It was only about six hours after the team charter had touched down from Seattle when Tom Zbikowski, who still hadn't gotten any extended sleep, drove to the Ravens' complex in Owings Mills, and headed to the practice field.
The kick return job wasn't yet his, but after David Reed fumbled twice and got a costly penalty after another return, Zbikowski figured that he better be prepared for anything.
"He took about 100 kickoff returns because he knew he was going to be back there and if he wasn't going to be back there, he wanted the coach to know that he was ready to take some kickoff returns the ensuing week against the [Cincinnati] Bengals," said Ravens linebacker and special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo. "He did that and he's still back there now. The most important thing to him is he wants to help this team win a championship so whatever he can do to help this team win, he's going to do it."
This hasn't always been an easy season for Zbikowski, the fourth-year safety out of Notre Dame who spent the lockout advancing a professional boxing career.
The strong safety lost his starting job opposite Ed Reed after four games because of the emergence of Bernard Pollard. He sustained a concussion that knocked him out of two more contests. And after shaking off its effects, he has found it tough to get on the field with the regular defense, leaving his contributions to come primarily on special teams.
It's obviously not what Zbikowski had in mind after he started six of the eight games that he played in last year and after he broke training camp in August at the top of the depth chart at his position, hoping that a strong campaign would get him a nice contract with free agency looming.
But nothing — other than the success of the team and its secondary — has gone according to plan, not that Zbikowski is complaining.
"It's not easy," Zbikowski said today. "It's the first time I've lost my job so it wasn't exactly fun. You keep playing, you do what the team asks you to do. That's why you play football. If you like team sports, you have to know your role and play your role on the team.
"[Pollard] has been playing real well. The way our season is going now, I wouldn't say you should change anything. When you get into a rhythm of things, you need to just keep going with what's working. I'm fighting to get on the field any way I can, but I'm just playing my role on special teams as best as I can."
Zbikowski still gets on the field in certain passing situations and he had a sack and two tackles in the Ravens' 16-6 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Thanksgiving night, but his primarily role recently has been returning kicks and playing on the special teams coverage units. He has five special teams tackles and he's averaged 22.7 yards on his three kickoff returns.
"The fact that he's always been a really good special teams player is a positive for him," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "It just shows you what kind of player he is. He's a defensive player that we have full confidence in when he goes back there and plays. So you don't even skip a beat when he's out there. He's one of our leaders on special teams, and he's one of our leaders on defense. He knows the scheme inside and out. He helps get guys lined up. He's just a good player, a really good player."
Zbikowski, 26, showed that the past two seasons while subbing for an injured Reed. He started four games in 2009 and finished the season with 16 tackles, two interceptions and four pass breakups. Last year, he made six starts and registered 16 total tackles before foot and back injuries ended his season in mid-December.
Zbikowski proved that he was healthy — and further satisfied a passion that he has had since he was a kid growing up in Illinois — by going 3-0 in the boxing ring during the offseason. However as soon as the lockout was settled, he quickly shelved his boxing ambitions to focus on what was an important football season, given that he'd be eligible for free agency after it was over.
But after totaling 11 tackles the first two games, Zbikowski had one in the Week Three beat down over the St. Louis Rams and then he suffered the concussion the next week against the New York Jets. In his two-game absence, Pollard made 10 total tackles, registered three pass breakups and forced two fumbles, further solidifying himself as the starter.
"I think you can lose your job just about over anything — over a cold, even," Zbikowski said. "One of my best friends, [former Raven quarterback] Troy Smith, was a week away from being a starter one year and then gets sick. It's just the way it goes. You've got to fight to play as long as you can."
Asked if it has been tough to accept a reduced role especially as a pending free agent, Zbikowski said, "Every year is big, though, and next year is going to be just as big as this year, and just as big as last year was and that has supposedly been forgotten about. You look at it and maybe it could have been a big contract year, but I started playing because I loved the game. I'm going to be absolutely fine with whatever I do for the rest of my life. This isn't going to be my only source of income for the rest of my life. I didn't do this just for income but it is probably the best paying job out of college without a doubt."
Months earlier, Zbikowski said that he'd considered resuming his boxing career after football is over. He appears to have cooled on that idea, though he admittedly changes his mind on a minute-by-minute basis.
"That's a rough living," he said. "I'm just trying to make it through this season before I think about what else I'm going to be doing. But as much as I would love to be able to fight 12 rounds, I think at this point I don't really want to make a living fighting people. It's something that's torn at me from inside out for many years, but you grow up, you deal with it and you move on."
For now, his sole focus is on Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts and helping the Ravens win.
"That stuff will all work out on its own," he said. "I'm not worried about that. I'm more worried about the 2011 Baltimore Ravens, and that's it. My football career will take care of itself."
Baltimore Sun staff writer Edward Lee contributed to this article.
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