PERHAM, MINN. - Jogging lightly to round out a shooting drill early in a recent basketball practice, Zach Gabbard made his way to a water fountain and took several gulps.
While teammates continued on with more intense routines, a winded Gabbard took an early break and plopped into a laundry basket behind the hoop on Perham's home court.
The kid with the three-point shot, a star on an undefeated team at this time last year, wants back in. To be the player he was before last Jan. 20.
That's not going to happen. But Gabbard knows he's lucky to even be here to watch.
He shows flashes of his basketball gifts, honed with countless before-school hours shooting hoops, jumping rope and lifting weights. But these days, he carries an elevator key. Navigating the high school's three floors can get to be too much.
Not that he's complaining.
A year ago Friday, Gabbard fell to the floor during a game, stricken with a heart attack that would have killed him if not for prompt medical work at the scene. Rushed to a Fargo hospital, he was in critical condition for three days until he could be sent to see heart specialists in Minneapolis.
Months of arduous and sometimes frustrating therapy later and still 15 pounds lighter than a year ago, an eager-to-play Gabbard is back in a Yellowjackets uniform, to the amazement of family, friends and coaches. On Tuesday, the senior whose Caring Bridge site drew 500,000 hits got his first game action at the end of a blowout victory.
On Thursday night, against the same Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton team Perham played on the night he almost died -- this time on Perham's home floor -- he drew a goose bump- inducing standing ovation from the near-capacity crowd. The public address announcer noted the one-year anniversary and thanked rescuers and supporters from both schools.
No. 3 sat on the bench, awaiting his chance to play a little bit more. With 1:25 left in another blowout victory, he again brought the crowd to its feet when he checked into his second game in a row. And wouldn't you know it, he made his only shot -- a long two- pointer from the far baseline, punctuated by a righthanded fist pump.
"You're never promised another day, that's how I see it now," Gabbard said. "I was maybe 80 to 90 percent chance of death. It's crazy to think about it. I don't dwell on it. Maybe if I'm super tired I'll think about it -- 'If this didn't happen, I'd be fine' -- but I am thankful that I'm still alive."
Silence, then shock
Gabbard collapsed during a Thursday night game at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton. Play stopped as spectators rushed to his side. The packed gym fell so silent that everyone heard the robotic voice of the portable defibrillator at Gabbard's side:
Zach's father, Steve, had only once gone to the court to tend to his injured son. The then-second-grader warned him to never do it again.
This time, "I'm told my feet didn't touch the stairs on the way down," he said. "And I was in the top row."
Once in Fargo, Gabbard underwent two open heart surgeries. At the University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis, large blood clots forced more emergency surgery.
Slowly, Gabbard began to improve. He was off a ventilator by Valentine's Day and walking with assistance -- a few yards at a time -- during the first week of March.
His first practice shots came by tossing rolls of medical tape and sponges back and forth with occupational therapists. He made an inspirational appearance in a wheelchair at one of his team's state tournament games in March, a seven-hour excursion that left him wiped out the next day. The Yellowjackets eventually won the Class 2A championship.
Meridee Gabbard, Zach's mother, was told to expect one week of recovery time for every day her son lay in the hospital.
"From Jan. 20 to even when the doctors first flexed his legs or he was out of that bed, we're talking one year to 18 months," she said.
Getting the ball to the hoop
In April he returned to Perham, undergoing six hours of therapy each day and under restriction to stay overnight at the local hospital.
He was well enough to attend a youth basketball tournament in the Perham gym. After one game ended -- and with another going on one court over -- Gabbard nonchalantly walked onto the vacant court and tried to shoot a basket.
The first attempt went a few inches. The second, third and fourth? Not much farther.
By then, action had stopped on the adjacent court. All eyes were on Gabbard. Another valiant try. It made it to the hoop.
"Goose bumps to the extreme," Perham coach Dave Cresap said.
Said Gabbard: "It meant a lot knowing people care. It was like, 'Cool. People know I can still shoot.' "
He dressed up for prom and was home for good on the first day of summer vacation for Perham kids. He spent the summer gaining strength and taking online classes.
Gabbard's speech has improved. He still has good and bad days when it comes to eating, leg strength and overall quickness.
At last, back in the game
Near the end of Tuesday's lopsided victory at Park Rapids, Gabbard touched his two thumbs and pointer fingers together, making a circle around the black No. 3 on his jersey, visible through his sheer practice shirt. He gave a soliciting look to his coach, then separated the fingers across his surgically repaired chest as if to say, "See? I'm ready."
Cresap wasn't so sure.
"If anything happens to this kid," the Yellowjackets coach said later, "it's on me."
Gabbard had practiced for more than 40 minutes for four consecutive days leading up to the game. Perham led by more than 50 points and the game was on running time when Cresap made his way to the middle of the bench. He took a knee in front of his thin forward, who was still far from being in top game shape.
Gabbard nodded a few times, then with almost no fanfare made his way toward the scorer's table.
At the next whistle, with just over two minutes remaining, the crowd rose to its feet.
No. 3 was back.
"It's something that no one in Perham will ever forget," teammate Jordan Bruhn said. "We didn't know if he was going to make it through the night [a year ago]. And now to see him back at school and practicing with us? A lot of people thought he'd never be able to do it."
To top it off, Gabbard almost made his lone shot, a three-pointer.
"I really can't put it into words," he said. "But I should have made that shot. I wanted to show I can still play basketball."
He has shown that he never lost his teenage spunk. During the last drill of Wednesday's practice, Cresap wondered aloud if Gabbard had made any shots to help the seniors complete a game of "Around the World."
"Three," Gabbard called back. "More than you've made in your whole life!"
Later he was asked what, other than basketball, motivated him during his grueling recovery.
"Family," he quickly answered. Then he paused.
Saving other lives
Gabbard has played on courts in Perham since first grade, mostly with the same core group of friends. They made countless visits to see Gabbard in hospitals and rehabilitation centers in the last year. They also push him to give his strongest effort in practice.
"It's inspiring to see him back practicing every day," Yellowjackets senior center Mark Schumacher said.
Last month Gabbard was cleared to play after seeing a specialist in Los Angeles. Doctors have told him that a virus likely triggered his heart attack and that he does not have a heart condition.
The clearance to play brought "a sense of calm," Meridee said. "I have no issues whatsoever about Zach playing. There is a higher power watching over him."
The Minnesota State High School League and the Medtronic Foundation initiated the Anyone Can Save A Life educational program in 2008. Among the program's goals is proper knowledge of automated external defibrillators. A survey of Minnesota schools conducted the year the program was established found 90 percent had at least one defibrillator on site. The educational effort prompted Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton to have one, a move that helped saved Gabbard's life.
"I didn't even know we have them, but I am grateful they are there," Zach Gabbard said. "It can happen anywhere. Every school should have one."
Reason for hope
Eager to prove he's ready for more, Gabbard studied a stapled packet of paper after Wednesday's practice. "I didn't even know we had a play called 'shallow flare,'" he muttered.
Memorizing plays are among his daily struggles, but that's fine with him.
"If we're winning, I could care less if I play," he said. "If we're losing, I'm like, 'Dang it, I should be in there and help the team out.' But one player can't do it all."
He insists that last Jan. 20 was the farthest thing from his mind Thursday night. "Not at all," he said firmly.
But the speed of his comeback is not far from his coach's mind. Three weeks ago, Cresap would not have dreamed of putting Gabbard into a game.
"This is a kid who couldn't pass a basketball from here to there," he said, pointing to a piece of maroon tile two squares away from his left foot. "There is optimism now."