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No jail time for Zorich

Former Chicago Bears player Chris Zorich leaves Dirksen Federal Building Chicago after sentencing Friday afternoon. Zorich received three years probation.

Former Chicago Bears player Chris Zorich leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago after sentencing Friday afternoon. Zorich received three years probation. | Michael R. Schmidt~ For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 14, 2013 6:10AM

Former Chicago Bears star Chris Zorich dodged a potential prison term Friday when a federal judge sentenced him instead to 36 months of probation for failing to file his federal income taxes.

The 44-year-old former defensive tackle — who was an All-American and national champion in his college days at Notre Dame — nervously told the judge that he was “obviously very sorry” that he failed to file tax returns on income of $1 million between 2006 and 2009.

He faced the possibility of as much as 16 months in prison for the misdemeanor following his guilty plea in March, but his lawyer Matthias Lydon successfully argued that U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel Martin should give him probation. Lydon said Zorich had gone through “serious financial hardship” since he agreed to pay back the $71,000 he owes the IRS and that “his good works and helping nature are well-known and have been lifelong.”

Martin agreed that Zorich’s “exemplary life” before he failed to pay his taxes and his “good works” helping the needy, taken together with his efforts to rectify his mistakes and his “very sincere remorse,” meant he didn’t deserve a prison term.

He noted that although prosecutors had asked for a prison term of around one year, Zorich’s background meant “this is not a case where anyone is out for blood”

Even during his professional playing career with the Bears from 1991 to 1996 and the Washington Redskins in 1997, Zorich was known for his charity work.

But it was problems with his charity, The Chris Zorich Foundation, that lead to his disgrace after his life began to unravel in 2002.

After he went through a divorce and failed the bar exam, his cousin, Barbara Singer, who had managed Zorich’s foundation, died after a long bout with cervical cancer.

The charity — which helped the needy, providing turkeys to the poor at Thanksgiving, awarding Notre Dame scholarships and delivering flowers and gifts to mothers living in homeless shelters on Mother’s Day — failed to submit an annual report that year, and the state canceled the foundation’s registration two years later.

Even so, the foundation continued to receive donations. But Zorich failed to report income he took from it, as well as money he got from the Bears, the University of Notre Dame — where he worked in the athletic department from 2008 to 2010 — and from a Chicago law firm.

The Rev. Michael Pfleger — who has Zorich working for his church’s school, St. Sabina Academy on the South Side, as athletic director — was among those who urged the judge to to give the former football star a lenient sentence, saying in a letter that Zorich had “a heart of gold.”

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