Monday, January 12, 2015

It Happened at Legion Field

Zac warming up the Packers before a game

It was a year ago in January that Zac resigned from his position as Assistant Strength Coach with the Packers. He had been offered the opportunity to work with his former coach, a close friend and mentor, and to become Head Strength Coach at his Alma mater back in Alabama.  The Blazer football program had not done well over the past several years, and the school was ready to make some changes.  He was up for the challenge.

And there was something else.  He had seen and understood the pressures put on professional athletes unprepared for the accolades, the money, the fame.  Even prior to his time in Green Bay, while working with athletes at a sports' complex in California, he had approached the owners on more than one occasion about including a program that addressed these very concerns.  They expressed some interest, but in spite his efforts, it didn't happen.

Zac's job as a strength and conditioning coach is to get the players physically prepared for the football field. But the desire to mold lives, not just bodies, never went away.  So when the opportunity came to do both at the university level, it didn't take long to make up his mind. He met with the Packers' head coach Mike McCarthy and asked to be released from his contract.

Zac back at UAB

On Valentine's Day the newly assembled members of the  UAB football team gathered on Legion Field in Birmingham and began running up and down the bleachers of the stadium as part of a conditioning drill. Except for one, Tim Alexander, who sits in a wheelchair. An auto accident while he was still in high school cut short his aspirations to play college ball.  But he had approached the previous coach, Garrick McGee, asking if he could work out with the team. His infectious, positive spirit convinced the coach and he was welcomed, even getting his own locker and number.    

Zac looked down at Tim, now alone on the field. Upper-body workouts were one thing.  He did push-ups and leg lifts everyday and could bench press right along with the rest of them. The guy was strong. But he'd never have the chance to run those steps with his teammates. Something stirred inside of Zac.  "Do you want to go up to the top?" he hollered down.  Tim didn't hesitate.  "Yes sir!" At that, Zac lifted him onto his back and began the long climb up the steps of the stadium.

This was no small feat.  Tim is well over six feet tall and weighs no less than 250 pounds.   Legion Field is a large stadium that holds more than 70,000 spectators.  The stands rise high. After a few minutes Zac began to feel his legs shake. But he continued on, hoping and praying he could finish what he had started.  And then it happened. Tim's teammates began to converge on them, surrounding them, doing what they could to lighten the load as together they continued to move forward.  Upward. To the top.

Zac carrying Tim on his back up the steps of Legion Field
The team knew that something extraordinary had taken place that day in Legion Field.  Their new strength coach had unintentionally demonstrated through this one selfless act what they as a team could accomplish as they endeavored together, unified.  There, gathered with those who had carried him, Tim movingly spoke the mantra,  "One team-one goal."  The process of molding had begun.

Life has a way of throwing things at us when we are least expecting them.  The UAB team had made tremendous progress.  Physically, the team was bigger, stronger.  The Blazers had become competitive, playing their best football in a decade, and were in contention for a bowl game.  To realize that this had been accomplished in less than a year makes it all the more amazing.   But then the unsettling rumors began. There was talk of shutting down the program.  Permanently.

Consoling Tim
Eventually that would be the outcome. Some said it was the money.  Others said it was politics.   But Zac would stand with his boys, march with them, even go before the Birmingham city council, fighting for them to the end.   And then when it was inevitably over, he would grieve with them.

This past weekend Zac received word that he has been recognized as the top Strength and Conditioning coach of any university in the country. The press release calls him the heart and soul of the program and goes on to say that Zac physically transformed his guys, making them bigger, stronger, more competitive.  He also inspired them to believe that they could win, that they were made to be champions.  But most importantly, he showed them what it is to come together and help carry a brother.  It happened that day in Legion Field.