May 11, 2012

Catching Up: Jeff Zgonina

Over the summer, GoldandBlack.com will "Catch Up" with former Boilermaker football players, to look back on their playing days and to learn what they're up to now.

First is defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina, a Boilermaker from 1989-1992 who still holds Purdue records for tackles for loss in a game (seven), a season (28) and a career (72). He turned that success into a 17-year NFL career - an almost unheard of tenure for a defensive tackle - including stints with eight teams.

Below, we catch up with the former Purdue great.

GoldandBlack.com: You recently were induced to the Purdue Athletics Hall of Fame. What does that mean to you?
Zgonina:
"I was telling someone earlier, it is hard to grasp. It is not like the 'Purdue football hall of fame', it is Purdue sport's hall of fame. To be picked amongst all the sports that are here at Purdue, it is such an honor. I cant really put it into words."

GoldandBlack.com: When you look back at your Purdue playing career what are your thoughts?
Zgonina:
"I wouldn't change it for the world. I had a good time here. You meet a lot of good guys and we didn't win a lot of games, but it was fun to go out there and battle every week. That is what I liked about it. It was a good group of guys and yeah we weren't very successful, but it was a good group of guys just playing ball."

GoldandBlack.com: Are you envious of current Purdue football players, considering they've come along at a time that's generated more wins?
Zgonina:
"Nah, I am happy. You cant, I mean what are you going to do? It's like the NFL: are you jealous of them because they're making more money. It is just the nature of the beast.

"… You are just happy that they are winning. When I first started playing (in the NFL), (the Boilers) weren't that good and it is kind of hard to walk in that (NFL) locker room, but once you get a couple Ws going - when Drew (Brees) started it off and got it going - then yeah you start making those little side bets (with pro teammates). You feel like you have a chance."

GoldandBlack.com: You get a college education, then 17 years in the NFL. How blessed are you?
Zgonina:
"I am blessed and lucky. I have only had two little scopes (surgeries) so far. I was lucky I guess and fortunate I was able to play that long - college and pro - and not really be that scarred up yet."

GoldandBlack.com: That's an impressive career, 17 years for a defensive tackle. Hard to do.
Zgonina:
"Seventeen years. Yeah, I forget what the stat is. Pete Quinn was telling me (the average is) two or three years for DTs. Sorry I stayed too long (laughing). Should have turned the light at the bar on earlier, I would have left."

GoldandBlack.com: What do you make of being able to do that?
Zgonina:
"It's got all that: genes. I tell young guys: you have to make it important to your life. You got to make that sacrifice. You have to decide one day 'Yeah, this job is important.' Even my last year playing, I loved the game so much. I'd play as long as I could or felt like I wanted to or until I had enough of the BS from upstairs (in the front office) where I wouldn't want to play anymore. I just love the game. I love the competition. If you play hard, you don't get hurt."

GoldandBlack.com: Would you have kept going if the offers kept coming?
Zgonina:
"My dumbass probably would have, but I am kind of glad I didn't. I kind of shut that phone off. There was some sniffs, but you know I didn't feel like moving anymore. The mental side of it was, it's hard. I've got cats in the room that could be my kids almost. Enough is enough."

GoldandBlack.com: What are you up to these days?
Zgonina:
"I moved back to Chicago and I am working at a company my dad started. It is a printing company, Unilabel and Tag. Just taking a crack at that in his honor. He passed 12 years ago, so I just went up there for his honor to make a run at it.

"He started in the early 70's. I got two brother-in-laws running it and I just work sales there now and try to help out and go from there."

GoldandBlack.com: What do you look back on as the highlights of your career?
Zgonina:
"Yeah, I never really gloated on highlights. Team highlights? Yeah, Super Bowl (with the Rams in 2000). I didn't have a lot of team highlights at Purdue. My last great memory of Purdue was beating Indiana here at home for my last game. That was nice. Mostly the guys I played with and the good times I had with them. That's what you remember the most."

GoldandBlack.com: At what point in your career did you think you could play for a decade-and-a-half?
Zgonina:
"Never. Never. Even when coaches said 'You're all right don't worry about (being cut),' I always worried about it.

"We were playing at San Diego (in the preseason in 2000) and I was with St. Louis and Mike Martz was our head coach; I think it was his second year. He comes up to me and says 'You're not playing today.' It is the third game, which is like the game where first cuts are coming. I said 'Whoa, wait a minute!' (He said) 'We're going to let the young guys play today.'

"We (had) just drafted two guys in the first round (on the line). Now, I am really getting the sweats. I'm like 'Whoa, wait a minute, Mike …' He says 'No, I am going to let these guys play, they have been hurt all camp, I am giving you the night off.' I am like 'Did you talk to my D-line coach?' And he said not yet. I got kind of giddy. I am in my turf shoes and Bill Cole, our D-line coach is like 'What are you doing, man? Where are your cleats?' And I am like 'I am not playing today. I am getting a token snap.' He wanted to know why, and I didn't know. I asked him, 'You're not cutting me, are you?' He said 'No, no, no.'

"So the first play on defense, I started the game. … Doug Flutie was the QB for the Chargers. Doug throws to the right and our bench is to the left. I told San Diego's center, who I played with in Atlanta, 'Hey, bro I am one-play-and-done so I am just going to butt you and that's it.' He is like 'All right no problem', so you see me butt him and then I run to our sidelines in the middle of the play and oh they were killing me after that game about that (laughing). You have to watch the film. (My teammates), they were like 'What are you doing there man?' And I am like 'One-and-done baby!"

GoldandBlack.com: Do you make it back this way very often?
Zgonina:
"Um, no. I came back for the spring game for the first time in a long time and I haven't been back since then. It was just too hard living from where I was living. I wanted to come down for a few games this year, but the move just killed me. I couldn't get everything caught up and when I did the season was finally over."

GoldandBlack.com: Is it nice to be settled in one spot now?
Zgonina:
"Oh yeah. It is nice, it is just. We are not settled yet, because we are in a temporary situation, but it is nice to know that we will be there for a while. … (During the NFL) people would be like 'You just move here from where? You in the military?'

"'Ehhh no, just one of those job things.' No, I don't (talk much about it). I try not to, especially for the (three) kids and stuff, but you know it is nice to know that we will be there for a while and start getting roots going and stuff like that."

GoldandBlack.com: You doing ok with not playing?
Zgonina:
"Oh yeah. I haven't really watched it or haven't really done it. I haven't looked at it or gone to any games or anything. If I know somebody that is playing that I played with or a team, you know I will catch the scores or whatever or the last three minutes of the game. My wife is like 'Why aren't watching it?' and I am like 'I can't,' because when I watch it, I break it down in my head like I am playing again and that takes that fun out of it all. I sit there and start calling plays and I just can't casually watch, but one day I will."







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