SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 26, 2012

Former St. John's Prep, UMass football star Zardas reflects on a pair of Super Bowl teammates


No matter who ultimately wins Super Bowl XLVI next Sunday night in Indianapolis, Chris Zardas will be a happy man.

A former star running back at St. John's Prep, Zardas was college football teammates at UMass Amherst with players from both teams: safety James Ihedigbo of the New England Patriots and wide receiver Victor Cruz of the New York Giants.

Cruz was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Giants in 2010 while Ihedigbo was released by the New York Jets this past summer and subsequently signed by the Patriots in August.

"It's awesome to have both of them playing in the Super Bowl. They're two really good kids," said Zardas, who was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles after the 2010 NFL draft, but later released. "James was on our 2006 team that went to the (Division 1-AA) national championship, and Victor was my year (of graduation, in 2010). I was a redshirt freshman when Ihedigbo was a senior, so I'm a lot closer to Cruz because I played with him a lot longer."

Zardas couldn't be happier for the two former Minutemen who will be battling for the Vince Lombardi Trophy 10 days from now.

In just his second year with the Giants, Cruz caught 82 passes for a team-record 1,536 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, earning Second Team NFL All-Pro honors. He also had 10 catches for 142 yards in last week's NFC championship win over the San Francisco 49ers in overtime.

"Cruz was always a very good player, but he had a rough time his freshman and sophomore years with some academic problems. His father died and he had to drop out of school for a while, but he got back on the right track his junior and senior years," recalled Zardas. "I'm not surprised at the catches he's making because I've seen him do it all along.

"He got his chance, and has made the most of it. I think it was his first pre-season game against the Jets (on Monday Night Football) when he caught three touchdown passes to break a record. Unfortunately, last year he was hurt and missed most of the season, but now he'll have to be reckoned with in the Super Bowl."

Zardas said the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Ihedigbo — known as "Diggs" — was also a very gifted player and a natural leader. This season, his 69 tackles (46 of them solo) are fifth-best for New England.

"He was always a very vocal and an inspirational speaker who got the team up before games," Zardas said. "He's a hometown kid from Amherst who excelled and was the face of our program at the time.

"James was a captain his senior year, and everybody looked up to him. When he was with the Jets, they used him mostly on special teams and a couple of packages on defense. But he seems to fit right in (starting in the secondary) with the Patriots."

Zardas is a lifelong Pats fan, but his emotions will be torn on Super Bowl Sunday. He isn't sure yet whether he will make the trip to Indianapolis.

"I'll probably sit at my house and watch," he admitted. "I've been on the sidelines enough times, but I will follow the game very closely.

"Either way things turn out is a win-win for me. To see Victor get a ring would be special. He's going to be a big matchup problem for the Patriots because he's so athletic. The Giants are skilled and they've got some great receivers that can create problems for the secondary. It's amazing how Cruz has shared or even stolen the spotlight when he's with some wide receiver Pro Bowlers."

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Zardas is staying in shape and still hoping for a pro football opportunity to come his way, but is realistic about his chances. He works at Athletic Evolution in Woburn as a strength coach.

"That's where I trained for the combines," said the former fullback, who was the leading all-time rusher for St. John's Prep until Tyler Coppola broke his record in 2010. "We train a lot of local guys and I get a chance to share my football knowledge. A lot of the older Prep guys like Mike Pitt and Ryan Bird are here working out with me.

"I'm close to hanging them up. The (NFL) lockout really hurt guys like me because we didn't get a second chance to work out for the teams and show scouts what we could do. I got a few phone calls, but nothing worked out.

"I'm in even better shape now than ever because I go to work in gym shorts and a T-shirt. If I do get a call, I'm good to go."