A warrior among champions


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Jun 17, 2023

A warrior among champions

Joshua R. Smith Zac (center front) poses with his father, Rob (left), mother, Crystal (center back), and Ravens fullback Patrick Ricard during his VIP experience at Baltimore’s facility in Owings

Joshua R. Smith

Zac (center front) poses with his father, Rob (left), mother, Crystal (center back), and Ravens fullback Patrick Ricard during his VIP experience at Baltimore’s facility in Owings Mills on Aug. 18.

Zac sat last Friday in his wheelchair, in a covered and cordoned-off area, in his Ravens jersey.

A Ravens floppy hat covered the still-fresh bandages on his scalp from another unexpected brain procedure. But he was having a good week. As good of a week as he could have, that is, given his circumstances.

And here came the Ravens, one by one, walking off the practice field at their home in Owings Mills. Right toward him.

“Oh, man,” Zac said to himself, “keep it together. Keep it together.”

This young man is 21 years old, three-plus months into a war against a rare bone cancer that has ravaged his body and wrecked his life as he’s stared down one ominous report, one risky operation, one vicious medicine after another.

And here he was — worried about staying cool as his sporting idols approached.

“Hey, Zac.”

They knew his name.

“That right there,” he said, “was enough.”

I can’t write the proper words to thank the Baltimore Ravens. I don’t think first-class is quite the term to define their actions.

After learning of Zac’s ordeal, after hearing the nightmarish details and trying to make sense of what was happening to him, I struggled to find a way to provide support in a most desperate hour.

Zac’s family has been in my life for decades. His father, Rob, became one of my best friends around age 12 when we played baseball together. Rob would come to the mound to calm me when his tightly wound buddy’s pitches were faltering. He got me through 10th-grade Geometry. He stood with me when I got married, and I happily did the same for him. I had long ago become friends with his sisters, his mother, his other friends. Rob’s wonderful wife, Crystal, became my son’s daycare provider.

There was no family I trusted more with my child.

Zac is the oldest of their three kids. His cancer first reared its head in the form of a shocking seizure when he was with his siblings in their living room.

You can imagine how it played out after that.

Emergency transport. Tests. A medevac. Emergency surgery. Meetings with doctors. Partial diagnoses. Complicated, jargony explanations.

“Your DNA strands have mutated,” the white coats said.

Was this really happening?

“It’s like some X-Men stuff,” Rob told me.

More tests. Radiation. Chemotherapy. Biopsies. Blood transfusions.

Unknowns abound.

I’ve written about Zac before. Back when he was 12. Back when this placid, pleasant kid wrongly had his very first Little League home run stolen from him by a youth umpire and — somehow — handled it better than a mature adult.

Zac has grown up to be the kind of person anyone would be proud to call their son, an absolute product of his family’s goodness.

How could this be happening to him?

“He has a hell of a fight on his hands,” Rob texted.

How could I possibly take Zac’s mind off his difficult reality, spur him to battle with all of his might?

Zac and his family are Ravens fans through and through. Rob has a man cave that is covered wall-to-wall in Ravens photos and memorabilia. Lamar Jackson would feel right at home.

Maybe the Ravens could inspire Zac.

Through my job, I had a contact. I emailed the team’s public relations manager, Tom Valente, about Zac on May 13 — a Saturday afternoon during their offseason.

I am a member of the media. I am used to people ignoring my messages, blowing off my requests, making my job harder. Some high school kids won’t even get back to us when we’ve selected them for All-County teams. The hoops we routinely have to jump through just to speak to people today would make a trapeze artist sick. None of it surprises me anymore.

Tom responded to me in three minutes.

“Let me see what we can do to help,” he wrote. “I’ll circle back with you, but just wanted to let you know I’ve received your e-mail.”

Within five days, Tom forwarded me a minute-long video of five Ravens players sending their prayers and well-wishes to Zac. Rob’s voice choked up when he described how happy it had made his exhausted son, who watched it from beneath his Ravens blanket at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Within 13 days, the team sent Zac a care package of Ravens merch — including a game-worn Marlon Humphrey jersey.

“Anything we can do to hopefully create a smile, a distraction or a bit of joy,” Tom wrote.

Treatment continued. Zac was finally able to go home. Early in my communication with Tom, he mentioned having Zac as a guest at training camp. I texted with Zac in mid-July.

“I’m doing well. Taking it day by day and hopefully kicking this thing’s ass at the same time,” he said.

His camp visit was set up on Aug. 8 for the following Friday. On Aug. 9, though, the unpredictable nature of his predicament meant Zac needed two surgeries on his brain, two days apart.

It was touch and go as to how rapidly he’d recover. Thankfully, perhaps buoyed by his Ravens appointment, he began healing quickly. So, last Friday, he was wheeled on schedule into The Castle for his VIP experience.

Zac had a prime spot to watch practice, then some players made their way to him. He played it cool, but he was over the moon.

Star safety Kyle Hamilton signed the jersey Zac was wearing. Fullback Patrick Ricard signed Rob’s. Linebacker Patrick Queen signed Crystal’s. All of them were generous and caring. The family got smiley photos with several stars.

“It was overwhelming,” Crystal said.

Rob raved about the personal touches and attention to detail shown to his family. Now, they have to find room for all of their new Ravens swag.

“We need to do some redecorating,” Zac said last weekend as I visited him at a cookout. He told anyone who would listen about his special day with his heroes, who made sure he knew they have his back.

The young man was worn out but somehow energized, ready to meet whatever’s next in this unimaginable struggle.

“He’s got the heart of a warrior,” Rob said.

That’s where we are. The rest of this story is unwritten.

But there are two things we know for certain.

Zac is a warrior. And the Ravens are champions.

Joshua R. Smith is the News-Post sports editor. His column, Real Dads Wear Yoga Pants, appears once a month.

Joshua R. Smith

To the Baltimore Sun: His name is Josh Smith and you need to hire him.

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