The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Football isn’t Jeff Zgonina’s only passion. He’s also partial to dog shows.

Washington Commanders defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina sits at his home with his Neapolitan mastiff, Hank. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

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

Now, more than a decade after he retired, 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 sidelines as only a man his size can.

But in May 2016, Zgonina met his match: Squishy, a 175-pound Neapolitan mastiff the coach was tasked with leading around a ring at a dog show in Stillwater, Okla.

Squishy, owned by another handler in the show, made a “squishy” while prancing around, garnering the looks and laughs of those in the audience as Zgonina surrendered and stood in a yellow sport coat until Squishy finished his, uh, “squish.” Then Zgonina patted him on the stomach and praised him.

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

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 the blow-drying or hair spray. Just a bit of shine for his mastiffs’ coats and an attention to detail that mirrored his playing career.

Zgonina is a standout of sorts on the dog show circuit, in part because of his massive 6-foot-2 frame but also his story. How many handlers have a Super Bowl ring? The hobby he discovered when his playing days ended has filled a competitive void and become a form of therapy for him as a member of a new team.

“He told me a couple 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 it. But he talks about it all the time.”

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

So when the Texans played the Bears in November 2012, Zgonina went to the game and revisited the coaching conversation with Kubiak, who offered him a job on Houston’s staff. Zgonina’s gig as assistant defensive line coach lasted only one season; Kubiak was let go, and Zgonina wasn’t retained. He struggled for two years finding another job in coaching.

One day, after hearing his young kids beg constantly for a puppy, Zgonina saw they were watching “Dogs 101,” an Animal Planet show that goes in depth on various breeds and was featuring the Neapolitan mastiff.

“I said, ‘If I ever get a dog, it’ll be that one,’ ” Zgonina recalled. “I liked the way it looked. It was big. So I went online looking for dogs and found one in Ohio, not knowing anything about dogs. I bought the dog online, and a week later I went and picked it up.”

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

Soon, Zgonina and Nook enrolled in classes back in Houston to learn how to show.

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

Zgonina befriended other handlers, who shared tips and tricks of the trade. He showed their dogs in addition to his own for the extra reps, cleaned crates and helped out wherever he could — not so different from an NFL rookie aiming for one of those coveted spots on a 53-man roster.

At the beginning, Zgonina was just thrown in the ring and forced to figure things out on the fly. But the more he competed around other handlers, the more he shared stories from his playing days, winning everyone over.

“When they got shorthanded they were like, ‘Hey, can you show this dog for me?’ [I said:] ‘Yeah, sure. What do I do?’ ” Zgonina recalled. “And they’d kind of tell me that each breed shows a little different at times. So I just started doing that, and then they saw I was confident enough and I was doing a decent enough job, they just kept asking me. . . . I’ve been showing small dogs, big dogs. I would do anything because I just want to be in the ring.”

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

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Combs, whom Zgonina described as a close friend, is a multiple best in show winner.

“She scares the s--- out of me,” Zgonina said. “I mean, she’s the sweetest person in the world, but she’s very good at what she does. It took me a couple of years to show a dog for her. We always talk, and we’re friends, but she’s intimidating. She intimidates me to this day.”

Zgonina learned a lot from his mentors, much like he did in football. He learned dogs sense their owners’ nerves and anxieties, so he could never get too pumped, like he does in pass-rush drills with the Commanders, or else the dog would feel it too and become “a complete wacko,” he said.

Yet Zgonina also had an advantage perhaps only a professional athlete could ever have: He can tune out the noise.

“I had a handler say to me one time they couldn’t believe how relaxed I was in the ring,” he said. “… I just said I don’t notice anybody, because when I played, I didn’t notice anybody. I go in and it’s me, the dog and the judge. And that’s it.”

Lulu, Zgonina’s female mastiff, seemed destined to show. But Zgonina quickly realized Nook, who at 170 pounds was a leaner Neapolitan mastiff, had neither the interest in showing nor the physical traits needed to consistently win. That turned every weekend into a challenge for his owner. Judges look for conformation of a dog to see if it fits the breed guidelines: Does it have a good “topline,” which is the profile line that extends from the base of a dog’s tail to the shoulders? Does it move like its breed should? Does it behave well?

Nook didn’t have a great topline. He didn’t move smoothly, either. And he would fight Zgonina in the ring, so much so that the former lineman often sweated through his sport coat.

“My biceps would cramp up for the couple of minutes I was in the ring,” Zgonina said. “[Nook would] stop, and I’d fall over sometimes. It was comedy to everybody, but I was determined.”

And Zgonina did figure it out. Over the past eight years, he estimates he has competed in some 80 shows with his dogs, collecting a number of wins and some close losses.

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

Nook died in 2020, and Lulu lived for only 19 months, both because of heart issues. It wasn’t until March that Zgonina got another mastiff, Hank, who he purchased from a breeder in Argentina.

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

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

Football is his competitive fix and his therapeutic release, and so too are his pups.

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

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