Deputy Sports Editor
Springfield College football defensive back Joram Sanchez remembers who the hardest hitting safety on his high school team was back when he played for the Newington Indians of Conn. Christian Zotti – a nightmare for the opposition to deal with. If a receiver was caught when in pursuit of extra yards against Zotti, a bid for a touchdown would end with a violent clack of the pads and a swift, bruising impact with the ground. This guy came down hard, relentlessly on every rep, and took no prisoners.
Sanchez and Zotti are now teammates at Springfield, and Zotti, a junior, now plays middle linebacker for the Pride. But his game has not changed.
“He’s the epitome of what [we] need on defense,” said Sanchez. “He brings intensity, hard work, he brings it all.”
After briefly living in Florida, and inheriting a family wide love for the Miami Dolphins, Zotti grew up in Newington, Conn. playing identical sports to his two younger brothers.
“We would always throw the football and baseball around when we were kids when we could, [and] it was great to have someone your same size to play football with,” said Brendan Zotti.
Brendan, the middle child of the three Zotti brothers, plays football as a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and will be visiting Christian’s home turf, Stagg Field, two weeks from now, the two playing against each other for the second time.
“We were always on the same team growing up so it’s a little weird,” Brendan said. “The only time [we played against each other] was last year. We’re both on defense so we don’t match up, but it’s fun [playing Springfield], we’re still really competitive about it.”
Brendan attributes Christian’s as well as his own success in football, to picking up wrestling, as the two of them competed on the mat throughout their high school careers.
“We were both kind of small when we were young, but we both got better quick when we started wrestling. That really helped us out,” Brendan said. “Wrestling helped us get stronger and learn more about tackling techniques. But [Christian] picked [football] up pretty naturally, even though he was undersized. He’s a really good tackler.”
Christian began playing tackle football at 10 years old. Though he says that there was definitely a learning process when absorbing the game, and awakening the wolverine-like tenacity that he plays with today. He credits his player growth to exceptional coaching.
“When I first started I wasn’t very good. I wasn’t aggressive,” Christian said. “I played some offense, but I didn’t really play that much. I’ve had a lot of help [from my coaches]. They really helped me to learn and love the sport.”
Based on the critique he has of his younger self, Christian Zotti has come a long way since his Mighty Mites debut. After moving to the defensive side of the football, he evolved into the bruising safety of Newington High, before moving to middle linebacker for his collegiate career.
Though his playing time was limited his freshman year, Zotti still registered 13 tackles in all 10 games on the year. His chance to shine came in his sophomore year, when senior linebacker Matt Berni was lost for the 2015 season due to injury. It was time for Zotti to step up and he did so emphatically.
“He’s one of those old school parking lot guys, where you could put the ball down anywhere on campus and he’d want to play the game,” said Springfield head coach Mike Cerasuolo.
Zotti finished the 2015 season with 60 tackles, his breakout game coming against nationally ranked Hobart on Oct. 10, as he tackled the Statesmen offense 10 times that day, which translated into a Springfield victory.
“Christian stepped into the role [of middle linebacker], and made a full transition,” reflected assistant coach Bill Moore. “He’s a guy that gets better every single day [and] he practices with a purpose. He’s been a great leader by example, [and] he’s starting to get on guys. [He’s] doing great things in the leadership role.”
Zotti is grateful for the opportunity to play every day.
“I couldn’t ask for any more [for how it has gone]. I’ve had great opportunities to play and become a better player,” he said. “This is one of the closest groups that I’ve been a part of in any sport.”
Standing at 5-8, and 190 pounds, Zotti does not see himself as big, and is not the tallest linebacker in the Liberty League. But his size does not bother him.
“I’m not the biggest guy in the world, but I don’t see that as adversity,” Zotti said. “A lot of people have that problem. It depends on how you play and how you learn your techniques. Linebacker is a versatile position.”
Regardless of size, his teammates and coaches alike agree that no one has a bigger heart.
“He wants to be the best he can possibly be,” said Cerasuolo. “It has nothing to do with stature or size – he’s got heart. He’ll go up against offensive lineman that outweigh him by 100 pounds, and he finds a way to get it done.”
Springfield defensive coordinator Jack Holik believes that Zotti fits the defensive philosophy perfectly.
“We’ve been playing with smaller guys for years. Probably 75 to 80 percent of the teams we play are bigger than us,” he said. “[The game plan] fits what [Zotti] does, because you don’t have to be a monster in order to be successful. He’s tough, he’s loyal, he’s unbelievably hard working.”
Zotti indeed has a constant desire to improve his game.
“If he’s not the hardest working guys on the team, he has to be one of the top two or three,” Holik said. “He never takes a play off. Ever. Whether in a practice or a game. He’s on the quiet side, but he leads by example and is always there for his guys.”
The overwhelming respect team wide led the players to elect Zotti as one of their four team captains in the spring of 2016. He is the lone junior among three seniors. Cerasuolo believes that his team made an exceptional selection.
“[Zotti] does a good job of understanding his role in the defense,” Cerasuolo said. “He always puts himself in the right position, because he’s very coachable, very fundamentally sound. He’s very demanding of himself, so if he makes a mistake, he comes back the next rep and cleans it up, and he’s going to take the coaching necessary to be successful. He wants to be the best he can possibly be.”
As a co-captain of the defense alongside senior Nick Welsh, Zotti is confident in the Pride’s defensive squad, and admires its unity. Springfield’s defense is allowing 25 points per game, with 320 total yards allowed (132 rushing yards, 188 passing yards), and is poised to back its run-and-gun offense.
“We have a lot of leaders on defense, not just one individual,” said Zotti. “I think that’s been a key part. The young guys are putting in a lot of hard work. And we’re also a tight defense, everyone’s come together. We all just want to win.”
Zotti does not take any of this for granted, and is ready for the intensity of late-October football.
“[I’m] passionate about football, about family, and my friends,” he said. “I love football, and I work as hard as I can. [I want] to take [in the] full opportunity [of] the years I have left to play.”