Hundreds gather to say goodbye to Zach Lederer

20-year-old Terps basketball manager inspired cancer patients worldwide

(Noah Scialom / Patuxent…)
March 21, 2014|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

Zachary "Zach" Lederer used to say he was "living the dream." Even as his physical health deteriorated in the final year of his life, he told others he felt fantastic.

Hundreds of people gathered Friday afternoon to remember the former manager of the Maryland men's basketball team, who died March 11 of brain cancer. The 20-year-old inspired cancer patients across the globe with his signature pose of pumping his fists with flexed biceps — a move that the crowd gathered at the Church of the Resurrection mimicked together in the pews during his memorial.

As rain fell outside the Ellicott City church, they remembered the sports fanatic as "sunshine on a cloudy day." While there were plenty of tears, the crowd also laughed often as they thought of the positive attitude that Lederer showed throughout his illness.

"God taught us through Zach," said his uncle, Gary Smith, who believed Lederer showed others how to make the choice to be happy and reach out to others, rather than focusing on oneself.

Lederer became known worldwide when a photo of him "Zaching" went viral in 2012.

"It was a sign of belief in the future, a sign of hope and strength, a sign of victory," read a poem in Lederer's funeral program. "People Zached in return. They Zached as a way of saying, 'We are thinking of you.'"

The Rev. Brian M. Rafferty asked mourners to stand and strike the pose before he delivered his homily.

"Mean it, mean it," he encouraged them.

When he was at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Lederer liked to don a cape and "Zach" for the children in the pediatric oncology department, recalled Scott Heckman, who got to know Lederer through his daughter.

"Their faces would light up," and they too would flex their muscles, Heckman said.

Lederer was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 11.

Growing up, he laughed often and never seemed to worry about anything, said a friend, Kevin Barnes, who met him in youth soccer when they were 6 or 7.

"Zach had an uncanny ability to make friends," Barnes said. "Zach cherished every minute of every day."

Before he arrived at College Park, where he studed journalism, Lederer managed the football and basketball teams at Centennial High School in Ellicott City. When Lederer was a high school senior, he played football himself — something that was a difficult decision for his family, given the health risks, recalled Centennial basketball coach Chad Hollwedel.

"As coaches, we were so incredibly proud to see Zach play on the field," Hollwedel said.

Secretly, though, he said, they missed working with him as a manager on the sideline.

Lederer "showed me the importance of life and how every second is to be used to seize the day," said cousin Drew Lederer, who recalled hiking, camping and hunting for Easter eggs with Lederer.

As his health got worse in his last year of life, Lederer maintained a cheerful attitude, Heckman recalled.

When Heckman would ask how he was doing, he would reply: "I'm wonderful, Mr. Scott — how are you?"

"He was incredibly grateful for the gift of life," Heckman said.

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