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Zbikowski stepping in ring captures odd offseason for players

At a time when hundreds of football players are trying to secure a gym or nutritionist or trainer during the lockout, with so much uncertainty about when team facilities will reopen, one NFL veteran is undoubtedly already in the best shape of his life. Perhaps no one encapsulates the bizarre nature of this offseason as much as Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski, who is moonlighting as a professional boxer.

Zbikowski, a highly regarded amateur boxer from an early age, is the most profound example of the length some players are willing to go to stay in shape, or secure ancillary incomes, as their football futures remain in limbo. It's anyone's guess as to when the issues between the NFL and NFLPA will be resolved, or how much time players and teams will have to prepare for any sort of formal offseason practices, or even training camp, before games begin.

Normally, the average NFL player would be spending most weekdays at his team's headquarters, checking in with strength and conditioning coaches, beginning an offseason regimen, doing a few position drills, running a few routes, tossing around a few balls. None of that activity can take place anywhere near a club's training facility now, however, with players and their agents left to make other arrangements and ensure that, whether the lockout ends in two weeks or four months, they are ready to go. Those who make the best decisions now could reap the benefits whenever the NFL is back in business.

Zbikowski, well, he has no such concerns.

Having already compiled a 3-0 pro record and with his next bout looming on April 23, his daily routine trumps anything even the most draconian coach would throw at him during training camp. Zbikowski, 25, isn't just supplementing his income during the lockout, he's enhancing his chances of earning a more prominent role in 2011.

"Honestly, I believe everything I'm doing now is going to put me that much ahead of other people in the NFL," said Zbikowski, who has already appeared on a national pay-per-view event and is being trained by the legendary Emanuel Steward and promoted by powerbroker Bob Arum. "I'm doing all of this training, but doing it in the most competitive environment. It's one thing when you're training and working out, but it's another when you're training for a fight and then actually going against a trained professional… I really don't think there's anything else I could humanly, possibly be doing that could get me in better shape."

Passion for pugilism

Zbikowski, a Chicago native who comes from a family of athletes, stunned his father, Ed, when he first broached the subject of wanting to box as a nine-year old as they drove home from a little league game. His father figured it was a phase, and told his son if he came up with the $135 to train at a downtown gym for six months, he'd let him take part. Turned out that was not a deterrent. There was no discouraging him.

"Three weeks later he shows me $135," Ed Zbikowski said, sounding just as dumbfounded all these years later. "I still don't know how he got, if he knocked off a 7-11 or what, but he had the money so we started training."

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Ed Zbikowski suddenly found himself shuttling back to the same part of town he once worked so hard to move away from. His wife, none too pleased about all of this, issued an edict: "Once you take a standing-eight count, or get knocked out, you're done."

However, their son, it seemed, was something of a prodigy. He would end up rubbing gloves with the likes of Jake LaMotta, Carmen Basilio and sparred with eventual title-contender Angel Manfredy.

Even though Zbikowski was a tough kid, he was still their baby, the youngest of four siblings and on the smallish side. Seeing him take a punch wasn't easy.

His parents figured the only way to exorcise boxing from this young body was through overkill and perhaps fighting over his head. Zbikowski's first bout, at a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization), was against an older opponent with over 20 rounds of experience. Zbikowski won. So his parents took a different approach -- quantity. Run him ragged, line up a bunch of fights to the point where the sport lost its allure.

"My wife said, 'Let's burn him out,'" Ed Zbikowski said. "That didn't work. Next thing you know he has 20 fights on his card and then 40 fights. He loved it. Most kids come home from college and want to sleep in; Tommie would come home (from Notre Dame) and the first thing he'd want to do is spar.

"There's no cure for the addiction of boxing. It gets in your skin. It really is an addiction. You get hooked on it like a drug."

Tom Zbikowski, who won his first pro fight back in 2006 but put the sport on hold following his rookie season in 2008, offers no rebuttal to his father's words. He plans to continue boxing in the future beyond the lockout, though not to the degree he is now (three more fights scheduled between April and early June). He has no intention of giving it up, and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti has given his blessing to do so this offseason.

"There's no cure for the addiction of boxing. It gets in your skin. It really is an addiction. You get hooked on it like a drug."

-- Ed Zbikowski, father of Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski, on his son's passion for boxing.

Zbikowski never figured his boxing exploits would become a national story. But the lockout has dragged into a second month and Zbikowski's plans of taking low-key fights in far-flung places -- staying out of the limelight -- and to gradually work his way back into pugilism took a turn when injuries to other fighters created a void on a pay-per-view card. Sales of that event spiked with Zbikowski's appearance and he's already gone from Vegas to Atlantic City with fights coming up in Oklahoma City and Los Angeles.

Zbikowski, who started six games last season before getting injured, said he continues to sprinkle in football training with his workout schedule, and, will move more in that direction should he begin to get the sense a resolution on the lockout is drawing near. He plans to fulfill his commitment to Arum, but is excited to turn himself back over to the Ravens for training camp, whenever that begins, knowing he is more than primed to withstand the rigors of an NFL season.

"I know that every offseason I'm going to be doing this," he said, "because I know what it's doing for my body. I know. I know how prepared I'm gonna be for the NFL season. It's like giving yourself old-man strength while you're still young."

Battling offseason bulge

But what of the droves of other players who won't be partaking in prize fighting anytime soon? What provides their best chance of duplicating the type of training expertise and experience they would be getting if NFL facilities were open?

Many are turning to independent locales like Athletes Performance Institute (locations in Arizona, Texas, Florida and Massachusetts), Bommarito Performance Systems in South Florida or the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. For years it has been common for some players -- top stars in particular -- to opt to spend much of the spring working out at places like this rather than at the team headquarters. Chad Ochocinco, for instance, spent part of this week documenting on Twitter -- replete with photos -- the various NFL players he came into contact with at Bommarito's facility (Wes Welker among them).

Jostling for a space at this level of facility figures to intensify after the draft -- drafted players will still be on their own in a lockout and will in particular need to show up in pristine shape as they negotiate contracts -- while more veterans than ever before also need alternative means to work out. Furthermore, many players are still at a stage now where they are rehabbing or recovering from in-season or postseason procedures, with workouts yet to truly ramp up. But that time will come.

More than ever, the widespread onus is falling on agents to help players cultivate an offseason plan to put them in position to succeed when football comes back (to say nothing of trying to avoid the kind of unfortunate circumstances that can arise in these unusual times, such as quarterback Chad Pennington tearing his ACL playing basketball last week).

"Ultimately, I believe the responsibility for the continuity of care for these players is going to be from their agents," said Trevor Moawad, the director of performance for IMG Academies. "And the agents are doing it, not just for as much as they love and care for their guys, but they're doing it to protect their investment. Frankly, they're going to have to do it.

"The sense of urgency to get somewhere is not really there yet from the athletes. Geographically, wherever they live they have a reason to be someplace to train a little bit, but it's still only early April and I think you'll see that sense of urgency start to develop more after the draft, and as this thing carries on and it gets very real and the further they go from having a paycheck.

"But what I will say is, while for many of the athletes that sense of urgency is not there, I can tell you from the way the phone is ringing that sense of urgency is definitely there from the agents."

Tony Agnone, a longtime NFL agent, said the biggest difference he's seen this offseason is with players using the springtime more to get minor surgeries performed, dealing with anything from sleep apnea to ankle clean ups. And Agnone believes it's incumbent on him to be honest and vigilant with his clients now more than ever, with them far out of the sight of their coaches and executives.

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"It's not my job to just stroke them," Agnone said. "I've got to be on them all the time during something like this. I've got to be the guy to tell them if they're fat or out of shape, 'Hey, let's get something going here and get into some kind of routine.' You have to stay on them."

Agent David Canter said he began starting to formalize offseason workout plans for his clients back in December and is on the verge of securing a partnership with a national chain of training facilities that would allow any of clients to train for free there as long as the lockout continues. He has also partnered with The Fresh Diet, a highly reviewed nutrition company, to provide all of his clients with the daily delivery of three meals as well as healthy snacks to their homes, with the players able to choose from a variety of meal options online.

"It's a way for my clients to save money, and it's high-quality food that would cost between $1500 to $2000 a month depending on the plan," Canter said. "So they save money during the lockout, plus get the benefits of getting nutritious, fresh meals delivered on a daily basis. You don't get that at the team facility cafeteria -- that food is not always the healthiest and it's not weighed and measured like this."

Taking care of mind, body

Facilities like the IMG Academy provide a full cocoon for players, encompassing everything from weight and speed training, nutrition, massage and recovery, mental conditioning and even classes to prepare players for post-playing career opportunities in broadcasting. NFL players like Rodger Saffold, Dexter McCluster, Nate Allen and Chris Hovan have already been training there, as well as Cam Newton, the potential first overall pick.

Moawad, who has done mental conditioning work with the Jaguars, Dolphins and Alabama's program, said the facility will likely cap its NFL trainees at around 40 per week this offseason, and expects demand to be high for their services.

Given the financial realities of the lockout, IMG has plans as low as $475 per week (including meals but not housing), which span 4-6 hours a day and includes daily movement training, strength and conditioning, on-field support (with a group of experienced former coaches, including long-time offensive line coach and head coach Jim Hanifan, former head coach John Robinson and with John Madden as a senior advisor). Participants also get one "discipline" per day for that price (mental condition, vision training, character development, sportscasting training or a regenerative massage). Multiple disciplines per day can be added with plans ranging up to $875 a week.

The sprawling campus there includes a large weight room, a full medical staff (including an orthopedic, six trainers and 11 strength coaches), three media communication specialists, seven massage therapists, as well as the experienced coaches. There are also fulltime support staff employees from Under Armour and Gatorade on campus, and Moawad said that if the lockout goes into the summer those companies will work with the academy to provide the ability to run full seven-on-seven scrimmages.

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"We're most equipped to provide what an NFL team can provide," Moawad said.

IMG is also unique in that it routinely has word-class athletes like Maria Sharapova (she is training there now) and top golfers and soccer players training on campus. It also has a full country club and golf courses on site. Many players bring their families with them, able to golf and play tennis with activities for the kids as well.

The longer the lockout lingers, through suits and counterclaims and appeals, the more players might have to seek alternative measures to maintain their bodies and minds. Staying in shape and out of trouble will be a mantra this spring. Those that abide should prosper.

"I agree with the players that offseason workouts and quote-unquote 'voluntary' workouts too have become extreme, but I also understand why teams do that," Moawad said. "And in large part, they're structured as they are because they don't have enough faith that players will take care of themselves."

In this offseason, teams have no choice but to keep the faith, whether their players will be training on a 400-acre athletic utopia, or fighting on a pay-per-view undercard.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.

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