In his spare time, this Commanders trainer and his dog compete for the best of the show


Jeff Zgonina played 17 years in the NFL as a defensive lineman, switched to coaching defensive linemen and still has the build of the Hulk, with arms so big they flare out from his sides and her legs that make the pants look more like spandex.

Now, more than a decade after his retirement, Zgonina could still pass for a player, and he often does, working with the Washington Commanders defensive line through pass-rush drills and roaring from the sideline like only a man his size can do that.

But in May 2016, Zgonina met her match: Squishy, ​​a 175-pound Neapolitan Mastiff who the trainer was tasked with leading around a ring at a dog show in Stillwater, Okla.

Squishy, ​​owned by another manager on the show, did a “squishy” while prancing, drawing stares and laughter from onlookers as Zgonina walked over and stood in a yellow sports coat until let Squishy finish his, uh, “squish.” Then Zgonina patted his belly and congratulated him.

“Good job, Squishy,” he said. “Good work.”

Defying his size and the machismo of his first love, football, Zgonina, 52, has a second passion as a dog handler. Think “Best in Show” without blow-drying or hairspray. Just a little shine for his mastiff coats and an attention to detail that reflects his playing career.

Zgonina is something of a standout on the dog show circuit, partly because of her huge 6-foot-2 frame but also because of her history. How many managers have a Super Bowl ring? The hobby he discovered at the end of his playing days filled a competitive void and became a form of therapy for him as part of a new team.

“He told me a few years ago when I first met him,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said of Zgonina. “I wanted to go to one of his shows, but he didn’t tell us he was going that week, so we didn’t see him. But he talks about it all the time.

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When Zgonina retired in 2010 after a three-year stint in Houston, former coach Gary Kubiak encouraged him to stay in the game and become a coach. But Zgonina had always wanted to work in the family printing house that her late father had started. He moved to Chicago, only to realize the job wasn’t for him. “Not at all,” he stressed.

So when the Texans faced the Bears in November 2012, Zgonina went to the game and revisited the coaching conversation with Kubiak, who offered her a job on the Houston team. Zgonina’s gig as an assistant defensive line coach lasted only one season; Kubiak was let go and Zgonina was not held. He struggled for two years to find another coaching job.

One day, after hearing her young children constantly begging for a puppy, Zgonina saw that they were watching “Dogs 101,” an Animal Planet show that delves into different breeds and features the Neapolitan Mastiff.

“I said, ‘If I ever have a dog, this will be the one,'” Zgonina recalled. “I liked the way it looked. It was big. So I went online looking for dogs and found one in Ohio, knowing nothing about dogs. I bought the dog online and a week later went to pick him up.

When Zgonina arrived to take home the pup, which he named Nook, the breeder asked if he planned to keep him as a pet or turn him into a show dog. A bewildered Zgonina heard the words “you could compete” when the breeder explained what a show dog was. From there, Zgonina found his next mission: figuring out how to win titles, much like he did as Purdue’s 1993 seventh-round draft pick.

Soon, Zgonina and Nook signed up for classes in Houston to learn how to show.

“The Houston show was the first show, and it was actually the [national show for Neapolitan mastiffs], too,” Zgonina recalled of her Nook debut in 2014. “There were all these other Neapolitan Mastiffs, and I got hooked because I just love to compete in anything. I lost and I was like, ‘Okay, I have to figure this out because people look down on me because I don’t know what I’m doing.’ ”

Zgonina befriended other managers, who shared tips and tricks of the trade. He showed off their dogs in addition to his for the extra reps, cleaned up the crates and helped wherever he could – not unlike an NFL rookie aiming for one of those coveted spots on a roster of 53. men.

At first, Zgonina was just thrown into the ring and forced to figure things out on the fly. But the more he competed with other managers, the more stories he shared of his playing days winning over everyone.

“When they were shorthanded, they were like, ‘Hey, can you show me that dog? [I said:] ‘Yes of course. What do I do?’ “recalls Zgonina. “And they were kind of telling me that every race shows up a little bit different sometimes. So I just started doing that, and then they saw that I was pretty confident and doing a pretty decent job, they kept asking me. . . . I showed small dogs, big dogs. I would do anything because I just want to be in the ring.

Two of the best handlers, Jill Bell and Brenda Combs, took Zgonina under their wings, and it wasn’t long before he bought a sprinter van and raced around the country, showing off Nook, another mastiff named Lulu and Caz. , his Staffordshire bull terrier .

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Combs, who Zgonina described as a close friend, is a multiple Best of Show winner.

“She scares me,” Zgonina said. “I mean, she’s the nicest person in the world, but she’s really good at what she does. It took me a few years to show a dog for her. We still talk, and we’re friends , but she’s intimidating. She still intimidates me today.

Zgonina learned a lot from his mentors just like he did in football. He learned that dogs sense the nerves and anxieties of their owners, so he could never get too pumped, as he does during pass-rush drills with commanders, or else the dog would smell it too and go “a complete madman”, he said.

Yet Zgonina also had an advantage that perhaps only a professional athlete could have: he can eliminate noise.

“A trainer once told me he couldn’t believe how relaxed I was in the ring,” he said. “…I just said that I didn’t notice anyone, because when I was playing, I didn’t notice anyone. I go in and it’s me, the dog and the judge. And that’s all.”

Lulu, Zgonina’s female mastiff, seemed destined to show off. But Zgonina quickly realized that Nook, who at 170 pounds was a leaner Neapolitan Mastiff, had neither the interest to show nor the physical traits necessary to win regularly. It turned every weekend into a challenge for its owner. The judges watch for a dog’s conformation to see if it meets breed guidelines: does it have a good “topline”, which is the profile line that extends from the base of the tail to a dog on the shoulders? Does he move as his race should? Does he behave well?

Nook didn’t have a great topline. He didn’t move easily either. And he would fight Zgonina in the ring, so much so that the former lineman would often sweat through his sports jacket.

“My biceps were clenching the few minutes I was in the ring,” Zgonina said. “[Nook would] stop, and sometimes I would fall. It was a comedy for everyone, but I was determined.

And Zgonina understood this. Over the past eight years, he estimates that he has entered some 80 shows with his dogs, scoring a number of wins and a few close losses.

“We were usually the only ones [Neapolitan mastiff] it came up, so yeah, we won a lot,” Zgonina said with a laugh. “We beat a few dogs, but I think it was more about me than the dog.”

Nook died in 2020 and Lulu only lived 19 months, both due to heart issues. It wasn’t until March that Zgonina got another mastiff, Hank, which he bought from a breeder in Argentina.

Hank flew to John F. Kennedy International Airport, where Zgonina met him. Nine-month-old and already weighing 135 pounds, Hank has already shown up once, in Maryland during the NFL’s offseason. Never mind that no other mastiffs showed up that day and the not-so-little Hank was guaranteed a ribbon. He is unbeaten at 1-0.

The Commanders promoted Zgonina to defensive line coach this month, but he intends to maintain his two passions. He hopes to find more classes to train Hank for during the season and he plans to attend more dog shows during the offseason.

Football is his competitive solution and his therapeutic release, as are his puppies.

” It’s a team sport. That’s what I thrive on,” Zgonina said. “I am not a golfer. I am not a tennis player. I’m a footballer and it’s a team sport. So it’s me and the dog working together.