January 21, 1991 12:00 PM

It is unlikely that anyone would call Notre Dame nose tackle Chris Zorich a mama’s boy—at least not to his face. But in a sense that’s exactly what the ferocious 270-lb. All-America lineman has always been. So right after his team’s heartbreaking 10-9 New Year’s night loss to the University of Colorado at the Orange Bowl in Miami, he telephoned his mother, Zorka, back home in Chicago. As usual, she made him feel better, proudly telling her only child how well he had played. “Mom, I love you,” he said before hanging up.

His 10 tackles had earned the quick, tenacious Zorich the honor of being chosen by NBC Sports as the game’s outstanding player for the Fighting Irish. “I played the best I ever played,” he recalls. “But I didn’t know why until I got home.”

When he arrived there the next day, Zorich discovered that his Orange Bowl performance had been the last gift of glory he could offer the woman who had raised him on her own. After his mother failed to answer his knocks, he broke down the door to find her in the hallway of their South Side flat. At 59, Zorka, a diabetic, had died unexpectedly of natural causes. “She was just lying there,” says her son. “I knew she was dead. I gave her a kiss on the lips and said, ‘Bye, Mom.’ I didn’t freak out.” In fact, the 21-year-old Zorich turned calmly to his distraught Uncle Blaise, who had driven him to the apartment, and said, “I made her happy. She made me happy. I know she’s in a better place.” Only later did tears overcome him. Now, says Zorich, “she can watch over me as my guardian angel.”

That, after all, was what Zorka had done while she was alive, with the same single-mindedness that her son would bring to the football field. “Chris was her life, her everything,” says Zorka’s sister Anna Radick. A coatroom attendant at George Diamond’s Steak House in Chicago, Zorka became pregnant at age 38. When she told the father, he left her. “I never knew his name,” says Radick. “She would not discuss it. ‘I can take care of my son,’ she said.” Zorich knows his father’s name. He also knows that he was a black man with a gold tooth. But that is all he knows. He has never spoken to the man and has no idea if he is dead or alive.

Forced to quit working to raise her child, Zorka subsisted on welfare. Though one of her six siblings is the successful character actor Louis Zorich, the husband of actress Olympia Dukakis, Zorka stubbornly refused to ask for help—though her family would sometimes send her money. “Just about all she would accept was food and hugs,” recalls Chris’s cousin Barbara Radick. For the past 12 years Zorka and Chris have lived in a one-bedroom apartment with peeling walls and a patched ceiling; a towel is stuffed into a crack in a front window to keep out the cold.

It is a tough, mostly black and Hispanic neighborhood, and it was especially tough for Chris. “I got picked on a lot because I was mixed,” he says. “I got the crap beat out of me.” By the time he entered Chicago Vocational High School, Zorich desperately wanted to succeed at football. But Zorka resisted. “She wouldn’t sign the consent form,” says Zorich. “I begged and begged, but she didn’t want her baby to get hurt.” Finally, as a sophomore, he forged her name and joined the team. When she found out in midseason, “I told her I didn’t want to let the team down, so she let me play,” Zorich recalls. His high school coach, John Potocki, soon recognized that Zorich had a shot at a college football scholarship. “What he lacks in height [Zorich is 6’1″], he makes up for in heart and desire,” says Potocki. “He has a hate, an anger that comes from the streets, but he channels it in a positive direction.” Potocki believes that crucial self-control came from Zorka. “She gave him enough love for two parents,” he says. “She gave him abase.”

Throughout Zorich’s career at Notre Dame, where he majors in American studies, he maintained that closeness with his mother. “I called her whenever I felt like it,” he says. “School can be scary, but I didn’t have anything to worry about because she was always there. She was my best friend. I would talk to her about girls, football, anything.” Says Zorich’s roommate, guard Tim Ryan: “They would talk like boyfriend and girlfriend.”

Zorich has told his real girlfriend, Notre Dame sophomore Jessica Fiebelkorn, 19, not to be surprised if she finds him carrying on imaginary conversations with his mother. “Obviously I miss her,” he says, “but I feel I can still talk to her all the time—and not have an enormous phone bill.”

Zorich, winner of the Lombardi Award as the nation’s best college lineman of 1990, will be a possible first-round pick in this spring’s NFL draft. “There are many things with which I want to make my mother proud,” he says. “I want to have a big family. And in my house, above my fireplace, I’m going to have a big picture of my mom.”

—James S. Kunen, Grant Pick in Chicago

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