Revisiting A Friend

They are the most unlikely victims, soccer players felled by heart attacks the world around.

Italian midfielder Piermario Morosini died April 14 during a Serie B game in Livorno. He was 25 years old.

A few days later, a player in the Indian A division dropped dead on the pitch. Five years before Sevilla winger Antonio Puerta died on a Spanish pitch, another victim of a heart attack. Cameroon’s Marc-Vivien Foe fell in a 2003 game.

There is no way to record how many players have died in lower leagues around the world.

This story is about one of the lucky ones, a player who was chosen but never called to play for Toronto FC. It’s about a different form of grief.

Zac Herold was TFC’s first choice in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. The team had traded their first rounder. Drafted 22nd overall, the 17-year-old defender figured to contribute for years to come.

But in the run-up to training camp, doctors found a heart defect. Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) causes a thickening of a portion of the heart.  While extremely rare, the altered heart can fail under stress. There is no hope of medication or surgery to alleviate the condition. Zac's pro soccer career, shaped with Generation Adidas, was over before he played his first MLS game.

There is a constant in sports. It is redemption. There is always another game, another chance to set things right or make them better. Imagine the reward from years of dedication sifting like sand through your fingers.

“I spent my entire life getting ready for this,” he said from Tampa. “I feel like I finally made it and it’s ripped away.”

At 19, Zac sometimes feels like an old man. He can’t trust his body and can’t do much more than a stiff walk.  A Florida cardiologist put his future in perspective. “You can play two sports,” he said. “Golf and chess.”

His mother, joking about the cardiologist’s recommendation, told Zac she would buy him golf clubs. “Mom, if you do,” he said, "I’ll throw them out.”

Soccer, pro soccer, had been Zac’s goal since he was eight-years old.  He advanced through club teams, eagerly accepted coaching and embraced the lifestyle necessary to optimize his ability.

“I didn’t experience the high school life a lot of my friends did.  I didn’t go to my high school prom. But I was up at 6:30 am getting ready to play with the some of the best young soccer players in America. I loved it.”

Zac is from Port St. Lucie, Florida. He went home and found a void where his life used to be.  His mom Beth searched for a way to help her son. There were difficult times.

“The last two years it was a massive struggle for her to deal with me,” Zac said. “I had no ambition. I would just watch soccer all day on television, maybe play FIFA soccer (a video game) and call it a day.”

“I listened to poor Zac, how terrible it is for Zac for a while,” said Beth. “I wasn’t patient with him. We went to a sports psychologist who told me that Zac had to grieve. It’s like your marriage ending and people say ‘just get over it.’ It doesn’t work that way. That was a hard thing for me to accept but that’s what I had to do.”

Zac’s prospects seemed to brighten this fall when he landed a spot as an assistant coach with the University of South Florida’s men’s soccer team in Tampa.  It didn’t last.

“I just couldn’t handle it,” Zac said. “I still want so badly to play the game of soccer and I was watching players my age running onto the pitch.  I was thinking about it 24 hours a day.”
Shock eventually whirlpooled into depression. For the last several weeks Zac has used anti-depressants. The fog in his mind is beginning to clear but he is still trapped in the cleave between what he thought he would be and what he will become.

Now that Zac can no longer run, Beth is. “I never ran in my life but I did two half-marathons,” she said. “I wear a shirt that says ‘I’m running for Zac’ and ‘I’m running against HCM.’  People ask me about the t-shirt and I tell them about Zac and about HCM.”

What makes Zac Herold so vulnerable, his searing honesty in describing his sadness, will someday be transformed into his salvation. Truthfulness is his best weapon against the grief of losing his life’s purpose. He is a survivor struggling to survive but when he is better, when he is ready, he will act with the same conviction that brought him to the cusp of his lifelong ambition.

Zac landed a summer internship at the office of his agent.  He isn’t sure he will be able to get close to the sport again. His heart has been twice broken, but Zac Herald, unflinching, will not hide his grief.  
“It’s good to talk about it,” he said about this interview.  “This is helping to push me forward.”