Alex Zordich comes from a family of defensive players. His father, Michael, was an All-American safety at Penn State and played 12 years in the NFL. His older brother, also Michael, was part of a celebrated class of incoming linebackers at Penn State four years ago.
The Zordiches are hitters. Alex thrived on the physical side of football, too. The main thing he learned from his dad was how to be tough and determined on the field. But his mother, Cynthia, saw the makings of a quarterback and decision-maker when Alex was just a boy.
"It's kind of funny," she said by phone. "Alex was really headstrong about everything. When he was younger, even though he was not the older son, he was the one who decided what we were doing as a family. He had an idea about how the day would go and that was it. He had the plan.
"You want to say it about all your kids," said Cynthia Zordich, who has a younger daughter, Aidan. "But he really is a leader. When he became a quarterback in high school, he said, 'This is the best position to get what I want done.' "
Before his senior year at Cardinal Mooney in Youngstown, Ohio, Zordich had the entire team at his house for a meeting. Cynthia remembers Alex telling his teammates he had brought them together because he wanted to win the state championship that had eluded them the year before.
"They went into my husband's den and shut the door," Cynthia recalled. "They were crying. They were yelling at each other and fighting. They called each other out. They won every game. They won the state championship."
Mooney didn't throw much, one reason Zordich was lightly recruited as a quarterback. A lot of top schools wanted him to play tight end. Zordich wouldn't hear of it. He told his high school coach he wouldn't be talking to any colleges that didn't want him as a quarterback. One that did was UB, whose new head coach, Jeff Quinn, believed Zordich had the skill and leadership to be a winning QB in the MAC.
So on Saturday, Zordich will be the starting quarterback for UB in the opener at Georgia. For the first time in his three seasons, the 6-foot-3, 222-pound junior will open the year as the starter. His reward is playing against one of the top defenses in the country.
"As a competitor, I know I speak for all the guys on the team," Zordich said. "You never go into a game expecting anything but to win. That's why we work. That's why we do everything we do. We're not going to worry about who's who. We're going to play as hard as we can and be as competitive as we can, with all the belief in the world that we can do anything we want to do."
He won't be in awe of the crowd and SEC atmosphere. Zordich grew up in NFL stadiums, watching his father play. Michael would bring his sons to Eagles practice. Alex remembers sneaking onto the field with his brother during lulls in practice.
"Growing up around football has helped me be able to focus on what I need to do and not get caught up in the atmosphere of the game," Zordich said. "That's definitely helped. But I think most of the guys on the team are ready, once they reach this level. They can handle certain games, certain stadiums."
Handling No. 6 Georgia is another matter. The Bulldogs are 37˝-point favorites over the Bulls.
Zordich has a lot to prove. Last season, he threw only 12 passes as a backup. As a true freshman, he started four games, completing 39 of 94 passes for one touchdown.
Still, Zordich is confident. He knows a QB's play can lift a team above tough circumstances. He has confidence, and he intends to build on that against Georgia, win or lose. Confidence has never been a problem. He credits his father and mother for that.
"It's funny," he said, "because a lot of people would think our dad is the football general and everything we learned came from him. But my mom has been awesome. My brother and I learned great lessons from her. Definitely the confidence, having the right attitude about the game and our abilities. She put a lot of belief in us."
Mom understands the football mind-set. Cynthia, a professional photographer, coauthored "When the Clock Runs Out," with Philadelphia sports columnist Bill Lyon. It examined the lives of 20 former NFL players. She did interviews with the likes of Mike Ditka, Ronnie Lott and Ron Wolfley, the Blasdell native who was a teammate of Michael Zordich with the Cardinals.
The book, which came out in 1999, was ahead of its time. The issue of NFL players after retirement is now raging. Cynthia's publisher has asked her to revisit the subject.
"There's a sense in the league of 'Do not discuss this,' " she said. " 'Do not go into that world while you're still playing.' That's why I wanted to dive in and get great advice. It was selfish, in a way. I literally had just finished the book when my husband stopped playing. He didn't want to be in my book. He said he never retired, he got thrown out of the league."
Michael Zordich is now a secondary coach for the Eagles. Alex, a business major, doesn't see himself as a coach when he's finished playing. It will help to have a mother who is an expert on how football players move on from the sport. He recently read his mother's book and found it illuminating.
"It helped me to appreciate the fact I'm still playing and take advantage of every day that I have," he said. "There's a lot of guys who thought it would never end and, all of a sudden, they're not playing football anymore. So I try not to take any day for granted."
Zordich, 21, hopes to lead the UB offense for two years and win a MAC title. After college, he wants to own a winery. It's been his dream since he began helping his grandfather, Jimmy, make wine when he was 8. ("We have pictures of him drinking it when he was 6," Mom said).
"All the grand-kids went every year and helped him with it," Zordich said. "I just happened to fall in love with it."
Grandpa Jimmy died three years ago. He left his wine-making materials to Alex, who recreated the winery in the family shed in Ohio. "You walk in and it's like you're with my dad," Cynthia said. "He'll say, 'Well, Ma, I'm going to go out with Grandpa Jimmy for a little bit, and then I'm going to bed.' "