On today's edition of Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff, we will look at the story of the most prolific player to wear 97 in franchise history, defensive tackle Chris Zorich. With 97 days to kick off, let's look at what made this 97 a fixture of the Chicago Bears' history.
A native of the south side of Chicago, Zorich's football career began at Chicago Vocational High School, the very same school that produced Chicago Bears legend, Dick Butkus. Playing linebacker in high school, Zorich would go on to accept a scholarship offer from Notre Dame, but would quickly be forced to transition to a nose tackle.
At Notre Dame, Zorich enjoyed great success on the field and was named a Consensus All-American in both 1989 and 1990. During his time as a student, Zorich enrolled in a class taught by now-Chicago Bears president and CEO Kevin Warren, and would later agree to sign onto Warren's agency as the firm's first professional athlete representative.
Hometown Chicago Bears add Zorich ahead of 1991 Season
Drafted 49th overall by the Bears during the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft, Zorich entered the professional ranks by returning to his hometown. Zorich, or "Zorro" as he was called at Notre Dame, had a slow start to his career, appearing in 12 games as a rookie despite not recording a single sack. His second season with the Bears saw some uptick in playing time, as the Notre Dame product appeared in all 16 games, recorded two starts, two sacks, and a 42-yard fumble recovery touchdown during Mike Ditka's final game as Bears' head coach.
By his third season, Zorich had cemented himself as a full-time starter, starting every game of both the 1993 and 1994 seasons. During that time, Zorich had a total of 12.5 sacks and nearly 200 tackles and was even nominated as a Pro Bowl alternate following the 1993 season.
The following season, Zorich had another consistent season, starting in 15 of the Bears' 16 games, but in the 1996 preseason, the former starter suffered a season-ending knee injury and was forced to miss the entirety of the year on injured reserve. In 1997, after playing just three games early in the year, the Bears traded Zorich to Washington, where he would play for just five games before retiring prior to the 1998 season.
Zorich retired from the NFL with a six-year, 84-game career in Chicago, and with 15.5 total sacks as a Bear, the Chicago native's sack total is good enough for tied 31st overall in Bears' history, alongside only Henry Melton.
In the years since his retirement, Zorich was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, becoming at the time the youngest person to ever do so, and was inducted into the FedEx Orange Bowl's Hall of Fame for his play with the Irish in that bowl following both the 1989 and 1990 seasons.
Zorich spends time today working on the Chris Zorich Foundation, a group dedicated to helping disadvantaged families, serves as a public speaker, and works at Randall Partners LLC. Still based in Chicago, Zorich has lived practically his entire life in or around the city and is still a very active member within his community.