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Giving Season Lasts All Year : Bears' Zorich Honors Mother's Memory by Passing Out Food to Chicago's Needy

November 24, 1994|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To understand why a popular 25-year-old athlete would give up his social life and possibly jeopardize his career to spend time with the poor and weak, one needs only to understand Zora Zorich.

For 18 years, this white woman raised Chris, her only child, in an all-black Chicago neighborhood. Zorich's black father left before he was born.

Zora was strong but could not elude the muggers or burglars who turned their home into a war zone.

Her son Chris was big, but not big enough to elude the jeers that accompanied his severe stuttering problem, or the jokes about his mixed race.

They were so poor, Chris spent much of his free time standing in line at churches that handed out food. Sometimes, he had to catch two city buses to get to those churches.

Yet together, perhaps only by being together, they could not be broken.

"My mother was an angel on earth," Zorich said.

Through the warmth generated by his mother in that drafty old apartment, through her hugs and Slavic proverbs, Zorich learned to be proud of his mixed heritage, to be unafraid of conquering his speech impediment.

But his life drastically changed on Jan. 2, 1991, the day after Zorich had been voted Notre Dame's most valuable player in its 10-9 Orange Bowl loss to eventual national champion Colorado.

In a story that attracted national attention, Zorich returned home from Miami and discovered Zora on the floor of their apartment, dead of natural causes.

It is her memory that has driven him to become the NFL's most giving player.

Although it is the Christopher Zorich Foundation that finances many of his charitable activities, it is the Zora Zorich Scholarship for aspiring Notre Dame students that he is proudest of.

"I remember when things were bad and we didn't have anything, my mom was always there for me," Zorich said. "I want to give other people that same feeling. I want to let them know there is hope."

He has done this at the cost of many hours of rest, something badly needed by an undersized--he's 6 feet 1 and 277 pounds--NFL tackle.

He wears No. 97 because his food programs have, traditionally, involved either 97 or 197 families.

His mission, basically, has come at the expense of the rest of his life.

"In a subtle way, this is therapy for him, a way for him to deal with the death of his mother," said Kevin Warren, Zorich's attorney "It's something when you realize that the death of one person has impacted as many as 50,000 people."

*

Ivan Markotic had been waiting in the freezing wind for three hours for Chris Zorich. It has grown so cold through the narrow streets around the aging brick tenement that, at one point, the 12-year-old boy wrapped himself around a water meter, thinking it was a heater.

Zorich was late because he had just left a neighborhood so blighted, it took him 15 minutes to find a gas station. He was also late because he had made wrong turn at the corner where men were wailing around an open fire.

Then the big red truck pulled up. Zorich jumped out.

Suddenly from the edges of the bleak neighborhood emerged faces, of old women in robes, of young men in beards and T-shirts, of pale children shaking under heavy coats.

On this street corner in south Chicago, Chris Zorich and his boxes of food were suddenly surrounded by the faces of hope, and for an instant, it was as if the darkness had disappeared.

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