This story begins on a quiet fall night in Michigan – which is significant – because for the first September in Frank Zombo’s adult life, he wasn’t on a football field.
He wasn’t playing more than half of the Kansas City Chiefs’ snaps on special teams or starting nine games at outside linebacker, as he did in 2017. Instead, he was running errands, mowing the lawn and, on this particular night, tucking his kids into bed.
“My kids’ bedroom is decorated with all Chiefs’ stuff. [Team Photographer] Steve Sanders printed some pictures for me and they’re all over the walls. There’s a photo of Arrowhead Stadium with a stealth bomber flying over it and more stuff like that,” Zombo explained. “When I put my kids to bed, I looked at those and just thought to myself, ‘Man, I miss being out there.’”
Several days had passed since the Chiefs parted ways with Zombo following five years in the red and gold. The eight-year veteran was among the final roster cuts after training camp, and save for a daily trip to the gym, Zombo was away from the grind of professional football for the first time in nearly a decade.
This was uncharted territory, and when the Chiefs took on the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 1, instead of suiting up and grabbing a helmet, Zombo found himself smoking a rack of ribs and playing poker with some buddies from high school.
It was a fun afternoon – several poor hands of poker notwithstanding – but this wasn’t where Zombo felt he was supposed to be.
“It didn’t really hit me until that first Sunday when my friends were out there playing the Chargers,” Zombo said. “This was something that I tried to help build over the past five years to get us to a Super Bowl, so I was just thinking, ‘Dang it, I want to be out there celebrating a win.’ Tyreek [Hill] scored on a long punt return on the very first play and I wanted to be out there celebrating with the guys. That’s what I missed. I missed winning and doing it with my friends.”
And that feeling only festered as time went on.
“I had a little bit of ‘FOMO’ – fear of missing out – that I was missing this great run. They’re winning every game and they’re having fun doing it,” Zombo said. “Then, when the TV would pan to Coach Reid, I’d see the equipment managers and the security guys on the sideline. There’s this that guy and there’s that guy. It’s just weird seeing all your friends out there and you’re not there.”
Clearly, this was about more than just football.
In fact, Zombo had his fair share of opportunities to work out for other teams. He owned a reputation built upon consistency and reliability – traits that are in high demand over the course or a long season.
But while the calls came – and despite the advice of a former coach – he turned them all down.
“That says a lot about the guy,” said Chiefs’ Assistant Head Coach / Special Teams Coordinator Dave Toub. “He’s a nine-year guy, and he had an opportunity to go somewhere and work out, but he turned them down because he was hoping that he’d get an opportunity here. That’s special. He asked me what I thought, and I told him that he needed to go try out for that team, but he felt like he had unfinished business here.
“It just says a lot about him.”
“This is where I feel comfortable,” Zombo added. “I know everybody. I know the scheme. It’s the people in this city and in this building. I love football, but I love playing football here. I had a gut feeling that I was going to have a chance to come back and I didn’t want to screw that up.”
So, he waited.
The weeks passed by and the Chiefs’ victories piled up until, following a Week 5 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the call finally came.
“I was actually at the gym working out. It was after the fifth game, and some guys were banged up,” Zombo said. “I had to cut the grass that morning and had some stuff to take care of before the game, so I was working out afterwards, and that’s when [General Manager] Brett Veach texted me asking if I was in shape.
“I sent him a picture of me at the gym saying, ‘I live at this place. Of course, I’m in shape.’ He just laughed and told me to stay by my phone.”
He was on his way to Kansas City the very next day. After weeks of waiting, hoping and helplessly watching, Zombo’s patience was rewarded.
And after four weeks away from the roster, it was time to get back to work as a veteran presence on a largely youthful team.
“I just feel like I’ve been doing this for so long, so it’s like second nature. I’ve been around this defense so long that I could teach this playbook. I know the ins and outs of it,” Zombo said. “I’m not a guy that’s going to get 10 sacks a season, but I’m going to be in the right spot at the right time, I’m going to do my job and I’m going to help the players around me.”
It took a little faith, but only a month removed from that September night, Zombo is now going on his third week in the only place that he wanted to be.
“It’s just exciting to be back out there. My kids will come to these games, because I know my career is getting closer to the end,” Zombo said. “This will be one of the last times that they get to see their dad play football, so it will be pretty special.”
It’ll be just like their bedroom when the Chiefs take on the Denver Broncos this weekend, just a little louder.