In a previous post (College Football Recruiting According to Mom), I divulged how we stumbled into football recruiting rather late in Zach's high school career. However, now that he appeared to be on several folks' radars in the spring of his junior year, he was receiving invitations to summer camps. We were told that there is where they'll see his abilities and get to know him as a person.
Summer camps are where you can get offers -- we were told. So, we started lining them up and filling up the family's calendar.
Everyone who knew Zach and who saw him play wasn't surprised that college football programs were interested in him. He was frequently recognized for his talents with awards and selections. He was a leader on and off the field. He possessed a high grade point average and one of the very best attitudes and work ethics.
However, on paper, really most of what mattered to college coaches for an offensive lineman were two little things called height and weight. His junior year, Zach stood at 6 feet 2 inches and weighed in around 275 pounds.
Yes, that's big. To some, it's just not big enough.
Since his height wasn't extraordinary, it was hard for anyone to give him a second glance unless they could see him in action. Before we could get to the summer camps, we were told we needed to make our rounds at the spring combines.
Zach's Senior Highlights
which became the only glimpse to college coaches of what he could do on the field
Most of the combines, in my opinion, appeared to be another way for the recruiting websites and services to make money off of starry-eyed prospects and their bewildered parents. We definitely fit that mold and dutifully accompanied our son to a few in search of getting "stars" added to his profile or of garnering the attention of someone who mattered.
At this point, it was all smoke and mirrors to us. We learned a few things, and Zach gained some exposure.
At one combine in Atlanta, I happily drove Zach over on a Friday eager to get away from the dirty dishes in the sink and the incessant trips to his younger brothers' little league practices. It was such a rare occasion to spend alone time with my 17-year-old man/child, but I quickly realized that I was out of my comfort zone.
On that Saturday morning of the combine, I adequately fed my son and arrived at the site in plenty of time. Yet, because we parked on the wrong side of the building and because there was no signage (ahem), Zach and I were of the last ones to walk across an eerily quiet gym full of players and parents for the opening session.
And of course, I wore my high heels. Click, click, click, click, click.
Zach was nervous about the combine and a little embarrassed of me, and I had no idea how to counsel him for such an occasion. As they divided into positions, he was clearly the smallest offensive linemen in the group of about 30 "big uglies," and I started worrying. Plus, I had no idea that this was an all-day affair. (Again, organization is not at the top of the list of any recruiting event I ever attended anywhere.)
These football parents were serious...and experienced. They donned shirts with their child's football jersey number. They carried stadium seats or chairs and ice chests. And, they knew each other. I had my purse, a jacket and my cell phone. I knew no one.
Fortunately, God blessed me with the gift of gab, and I began striking up conversations with these dads -- because not a lot of moms attended combines. Plus, the ones who were there looked like they could hurt me (or at least wanted to). The dads proudly would tout and point out who their sons were and how many offers they had, and more importantly, they told me who was who watching them all on the field.
"This guy's from Rivals. This one is from ESPN, and that guy over there is from Scouts.com," they would say. And then, the boys would get a break, and just like Rocky's trainer, Mickey, the dads would run over to the fence with a chilled towel or a Powerade -- dispensing gridiron knowledge and wisdom while simultaneously handing them life-giving supplies. You could see it in the dads' eyes that they longed to be on the field with their sons.
I made a mental note to myself to bring a cooler next time, but unfortunately, there was never a next time.
I did clippity-clop over to the fence to tell my son that I was praying for him. The only thing I felt I could adequately do for him when I truly felt helpless and hopeless. I just didn't want him to get hurt. Then, it was as if God Almighty Himself gave me an encouraging word for Zach.
"Be a stump, Zach!" I said.
"What?!" he replied with a puzzled and slightly annoyed expression.
I explained to my son that he needed to use his height to his advantage. He essentially was going head-to-head with these massive creatures who towered over him by as much as 4-5 inches. I told him that he needed to plant himself firmly in the ground, use his unique perspective as leverage and not let them budge him. Be a stump.
Whatever I said -- or moreover -- whatever he did must have worked because as the combine progressed and more and more players were pulled out of play, there were only six offensive linemen picked for the all-star team that day. My son was one of them.
Zach, his dad and I continued to be encouraged that through participating in a handful of spring combines and completing online prospective student athlete forms, we were on someone's mailing list at least. Evidently, there were a few programs who were hearing about him through word of mouth as well since there seemed to be a steady procession of coaches coming to spring practice to see him that first week. The word on the street was that there was more to come.
Then...I received that fateful call on Monday, April 30 around 3:45 p.m. A young female trainer on the other end instructed me that I needed to come to the school. My son had been injured at football practice. As the daughter of a former Alabama State Trooper, I knew not to ask questions by phone which I could do nothing about nor could I witness for myself. Therefore, I calmly asked her which son she was referring to since two of my boys were in the middle of spring practice on opposite sides of town.
My heart sank when she informed me to head to the high school.
Upon arrival with my eight-year-old in the back seat, I watched his coaches haul Zach off the field in a John Deere Gator as practice continued in the background. He kept his composure with a few grimaces and understandable yelps as I peered into the furrowed faces of the football coaches and staff. The head athletic trainer announced to me, "It's a simple fracture to the tibia and most likely the fibula." Then, he opened the air cast for me to see Zach's warped leg underneath.
I almost threw up.
To my dismay, the coaches started loading Zach's massive frame into my backseat, and with his youngest brother keeping watch over his broken limb, we made the slow and careful trek to the hospital. Carrying on a few conversations at once, I instructed Harrison to not let Zach's leg roll off the seat while reassuring Zach who was clearly going into shock. Meanwhile, my brain was trying to process the route with the least amount of turns and bumps as my shaky hands attempted to drive and call Scott.
Time in the emergency room seemed to pass in my memory as a blur, and early the next morning, Zach went into surgery under the care of Dr. Lyle Cain of Andrews Sports Medicine in our hometown of Birmingham. The day after surgery, Zach reported to Champion Sports Medicine for physical therapy to begin the long road back to recovery.
There were several dark nights that discouraged us all. Then, the morning would break, and we would take on the day's challenges never mentioning the doubts we discussed the previous night.
At the time of the injury, all we could think about was Zach's overall health. Of course, we thought of his football career in the back of our minds, but Dr. Cain's success rate and confidence as the team surgeon for the University of Alabama put our fears mostly at ease. What we didn't know then was the timing of his injury may have been best for his high school team but probably was the worst for Zach as an individual college prospect.
All summer camps he had been invited to were cancelled as Zach headed into his senior season. We heard from very few coaches all summer. Mistakingly, we thought he shouldn't make an appearance on crutches or in his boot on the various campuses. In hindsight, we should've sent him on in order for the coaches to get to know him as a person and to remain on their radar. He could've kept up with them by sending them films later once he fully recovered.
We didn't know what we were doing. But the story (thankfully) doesn't end there.
By the end of July, Zach walked with a slight limp but remained resolute to return to the field by the first game of his senior season in August. And return, he did.
As a team captain, Zach helped lead the Homewood Patriots to their best season in seven years -- with a surprising and heart-breaking loss in the first round of the 5A state playoffs. His steadfast focus was getting his team into the playoffs and proving to the college programs who were interested in him that he maintained his value even after his injury.
During last year's college football season, Zach received many campus invitations for unofficials -- what I liked to call "social visits." They were fun and exciting, and we brought various friends and family along for the ride. However, after a few, they became exhausting and a seemingly unproductive component in an already busy season of life.
By the time early November rolled around, we kept getting the same story from several programs which had expressed previous interest in Zach. Evidently, there was no room for him on their "board," but they still were looking at him.
It was like hearing the "let's be friends" speech from your crush.
Zach would get discouraged one moment, get a promising call from out of the blue, and be back with a spring in his step. The double talk seemed slicker and more confusing than most used car salesmen, and I was ready for it all to be over with. At first, we would counsel Zach on what to say (and not to say) to coaches. Then, we just sort of listened in and made sure he didn't get himself into a pickle. After a while, we were over it and went to bed.
By Christmas, we couldn't wait for February 6. We just wanted a decision and wanted the recruiting process to be done.
In a future post, I'll tell a few fun recruiting stories from the road, explain what Zach experienced when he competed with and against some of the nation's best recruits in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game and lay out how it all came down to the wire for us last February before National Signing Day.