PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Zack Gilbert’s football future was hanging in the balance.
A heart condition discovered shortly before the start of his freshman training camp at Pitt had suddenly stolen his dream of playing Division I football.
Despite receiving clearance from a doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Zack was denied the chance to rejoin his teammates by the Pitt administration. They determined, for reasons that are plausible, the risk was too great for his health.
“They said even though I got cleared, they just couldn’t take a chance,” Gilbert said at the time of the news.
Determined to play again, Zack had resumed training while waiting for Pitt’s decision, waking up every morning at 6 a.m. to run through the streets of Oakland followed by an hour of lifting in the Petersen workout facility. The news devastated him.
I wanna say Thank You to The Pitt community.
I’m looking forward to what God has in store for me next✊????✊???? pic.twitter.com/eC1lPUX1pH
— Z???? (@ZackAttack_715) January 31, 2018
The son of former Aliquippa and Panther great Sean Gilbert was clearly frustrated but would not be deterred. Zack asked for his release and Pitt granted it to him in January.
Even upon returning home to Charlotte, North Carolina, to weigh his options, Zack continued to train with his father, a 12-year NFL veteran.
“I wanted to go back home and be with my nephew, to be with my family while a lot of things were happening,” Zack said.
Schools were pining for his services, but not the programs Zack desired. Like any confident athlete, he believed in his abilities. He saw the impact his cousin Mark Gilbert, a defensive back at Duke, had on the field and wanted the same.
Not until he met Arizona Western College head football coach Tom Minnick did Zack ever consider JUCO. Minnick starred at DuPage College, a two-year school in Illinois, and has spent his entire coaching career on the junior college football circuit. He convinced Zack Arizona Western, “could be the best route to get me back to the world I knew.”
Minnick also promised the staff and trainers would closely monitor Zack’s condition, an important caveat. Zack signed on and embarked west to resume his playing career.
He made his long awaited college debut on Aug. 24 against New Mexico Military Institute, recording two stops. Arizona Western narrowly lost but being on the field felt like a victory in itself.
Check out my updated highlights – https://t.co/eT1AQtmri5
— Z???? (@ZackAttack_715) October 14, 2018
“Unreal,” Zack describe. “I love to think that being here at JUCO…it’s like new again. I hadn’t touched the field since high school. So being out here on the field is an unreal feeling, honestly. It feels really good to be back.”
He’s appeared in four games for the Matadors and logged nine tackles, including two for a loss. Zack says he’s faster now and his conditioning is better, a credit to his training and preparation.
“Of course there’s things I’m not satisfied with that I need to get back,” Zack said. “Like my play recognition and reaction time, but that will come with playing in more games.”
The former Panther must still adhere to precautions prescribed by doctors and have his blood pressure checked frequently, but he jokes his biggest concern now is sore legs.
Through all of it, Zack has persevered. This journey has shaped his future beyond football, too.
“I realized football is not everything,” he said. “It’s everything in the aspect as far as what I do with my life and how I operate, but it’s not what I’m going to be doing 20-30 years from now.”
He wants to eventually pursue a Master’s in business administration and open a training facility outside of Charlotte. A place where high school athletes can have access to the proper training they need and what most can’t afford, Zack claims.
— Z???? (@ZackAttack_715) September 23, 2018
He’s also remained close with all of the 2016 Pitt recruiting class and follows the Panther football team closely.
“I have nothing but love and great memories with them,” Zack said of his former teammates. “My boys on the football team took care of me even in times where I wasn’t holding myself up. They looked out for me, and I have nothing but respect for my brothers on that team.”
Zack’s football future is clearer now. There’s more certainty, and more importantly, hope. If anything, he’s just happy to be playing again.
“I left Pitt just to be back on the field so I think it means everything now at this point,” Gilbert said of playing again. “It’s all I got. I love the game with all my heart. It means everything to be back on the field.”