Strength made perfect through weakness.
Ten years after professing those words at his Park Street Church baptism, 27-year-old Zack McLeod found himself living his favorite Biblical verse on the 50-yard line at rain-soaked Russell Field. Nor’easter winds threatened his balance atop the soggy turf. A brown rainsuit covered him head-to-toe, save for the wide grin across his face.
From across the field, he caught the gaze of Buckingham Browne & Nichols football coach Mike Willey.
Willey jogged across the field, stopping halfway to pick up a drenched ball. Even in the pouring rain, the excitement built when he gathered his Knights for a bit of unfinished business following a 48-8 Independent School League victory over Thayer in late October.
Turning, Willey handed off the game ball to the enduring symbol of his program, Zack McLeod.
“We talk about thriving in adversity and attacking adversity. Zack McLeod’s a perfect example of attacking adversity.”
BB&N (7-1) is hosting Avon Old Farms (7-1) in the NEPSAC Kevin Driscoll Bowl on Saturday at 1, at Russell Field.
Even with the majority of his short-term memory lost, Zack experienced déjà vu 10 years in the making.
In 2008, as a 16-year-old starting cornerback at BB&N, McLeod suffered an acute left subdural hematoma three plays after scoring his first varsity touchdown in a preseason scrimmage against Wayland.
Zack lapsed into a coma, fighting for his life.
Bouts of pneumonia and numerous surgeries on his skullcap put his prognosis in doubt. However, his teammates kept Zack’s battle in their hearts over the ensuing three months. The teammates he left behind played harder and harder with every step of his recovery.
“Zack was our spiritual leader,” remembers former BB&N coach John Papas.
“Quite honestly, he could handle adversity better than anybody on that team purely because of his faith in God. It’s quite eerie that this was the person this injury happened to.”
Prior to the incident, Zack knew how to inspire his peers. Upon returning home from a service trip to South Africa, he professed a desire to return one day and give his life to serving others. At his baptism, he quoted the Bible verse from 2 Corinthians 12:9:
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
Zack’s words sounded wise beyond his years. His humility and faith set him apart from most boys his age.
“I coached 38 years of high school football and you hate to anoint a kid the nicest guy, the nicest kid that you coached,” said Papas.
“I coached thousands of guys, but this kid was unequivocally the nicest.”
So, when Zack fell, the rest of the team knew they needed to step up. Zack’s father, Pat, found a way to accompany Zack to BB&N’s 2008 championship game against Lawrence Academy at Russell Field. Despite losing his short-term memory and normal cognitive skills, Zack recovered enough to walk again. Trailing at halftime, Zack’s teammates found new energy when they saw Zack waving in the corridor.
Nobody wanted to play on the field more than Zack according to Papas. The team rallied and beat Lawrence Academy with their disabled teammate by their side.
Ten years removed from their 2008 championship, the faces at BB&N have changed. Papas retired in 2013. However, Willey, who worked as the team’s offensive line coach in 2008, stayed. To this day, he still believes Zack motivates the team.
“When he’s there his positive influence on our players just goes a long way,” said Willey.
“Those guys, when they see Zack, they give him a big hug. You can almost see now that they’re flying around a little extra hard.”
Carrying on a tradition started by Papas, Willey keeps Zack a member of the BB&N football team every season. He even gave Zack his own jersey number — 16 — that he wears on the sideline of every BB&N home game.
“[Coach Willey] tells the story of Zack and introduces him to all his players,” explained Tammy McLeod, Zack’s mother.
“He considers him part of the team. He would love him at every practice but Zack’s schedule is so busy that he actually can’t go to every one.”
Busy proves an understatement.
Enrolled in a day program at Boston University, Zack takes four college courses during the week. His courses, adapted for those who suffer from severe brain injuries, establish a set routine outside of his individual speech therapy sessions. His adult-rehabilitation home in Brookline allows Zack to prepare dinner and clean up after.
Whenever he attends a game or practice, Zack fills the team’s water bottles and energizes the team with an excited cry. The team feeds off the energy. Willey calls it contagious.
“You talk about a guy who, when he played, definitely a nice guy and an outward thinker,” said Willey.
“But, when Zack played, he wanted to win football games. You still see that competitiveness in him.”
Of course, the sight of Zack on the sideline gives Zack’s parents mixed emotions. Both work as chaplains at Harvard University and understand the undeniable link between football and irreversible brain injury.
“It’s obviously something that we still wrestle with,” said Pat McLeod.
“But, still, there are things about this game that are pretty unbelievable and almost irreplaceable.”
Pat still refers to his family as a “football” family, after all. He played college football at Montana State while his brother Mike played for the Green Bay Packers.
“I don’t know any other game quite like it, where you can get so many different body types together in one place, working for this one goal. And then it creates this unbelievably tight community.”
This season, BB&N football finds itself in the midst of another ISL championship run at 7-1. Injuries to star running backs Zachary Cyr and Salvatore Malignaggi plagued the team from one week to another.
Back at Russell Field, the rain falls harder and harder. But the players pay no mind. They celebrate with Zack and his game ball, jumping up and down in a massive crowd. Zack cries out in delight, holding the game ball high over his head.
If Zack taught them anything, the rain passes — if not that night, then the next. It’s what sets them apart. It’s what keeps their strength perfect.