BY NEIL HAYES
Special to the Sun-Times
Chris Zorich can barely be heard above the screaming and laughter.
The South Side native and former Notre Dame and Bears defensive tackle apologizes, then chuckles. The kids at the Anderson Park Fieldhouse in Bronzeville just finished their homework and have stormed the court to play indoor soccer.
“After all that happened with my foundation and the IRS, it’s great to spend time with all these young kids,” said Zorich, who works as a supervisor for the Chicago Park District. “With this job, I have a chance to mentor kids. That’s the best thing about what I’m doing. I wake up in the morning, and all I have to do is have fun with kids.”
Zorich was sentenced in 2013 to three years of probation and 200 hours of community service for failing to file federal income-tax returns. He also had to pay back approximately $350,000 in unaccounted funds donated to his charitable foundation, which was best known for handing out turkeys to underprivileged families on Thanksgiving.
Zorich said the probation was discontinued in July after he completed his community service and paid his debt.
“I take personal responsibility,” he said. “My foundation was shut down around the same time as I suffered a great personal loss of someone dear to me. I was also going through a divorce. Although it was a rough period of my life, it was also a learning experience. I’m in a better place now. But it’s sad to see how it ended.”
Zorich remembers walking home in the rain on Thanksgiving with a paper bag filled with donated food when he was the only child of a single mother growing up on the South Side. When the bag disintegrated, he had to chase the rolling cans of food around the sidewalk.
“My first year with Bears, I went to Jewel and bought 97 turkeys after practice on the night before Thanksgiving,” he said. “Then I went to my old neighborhood and started knocking on doors and handing them out. One lady was like, ‘What’s this? It’s frozen.’
“I hadn’t thought about that. I’d never really had Thanksgiving, so I’d never thought about a frozen turkey and how it might not defrost in time. I didn’t know.”
Zorich distributed turkeys every Thanksgiving for 15 years. He often got his ex-Notre Dame and Bears teammates involved, too.
“That was before navigation systems and Google Maps,” he said. “The folks in my foundation would stay up all night getting addresses from church groups and government agencies. I’d encourage my teammates to come out, and they would, which was impressive because it was their day off. They would get hugs and kisses from the kids and would often go into their own pockets to help people.
“It was great hearing the stories about how they were affected afterward. Not only were we able to make families happy, but we were able to get these players who weren’t even from Chicago excited about helping people. That was a terrific feeling.”
Zorich has been putting his life back together while watching his former teams fall apart. The former All-American has seen the turnover-prone Fighting Irish lose four of five games after a 6-0 start.
“I can’t imagine how he’s feeling, especially after the adversity he faced,” Zorich said of Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson. “He’s one of the hardest-working players on the team, [and] he’s trying to control the game and take full responsibility, but it’s hard to do in a team sport. I feel for him. He doesn’t want to turn the ball over. He’s just trying to do too much.”
Several former Bears said they had never experienced the disgust directed at the team after the Patriots and Packers scored 50-plus points in consecutive games. Zorich grew up following the Bears and said he, too, has never heard such vitriol.
“I feel for the players,” he said. “They’re doing the best they can. There are so many things you can question, but when you go back-to-back games giving up 50-plus, which hasn’t happened in the modern era of the NFL, maybe you have to do something.”
Zorich owns a Lombardi Award for being college football’s best lineman, but he’s most proud of the national gold medal for excellence the park district recently received.
“I’m having a ball finding new ways for kids to enjoy the park system,” he said.