1947 Rose Bowl: Zaborac intercepted a pass, toughed it out

John Supinie

Tom Zaborac faced a difficult decision. Notre Dame and Illinois both wanted him to play football.

 A lifelong Catholic, the 1944 Canton High School graduate thought seriously about playing for the Fighting Irish, a perennial powerhouse. The school was a favorite of his mother. But Illinois coach Ray Eliot made an impression with Zaborac and his father.

 After heart trouble kept him out of the military during World War II and kept him out of athletics for a year, Zaborac finally chose Illinois. As fate would have it, Illinois played at Notre Dame in his freshman season in 1945.

 "They started playing that fight song,'' Zaborac said. "I had tears going down from my eyes. I thought to myself, 'Who the hell are you playing for, Illinois or Notre Dame?' My mother was a strong Catholic. If I had to do it all over again, I would go to Notre Dame because of my mother.''

 Yet, Zaborac, 82, wouldn't trade staying close to home, playing at running back and defensive back for the Illini and intercepting a pass in the Rose Bowl. A speedy yet sturdy runner, Zaborac's specialty was running up the middle in an era when equipment still lagged and the game was more blood and guts than finesse.

 Zaborac played in an era when plastic helmets finally replaced leather headgear. The facemask hadn't yet been developed.

 "I never thought about it,'' Zaborac said. "That was the game. You went out there to play. You used the equipment they had. I never saw anybody wear a facemask all the time I was in high school and college.''

 He lost two teeth, and Zaborac can't count how many times his nose bled. An MRI decades later revealed several breaks in his nose.

 "That was no secret to me,'' he said. "A lot of times, blood was streaming out of my nose. We put cotton up there to keep from bleeding, then we went out and played. You just did it. You didn't want to be called chicken because you got a little blood on you.''

 An Illini season ticket holder, Zaborac still gets emotional at kickoff. But a Hawaiian cruise planned months ago may keep him from Pasadena.

 Zaborac's basement collection includes the jersey, pants and cleats he wore in the Rose Bowl. The jersey still has grass stains from the Rose Bowl turf.

 Zaborac's wife, Millie, was a high school sweetheart. They were married in July, 1946, and had two children. She lived with his parents in Canton while he attended Illinois. A retired teacher who coached football at Industry, Cuba and Canton, Zaborac remains active despite a heart that works only at 60 percent capacity.

 "I wish I'd be the last one living, be the oldest ballplayer on this Earth,'' he said. "That's my goal. The man up above will have his say.''

 Hopefully, he won't hold a grudge for Zaborac picking Illinois over Notre Dame.