A federal judge ruled Friday that former Chicago Bear and Notre Dame All-American won't spend time behind bars for a federal tax conviction, citing the former defensive tackle's charity work. Instead, Chris Zorich was sentenced to three years of probation.
Standing in the Chicago courtroom just before he was sentenced, a subdued Zorich apologized in a brief statement for failing to file federal income tax returns over several years. Said the 44-year-old, ''I'm obviously very sorry about my actions and I take full responsibility for them.''
Earlier, government attorney William Hogan Jr. asked for a sentence within federal guidelines, which called for a prison term of between 10 and 16 months.
''He neglected his responsibility ... This wasn't just an oversight,'' Hogan said.
But in rare praise for a defendant, U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel Martin described Zorich's offense - however serious - as an aberration.
''You have led an otherwise exemplary life, Mr. Zorich,'' Martin said. ''You've been a compassionate, generous and caring member of our society.''
Zorich, a Chicago native, was on the University of Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team, and then played for the Bears from 1991 to 1996. He ended his career with the Washington Redskins in 1997.
In March, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of failing to file income tax returns from 2006 to 2009. During that period, he made more than $1 million, including money from his namesake charity, the Christopher Zorich Foundation.
The judge Friday referred to letters he received from Zorich's supporters. One Chicago resident, Tim King, wrote that he saw Zorich in 1995 ringing a bell during the Salvation Army's Christmas donation drive. Others recalled Zorich personally delivering turkeys to low-income households on Thanksgiving.
In justifying leniency, Martin also cited Zorich's lack of a prior criminal record and said the only threat Zorich had posed was to football players on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Zorich showed no emotion as the sentence was imposed, though he shook hands with a prosecutor and his attorney after the hearing. He later walked by waiting reporters without commenting.
Zorich attorney Matthias Lydon said during Friday's hearing that probation in cases similar to his client's wasn't unusual, pointing to statistics that such defendants go to prison only about 50 percent of the time.
Judge Martin also ordered Zorich to pay more than $70,000 in restitution.
Zorich is already broke, his attorneys have said. His current assets are worth around $300,000, but he owes nearly $350,000 to the state of Illinois alone, they said in a recent filing.