On the first Carolina Panthers kickoff of the first quarter of the first exhibition of 2013, Michael Zordich was feeling great.
The Panthers had just scored a touchdown and led 7-0. Zordich was flying downfield on the ensuing kickoff, hoping to make the stop on Chicago return specialist Devin Hester. It was Zordich’s first NFL game of any kind, and the undrafted rookie fullback from Penn State wanted to make it memorable.
He did – but not in the way he intended.
On the kickoff, Zordich made a cut toward Hester – who had taken the ball 9 yards deep in the end zone and was running it out.
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“And then I fell to the ground,” Zordich said. “There was no contact. Nothing. Kind of a shot out of nowhere.”
Zordich had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Another teammate tackled Hester. And before some Panthers fans had even settled into their seats for that first exhibition, Zordich’s season had already ended.
So began his long year of limbo. The Panthers placed him on injured reserve. He had surgery. But unlike some players who virtually disappear after being placed on IR – the player gets his salary for the year if the injury occurred on the football field – Zordich decided he would go to everything at Bank of America Stadium he could.
While rehabbing his knee, he attended all the meetings for the running backs. He studied film. He got to know his teammates, coaches and opponents. He sometimes limped out to practice to watch.
“I took it like a redshirt year in college,” Zordich said. “I tried to keep my face fresh around the building. I got into the playbook and got to know the guys, the coaches and the system.”
“He stayed around,” coach Ron Rivera said of Zordich. “He stayed involved. Then in the offseason program, he was here every day he was allowed to be. He’s a driven young man and he wants his opportunity.”
A year later, that opportunity is finally here. Zordich is the third-team fullback behind Mike Tolbert and Richie Brockel. The Panthers will likely only keep two on the active roster. But he has all preseason to prove he belongs – if not here, then on one of the other 31 NFL teams.
“I’m knocking the rust off,” Zordich said, “and having fun doing it.”
Zordich has NFL genes. His father, Mike, had a 12-year career as a defensive back – mostly with Philadelphia and the then-Phoenix Cardinals. Father and son went to and starred at Penn State.
The younger Zordich stuck it out through the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, even though he had the option of transferring to any school and playing immediately during his senior year in 2012.
“We wanted to play together,” Zordich said of his senior class, “and finish out what we started.”
Undrafted in 2013, Zordich got a call from the Panthers about trying to make the team in training camp. He took the offer, knowing his best chance would be to become known as a versatile player who could not just back up Tolbert (a Pro Bowler last season) but who also could play on all of the kickoff and punt coverage and return teams.
That’s how he came to be running downfield covering that kickoff against the Bears on Aug. 9, 2013, when he got hurt in the game’s first five minutes.
Zordich hasn’t really covered a true kickoff since. It is such a dangerous play to mimic that the Panthers, like most NFL teams, never run kickoffs in practice at full game speed with actual tackling.
But he will be covering kicks a week from Friday, when the Panthers open their preseason at home against Buffalo on Aug. 8. Will he be worried? No, he said.
“Last year, obviously I was upset with the way things went down,” Zordich said. “But I’ve been running everywhere for the past six months. It’s just another kickoff. And I’m actually excited – both to do it and to show everybody that I can do it.”