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Courageous corner

Zack McLeod (center) cheers at BB&N’s senior picture. “Zack is the nicest kid who ever went to this school,’’ said co-class president Emma Sagan. Zack McLeod (center) cheers at BB&N’s senior picture. “Zack is the nicest kid who ever went to this school,’’ said co-class president Emma Sagan. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)
By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / June 8, 2010

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As the huddle broke, there was a wobble, a stumble, then cornerback Zack McLeod, 16, tall and thin, went down.

Football coach John Papas of Buckingham Browne & Nichols ran onto the field.

“He was getting to his feet so I said to him, ‘You all right, Zack?’ ’’ And he goes, ‘Coach, I’m fine,’ then collapses in my arms. From there it’s kind of a blur.’’

The date was Sept. 5, 2008. BB&N was scrimmaging at Wayland. Earlier in the game, McLeod stepped in front of a receiver, picked off a pass in full stride, and scampered into the end zone.

Several generations of McLeods were going to be very proud.

His father, Pat, played for Montana State from 1979-82. His uncle, Mike, played for the Green Bay Packers in 1984. His grandfather, Jim, was a legendary high school coach in Wyoming.

But instead of joy, the touchdown is a footnote on the day Zack McLeod almost died. There was fear as Zack lay on the grass unconscious, his brain swelling from a traumatic injury.

“It was the most terrifying moment of any of our lives,’’ said cocaptain Jimmy McCafferty.

In a quick decision that saved his life, McLeod was airlifted to Boston Medical Center.

“When Zack left the scene I turned to the doctor and said, ‘How serious is this?’ And she said, ‘Well, he’s probably got about a 5 percent chance of survival,’ ’’ said Papas.

Zack’s parents rushed from a worship service to Boston Medical Center. Their son was in critical condition in a medically induced coma.

“We just laid our hands on him and said goodbye,’’ said Zack’s father. “Peace. God’s love, God’s peace.’’

Surgeons took out part of Zack’s skull to remove a blood clot and drain blood trapped between the brain and skull.

The operation was deemed a success but complications arose.

Zack’s system was starting to shut down. The brain swelling increased. Surgeons said there was no time for second opinions.

“If we don’t operate he’ll die,’’ they told his parents.

Zack’s parents and his two brothers and sister prayed nonstop.

“They said even if he gets through this his quality of life is going to be minimal,’’ Papas said.

A website, www.CaringBridge.org, updated Zack’s progress. It has logged almost 200,000 hits.

Zack was in intensive care for five weeks. He was fed through a tube and lost 45 pounds. But he survived and made slow but steady progress.

A toe wiggle one week, a hand squeeze the next.

By all accounts, Zack McLeod was different than your average high school football player.

‘The nicest kid’
Last summer, McLeod worked with AIDS orphans and disabled orphans in South Africa on a field visit with his parents, both chaplains at Harvard University. He listened to worship music on his iPod and scribbled passages from the Bible on his bedroom walls.

He never accepted a compliment without returning it with even more praise. Students organized a Return-the-Compliment Day in Zack’s honor when he was fighting for his life.

“Zack is the nicest kid who ever went to this school, hands down,’’ said co-class president Emma Sagan, weeping after watching Zack recently receive the school’s Director’s Cup award for his courage. “Before the injury. After the injury. You ask any kid and that’s what they’ll say.’’

He never sulked on a football field when criticized in practice. He only tried harder. He even made Papas clean up his language.

“I’m an old-school football coach,’’ said Papas. “He’s the only kid I used to apologize to when I swore. He’d be, ‘It’s OK, Coach.’ ’’

After the injury, Papas searched for answers in a video taken from the field roof at Wayland.

On the play before he collapsed, the 6-foot, 155-pound McLeod did nothing unusual, Papas said.

“He just comes in and gets involved in a gang tackle,’’ Papas said. “He doesn’t hit him with his head or anything. There is not a lot of contact. Doctors have no idea when it happened and how it happened. He was a tenacious tackler but a safe tackler.’’

Zack was diagnosed with a left acute subdural hematoma, defined as a collection of blood on the surface of the brain.

Helping hands
Zack was at the $35,000-a-year prep school on a 90 percent scholarship. Despite insurance, medical and out-of-pocket expenses were staggering.

“Our community was awesome,’’ said Papas. “As soon as it happened, the football community, the parents gave a lot of money, people helped with medical bills, BB&N parents took care of every meal and had it delivered for the first six months. Every one!’’

They also got groceries, sent flowers, accompanied the family to appointments, sent poems, made murals, and wore “Stay Strong’’ T-shirts. Tom Brady signed a jersey for Zack. Ray Allen did the same.

“They just smothered him with love,’’ said Pat.

“We just can’t thank everyone enough,’’ said his mother, Tammy. “The support has been unbelievable.’’

A three-on-three basketball tournament organized by the school raised $8,000 last year and $13,500 this year.

“It’s truly amazing because those numbers are supposed to be going down,’’ said Papas.

There was even a minor miracle two weeks after the injury that his father videotaped.

“He hadn’t said a word yet, and Tammy started singing a song he taught us in South Africa,’’ said Pat. “It was one of his favorite worship songs and he started singing. He never did it before and he hasn’t been able to really do it since. It just came out of nowhere.’’

He spent four months in intensive rehabilitation at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where they taught him how to eat and walk again. The piece of skull that had been removed was reattached.

The football team kept Zack in their thoughts and prayers. The team captains decided to break every huddle shouting “Zack’’.

They were unbeaten in 2008, going 8-0.

Zack even made a surprise visit at the Super Bowl — against doctors orders — waving from a window in the fieldhouse at Russell Field in Cambridge.

“It was very emotional,’’ said Papas, “because they wheeled him in while we were walking out on Russell Field. The kids were saluting him.’’

BB&N won the NEPSAC Class A Super Bowl and ISL title, defeating Lawrence Academy, 20-13.

Zack’s teammates presented him with the game ball at Spaulding.

Last season the players voted him a captain and he attended every game, wearing his No. 16 and running out for the coin toss.

An inspiration
Studies say that brain-injured patients lose 90 percent of their friends within a year. But in Zack’s case, that number is zero. Even though Zack no longer attends BB&N, he comes home each weekend from the May Center for Education and Neurorehabilitation in Brockton to see his family and friends.

In April, Zack received the Courageous Player Award from the Massachusetts Football Coaches Association. Although two captains spoke for him, Zack high-fived all the coaches en route to the dais. He received a heartfelt standing ovation that lasted several minutes.

“I’ve been around a long time,’’ said reporter Marvin Pave, who started at the Globe in 1967. “And I’ve never seen anything like that.’’

McCafferty, who has a scholarship to play football for Boston College next fall, got misty-eyed after hugging Zack.

“It’s been a life-defining moment for all of us,’’ said McCafferty. “Just seeing him get better and better. No one could have expected this. He’s one of the guys again. He’s been an inspiration to all of us.’’

Zack even passed the MCAS in mathematics.

But his parents cautioned that his short-term memory has not returned and he still has trouble speaking and swallowing.

“There is a lot of stuff in his mind but he can’t get it out,’’ said Pat. “But he comprehends everything. His personality is the same, his love of life.’’

Zack will be honored Thursday at commencement ceremonies. A bittersweet experience for the McLeods because Zack, now 18, should have graduated with his senior class. Still, he never complains.

“He’s actually doing better than most college students because if love for God and love for people, if that’s what a lot of being human is, he gets A’s,’’ said his mother. “He’s more human than most people because he loves people.’’

Papas said the entire school learned a lesson they will never forget.

“All of a sudden kids who never really cared about anyone but themselves genuinely found that the most important part of their life is someone who is not them,’’ said Papas. “That’s no knock on our kids, that’s kids in general. I think they were amazed how important someone else could mean to them.’’

Words to live by
At his baptism, just 12 days before his accident, Zack spoke of being a “broken person.’’

“We had just got back from South Africa and there was a heaviness about his spirit,’’ said his father. “He found that the disabled orphaned children were even more marginalized than the AIDS kids.

“Zack just wanted to drop out of school and adopt disabled orphans.’’

A week before his injury, Zack was standing in the kitchen and just looked up at his father with a soft smile.

“He says, ‘Dad, this sounds weird but I wonder if God would ever have me become one of them.’ I said Zack, ‘Just know that if ever anything happened to you, just know we would love you just as much as we loved those kids last summer.’ And now he has, and he is way more happy than anyone I know.’’

To contribute, write to the Zack McLeod Special Needs Trust, 1626 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138