UNIVERSITY PARK — Michael Zordich has a touch of the sniffles.
It’s nothing the Penn State fullback — a 6-foot-1, 240-pound flesh and bone bulldozer — wouldn’t brush off.
Sprained shoulders? Fingers? Knee ligaments? Whatever.
Zordich coughs but doesn’t acknowledge it, save for a few swigs from a water bottle to help him clear his throat. His team is 5-2 with an all-important, season-defining game against undefeated Ohio State looming. Nothing could keep Zordich from this game. Nothing has before.
A grizzled veteran of 46 college football games following a redshirt season in 2008, Zordich has never missed one.
He’s taken on multiple roles, most of them coming with little fanfare. The cuts and abrasions on his chin and elsewhere on his face are his own helmet stickers. He’ll usually get one when he pops an incoming linebacker bearing down on the ball carrier behind him or fires himself at an awaiting punt returner.
He’ll practice — and play — with nearly an entire roll of medical tape wrapping his left knee after absorbing a brutal collision in the Temple game earlier this season.
Again, Zordich brushes it off. He understands people have come to expect that from him.
“He’ll probably spit on it and it’ll be all right,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said after the Temple game.
“I got a good laugh out of that,” Zordich says. “I’m just happy that he feels that way about me. That’s the type of player I’ve tried to get myself to be.”
A football family
Zordich was born in Scottsdale, Ariz. when his dad, Michael Sr. was playing for the then-Phoenix Cardinals.
Following a standout career at Penn State, the elder Zordich spent 12 seasons in the NFL as a defensive back with the New York Jets, Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles.
As a five-year-old, Zordich, his brother, sister and mother Cynthia sought out their first condominium in the Philadelphia area when Zordich Sr. began play with the Eagles.
During his father’s five-year fun with the Eagles, Zordich and the rest of the family would spend the NFL season in either Philadelphia or close by in New Jersey.
“It was kind of like an adventure every season to see where we would end up,” Cynthia Zordich said.
Having cousins in Philadelphia made the yearly transitions for the Zordich kids easy as Cynthia Zordich’s side of the family was based in southeastern Pennsylvania. It wasn’t tough relocating every year back to Youngstown — where generations of Zordiches before called home.
Although they lived for long portions of time in Arizona and Pennsylvania, the Zordiches always wanted their kids to have a sense for where home was. For them, that was in the Rustbelt.
“They’re really proud of saying that they’re from Youngstown,” Cynthia Zordich said. “In this generation, that’s awesome because so many of the kids here have the mentality of, ‘Let me get out of this small town.’”
Living in Youngstown
Since the decline of the steel industry over a decade before he was born, Youngstown is a shadow of what it once was.
Once a booming, industrial metropolis, Youngstown was the third-leading steel producer in the United States. But corporate mergers preceding the shutdowns or withdrawals of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, U.S. Steel and Republic Steel in the late 1970s left residents without work and incomes.
Soon thereafter, a peak population more than 168,000 people in the 1950’s had swooned to less that 66,000 sixty years later. What were once bustling city streets lined by steel foundries and furnaces were now derelict paths to nowhere, pockmarked by abandoned homes and padlocked, broken-windowed buildings.
Recently, the city has instituted a plan to rezone much of the abandoned areas, bulldozing the dilapidated former homes of now departed workers in an attempt to spark growth.
This is the only Youngstown Zordich ever knew, where crime levels have peaked well above the national and state averages nearly every year following the official collapse of the steel industry in the city on “Black Monday” in 1977.
“I lived right on the outskirts of it, but my high school was right in the center of it,” Zordich said. “I spent every day of school, of my life really, in the middle of Youngstown and it’s a tough area. There are spots where you can see that people are struggling or things are going on and you hate to see that but it is what it is.”
Residents of Youngstown now feel athletic pride where industrial accomplishments once ruled.
Many top-tier athletes have honed their skills in Youngstown with the city producing numerous NFL hall-of-famers and vaunted players. Zordich, like his father, hopes to be the next one.
Like many Youngstown athletes that came before him, Zordich approaches football like a steel worker might approach an average shift in the mill. He knows it’ll be a grind, knows he’ll come out scathed but he’s in it for the long haul.
“I bring it back to the industrial age. I bring it back to certainly well before my time. My parents, my grandparents, my great grandparents and their family and friends knew how to work hard,” Zordich, Sr. said. “They earned their pay, man. They went to work. A lot of my relatives in the steel mills and that was their gig. I think through all those years it taught us all how to be disciplined and work hard and at the same time enjoy life and have fun.”
Zordich made his case as a gridiron worker at Cardinal Mooney High School. In four years, the Cardinals went 53-6 and won a state championship in 2006. It didn’t take long for Zordich to display the same ferocious, hard-hitting tendencies that led his father to a successful football career.
“He’s a really solid person on and off the field,” Cardinal Mooney coach P.J. Fecko said. “He’s certainly a loyal person. A person who tells you exactly where he’s coming from and whether you like it or not, you know where you stand and you know what type of person he is.”
Soon, Zordich had Division I-A coaches calling and none brought more excitement to his local community than then-Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel.
Although his mom was a Penn State cheerleader and his dad a former player for Joe Paterno, both of Zordich’s parents felt it was best to not try to encourage him to choose Penn State over Ohio State.
After multiple visits from Tressel and a community seemingly convinced he would become a Buckeye, Zordich decided to make his next move to State College.
“He told his brother first,” Cynthia Zordich said. “(Michael) was laughing and said, ‘Did you guys think I’d go anywhere else?’”
In nearly 45 minutes, Zordich has revealed — perhaps unknowingly — his own catchphrase.
“It is what it is,” he says.
He uses it when talking about his hard-charging, one-cut and batter anything in his path running style.
He utters it when asked about the NCAA sanctions, the Sandusky scandal, Paterno’s firing and the removal of most of the previous coaching staff. It’s fair to say Zordich sees most of these issues as black and white. He can’t afford to worry about the gray areas.
“It was just disappointing but at the same time you knew that we weren’t going to be able to do a damn thing to change it other than continue to play,” he says.
And Zordich is having too much fun playing out his final year to let outside commentaries throw him off.
With his long hair, rough 5 o’clock shadow and hulking shoulders, Zordich presents and intimidating frame not all too different than the cartoon visage of him painted on a white bed sheet. The “Incredible Zordich” banner hangs from the student section railings at Beaver Stadium and bears a striking resemblance between Zordich and the Hulk, except that Zordich isn’t green.
Zordich loves the banner. He’s met and talked with the students who made it. While he appreciates the comparison to a comic book hero, Zordich admits he felt small when he first met O’Brien.
“I remember leaving there pretty intimidated,” Zordich says of the first time the two spoke face-to-face at the Lasch Building. “The first time you meet him, he’s very serious and very upfront and I loved it.”
So far, O’Brien has used Zordich as much as possible, leaning on the fifth-year senior when the running game stalled or when fellow running backs Bill Belton and Derek Day were injured.
Zordich has played the biggest role for a Penn State offense yet. Although he’s made a career as a set-up man, usually paving the way for players like Silas Redd or Evan Royster to rack up 1,000+ yard rushing seasons, Zordich — who did much of the blocking when Royster set the school’s all-time leading rushing record — has been called on more this season to be a go-to option on the field.
Off of it, his voice has rang loud as one of the team’s most respected leaders.
In addition to helping Michael Mauti organize a no-nonsense denouncement of outside coaches trying to coax Penn State players away from Happy Valley following the NCAA’s punishments, Zordich has carried the ball 10 or more times in three games this season.
This game, against the Buckeyes, is arguably the most important one he’ll have played in a long time Zordich says.
Neither team is eligible for a bowl. Both squads have been rocked by unexpected overhauls, with Ohio State’s coming prior to last season with Tressel’s resignation. Now with both teams undefeated in the conference, Penn State and Ohio State are in a dead heat to win the Big Ten Leaders’ division.
Zordich and his teammates will try to tip the scales in their favor.
“That’s the main thing with this group of guys,” Zordich says. “We may not have anything that we can win, but we’re still hungry as hell.”
For Zordich, that’s the difference between a college football player and one who chooses Penn State. Like to the 60 or so thousand people who’ve stuck with Youngstown, having to redefine their careers and lives in the wake of seemingly utter collapse, Zordich allows, this is the most important period in Penn State football history.
“I think a lot of us would say that. This is huge,” He says. “We’re playing for the future. We’re playing for a whole lot. And we take a lot of pride in what we’re doing here.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @traviswjohnson_.