The 'Z-Man': a portrait in courage

November 23, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

All the other players were wet and muddy by the time Zachary "Z-Man" Morris got into the game. It was a playoff between the Stembridge Colts and the Middle River Renegades in the 11-13 age division of the huge Harford/Baltimore County Youth Football League. It had rained heavily, and his teammates and opponents were wearing warrior mud when the Z-man's coach ordered him onto the field at Stemmers Run Middle School.

From the sideline, Dennis Martinez, the Stembridge football commissioner, noticed the boy with the clean uniform and the slow, awkward running style.

"I have been coaching youth football for the last nine years and I was truly moved when I saw this young man take the field," Martinez wrote me in an e-mail last week. "With about five minutes to play, Z-man came into the game. ... I was mesmerized by the courage that he showed. I was amazed as I watched players from both teams helping him up after each play, making sure that he was OK and giving him encouragement as the clock wound down. That is truly what youth sports are about - not the competitive, win-at-all-costs mentality it has become for some people."

Stembridge won the game, but the Z-man, a 13-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, won hearts. He had played an entire season of football despite his physical limitations, and finished with a big smile, reminding all involved in H/B football of the positive difference a team sport can make in a child's life. Martinez nominated Zach Morris for a special award that he was to receive last night during the 11-13 division championship game.

A lot of credit goes to Steve Kowalczyk, the coach who gave the Z-Man a great experience, integrating him into his offensive and defensive lines. His Renegades teammates supported Zach and helped him with his blocking and tackling techniques. It was Zach's first season of football, after all. He had had never played before.

Back in summer, Kowalczyk didn't have enough players on his roster at first. One of his players, Seth Smith, told his friend Zachary Morris about the openings. Zach had played baseball before; why not give football a try?

At first, Kowalczyk was concerned for the boy's safety. But once he got to know him, understand him and see him in action, Kowalczyk believed Zach belonged on his team.

The other day, Kowalczyk told me, almost verbatim, what he had told other H/B parents in a forum post on the league's Web site: "I had to be very open and honest with him. I told [Zach] that if he played this game, he was going to get the 'crap' knocked out of him. I told him that, if he really wanted to play, I couldn't treat him differently than anyone else on the team because other teams wouldn't give him any special treatment. He looked me dead in the eye and told me that he wouldn't want it any other way. From that point on, I knew that he was going to be OK!"

Zach's mother, Shannon, worried about his safety, too. But after she and Zach's father, Mike Morris, had, in his words "a couple of arguments and a dinner," she went from no-way to OK.

"I'm not going to tell my son he can't do something," Mike Morris says. "We let him try anything he wants to try. ...

"Zach's going to have a lot to overcome in life," he adds. "Prejudice is the one thing I'm concerned about; that's what's going to hurt him. He's going to get knocked down in life sometimes, but he's going to have to get right back up. In football, he got knocked down a lot, but he got right back up."

The Z-Man, an eighth-grade honor roll student at Golden Ring Middle School, always made evening practices, which wasn't apparently the case for everyone on the Renegades' squad.

"Zach is very strong from the waist up," Kowalczyk says. "He just can't run that fast. He runs at a slow jog. ... I put him in the offensive line, got him down in the three-point stance and showed him how to block. He couldn't get up fast from the stance, so I showed him how to chop block."

The Ravens' Ray Lewis is the Z-Man's favorite player, so Z preferred playing D for the Renegades.

"You can use your hands more and grab guys," he says. "One time, a guy blocked me and I had four other guys on top of me and I still tackled the ball carrier. ... I'm not the best player, but I give it 110 percent."

Says his mom: "He's a little frustrated that he doesn't run as fast as the other players, but then again, I tell him, 'Zach, you're not in a wheelchair, it's not like you can't walk or talk.'"

"He stuck with it," his dad says. Mike Morris walked up to Kowalczyk after the last game in the mud, and he thanked the coach for putting the time and effort into making Zach part of the 2008 Renegades. "It was my pleasure," Kowalczyk told him. "Z-Man is a fine young man."

Then the Z-man shook his hands and gave him hugs and thanked his coach for the chance to play football. "I told him that it was an honor to coach him," Kowalczyk says, "and I hope that he will remember this season for the rest of his life, and I'm sure he will."

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday" from noon to 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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