer points. More than just Xs and Os, it gave Zordich an opportunity to pass on football and life lessons to kids who attend college in his figurative backyard.

Zordich himself learned at the feet of the greatest coach to ever walk a college sideline: Joe Paterno. “The great thing about Joe is that it wasn’t always about football. It was about the game of life,” he recalled. “You have to learn from your experiences playing this game and you have to carry it over into life. I think that’s the greatest example of what kind of guy he was as a coach. He was a teacher and he taught that this is a great game but there is a whole lot more to life than just football. That is what I took away from Joe over the years.”

Now, it is Zordich’s turn to teach those lessons. Youngstown State head coach Eric Wolford was recently let go, putting the Penguin coaching staff in limbo. But wherever Zordich ends up, he will be bringing his encyclopedia of football and life to his charges.

“Fundamentals are a huge part in everything we do here at Youngstown,” he emphasized. “I guess you could say that your role is bigger in college because you do have to watch over them, you do have to recruit the kids and then you have to coach them. You are in charge of making sure that they go to class and that they maintain their grades. You are their father figure in that respect because you are on them about things other than football. And it is rewarding. It really is because you build relationships outside of the game itself.”

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