The family business hasn’t just been football, but Penn State football in particular. So when things started going crazy and players started going elsewhere right before Michael Zordich’s senior season, some might have thought he had a decision to make.
“No,” Zordich says now, briefly yet powerfully reflecting on the summertime NCAA sanctions handed down against Penn State’s football program. “Not for one second did I think about leaving.”
There’s one answer. The rest also come in a certain tone, one that’s equal parts redemption and excitement.
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Penn State, a program left for the scrap heap not just after the sanctions but after an 0-2 start, is now 4-2 and tied with Ohio State atop the Big Ten Leaders Division heading into a prime-time game Saturday night at Iowa. Injuries and attrition at running back have put the ball in Zordich’s hands more than ever in his previous three years, and his contributions are showing up in the weekly box score.
Zordich is a 236-pound fullback who’s well-schooled in the art of smashmouth football from his days at Youngstown Cardinal Mooney High School — or even before. The long hair and the longtime habit of being primarily a blocker fit his tough-guy profile. He’s the son of a man of the same name who played at Penn State and played 12 years in the NFL, and he said playing at Penn State has been a matter of “fulfilling a lifelong dream. Really. It goes back as long as I remember.”
The 47 touches he has in the first half of the season? Zordich sees those as a bonus to his leadership role in a season like no other at Penn State.
“I don’t think my role or my leadership changed after we started 0-2,” he said. “I think it was important before that, and I think all of our seniors have played an important part going all the way back to spring. We’re all on the same page with what we’re trying to do. I never stepped up more than I already had, and I didn’t need to.
“I think everybody understood where we were. Yeah, we were 0-2. But we were in both games, a few plays away from both of them being different. And we’re mad about them now because we’ve kind of proven we should have been better then, but nobody’s looking back pointing fingers. We’ve been through a lot, and in those games we just didn’t finish. We blame ourselves.
“New offense, new coach, young kids, guys shuffling around. There were just a lot of things that had to kind of fit together, and once we were able to make that start happening, we were able to put together a little roll.”
Penn State lost its opener to now 7-0 Ohio University after leading at halftime, then lost the next week at Virginia. The Nittany Lions dominated that game but missed four field goals in a one-point loss.
Because of the kicking woes, the Nittany Lions are often trying to convert fourth downs. That means Zordich is often leading the way and sometimes getting the call to pick up a yard or even a little more to keep drives moving.
He says he’s just doing what he’s asked, but carrying the ball brings the bonus of having the chance to catch the eye of NFL scouts. The good scouts know his bloodline and toughness, anyway, but Zordich isn’t shy about his desire to keep playing football past Thanksgiving Weekend this year.
“I would have quit playing the game a long time ago if I didn’t intend to play it as long as I absolutely could,” he said. “I love it. I want to prolong this for as long I can. When you come to a school like Penn State, it’s at least partly because you have aspirations to play at the next level.
“Growing up I loved everything about this game — the big crowds and the big hits and the close games, that’s stuff you dream about. I’ve been in a bunch of them, and they’ve been great. It’s natural to look further down the road and then think about the possibility of playing football as a career. It’s a dream, you know? Being around my dad and his career, I just loved it.
“I never felt pressure to be a football player. I never saw myself as anything but a football player.”
The first Michael Zordich was a safety at Penn State and now helps coach the defensive backs with the Philadelphia Eagles. His son came to Penn State as a linebacker before switching to offense, but he brings the defensive mentality and the kind of toughness he’s always known to the offensive side of the ball.
When Zordich left the Temple game last month after taking a shot on the knee, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien called Zordich the type of player who would “probably spit on it and be OK.” When he missed a little practice time to get it closer to 100 percent, O’Brien knew his absence was going to be temporary.
“He’s a tough kid,” O’Brien said. “(He’s from) Youngstown, Ohio. I’m sure he’s on the phone with his dad and his dad is telling him to get his butt back in there.”
He did, and after getting just one carry in a win over Illinois he had the best statistical game of his career against Northwestern, posting a career-long 25-yard run and catching four passes for 31 yards. He has 10 catches this season after having seven total career receptions coming into the season. He outgained Temple in the first half of that game by himself, 101-98.
He’s posting quite a senior season, one that’s seen Penn State silence more than a few doubters and set up opportunities for some really big games down the stretch. It’s one that easily could have gone the other way — and still might. But it’s one Zordich swears he wouldn’t trade for anything.
“Zero regrets,” he said. “Too many memories, too many friends, too many teammates to have any regrets or think anything but positive things. We have six games left. I’m going to play and hit somebody and do whatever I can, just enjoy every second of it.”