Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a new book titled “Love, Zac: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy.” The author is Reid Forgrave, who covers Minnesota and the Upper Midwest for the Star Tribune. Forgrave came to the Star Tribune in September 2019, returning to his newspaper storytelling roots after eight years as a national sportswriter for Fox and CBS.

 

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Rural Iowa is an understated place. Natural beauty can be found not in snow-capped mountains or crashing ocean waves but in the quiet serenity of a summer breeze rustling over a soybean field. And it is a place where the values of the sport of football — of hard work and teamwork, of a community that rallies around a cause, of a faith that each of us is but a small, vital piece in a much grander plan — align perfectly with the values of life. These were the values instilled in Zac Easter, the middle of three rowdy boys raised out in the country amidst the endless fields of corn.

In the generations where football has become the unrivaled American sport from the coasts to the plains, football captured the imagination of fans and businessmen and sportswriters alike, so it’s only natural that the sport spread into families’ backyards. In Indianola, Iowa, the Easter family looked at football as a sport of truth and beauty, a game whose physical and mental challenges constituted a rite of passage from boyhood into manhood. Zac Easter looked at football as a compulsory joy. Quite simply, football was something that Easter men did: Easter men like his father, the former Division I player who became a college and high school coach. Easter men like his older brother, who also got a college scholarship to play football. Even Easter men like his younger brother, who never really took to the sport but who felt compelled to play for the high school team anyway. To Zac, football was far more than just some game you watched on Saturdays (the Iowa Hawkeyes) and Sundays (the Green Bay Packers). Football was a test of your manhood. Don’t play football and you’re not a man. Football was looking at the pain intrinsic in the sport as a gift, something worth fighting through in order to build one’s character. Like Vince Lombardi had said, “The good Lord gave you a body that can stand most anything. It’s your mind you have to convince.”

Years later, even as Zac Easter’s mind was breaking apart, he wrote words that would have made Lombardi proud: “I remember being one of the hardest hitting linebackers ever since I started,” Zac wrote. “I learned around this age that if I used my head as a weapon and literally put my head down on every play up until the last play I ever played. I was always shorter than a lot of other players and learned to put my head down so I could have the edge and win every battle. Not only that, but I liked the attention I got from the coaches and other players.”

At the time, that way of thinking still seemed admirable.

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Before Zac was born, Myles Sr. took a job as defensive coordinator at Simpson College, a Division III school in Indianola. He never made his boys play football — it was more like it was just assumed. “I loved football,” he says. “I was getting to the point where I loved it more than the kids did back in high school.” Not that the boys didn’t love it, too. As little kids, they’d come to Myles’ practice every day and hang off to the side with the kickers. By third grade, Zac was playing full-contact football in helmet and pads, like most other boys in his town.

His dad’s expectations and his older brother’s example — the “Easter mentality,” as people called it in Indianola — were a lot for young Zac to live up to. “I was tired of teachers and even Principal Monroe comparing me to my brother and asking me why I wasn’t as good of a student as my older brother,” Zac wrote. “I guess I got to the point then where I just didn’t care and realized the only way to full adequate fill the Easter family shoes was to play football.”

To his teammates and friends, who didn’t see the mental struggles that were covered up by Zac’s attitude, Zac became a heroic sort of figure. “He hit hard,” said Nick Haworth, one of Zac’s best friends since childhood. “When he hit, he used his head. He wanted to be tough, man.”

“I won’t lie,” Zac wrote. “I look back now and always felt like I had something to prove to my dad and trying to fill my older brother’s football shoes.

“I’m sure [my dad] loves me, but he’s always had a hard time showing it. I feel like all my concussions were for him in the first place because I just wanted to impress him and feel tough.”

Zac wasn’t born with what he needed for the gridiron, so in high school he secretly began taking prohormones, a steroidlike supplement banned in many sports. Zac’s father didn’t know about the supplements. But he noticed Zac, who’d always been a little bit chubby, getting into phenomenal shape. Myles Sr. and his boys would sometimes grab a few Coors Lights and go down to the basement for bench press contests. When they went, Myles always told Zac that he’d bench press 50 pounds more than his son. One day when Zac was in high school, he bench pressed 285 pounds of metal. OK, his father said, I can beat that. Myles Sr. was working his way up in weight when he pushed 315 pounds of metal off his chest and ... pop! He tore a pectoral muscle.

One way Zac asserted himself against his father and brothers was that he defected from the family’s team, the Minnesota Vikings, to the Green Bay Packers. It was that mischievous streak at work again. While his older brother, Myles Jr., sat alongside his father in Vikings’ purple and gold, Zac shouted “Go, Pack, go!” relishing the opportunity to rib his older brother and dad. Zac loved Brett Favre — he had the same swagger as Favre, the same gunslinger mentality, the same imperviousness to pain — and his dad finally relented and got him a Packers jersey emblazoned with Favre’s number four. Favre might have been a quarterback and Zac a fullback-slash-linebacker, positions that require different mentalities, but Favre’s throw-caution-to-the-wind approach and his much-admired ability to play through pain seemed heroic to Zac. Myles Jr. might have been taller and faster than his brother, talented enough to earn a college football scholarship and a spot in his high school’s sports hall of fame, but Zac was always the toughest dude on the field. Says Myles Jr.: “He was there to do some damage.”

He did damage to his opponents, certainly. His brothers still love to tell about Zac’s biggest hits. But even going back to middle school, Zac had an inkling that he was doing damage to himself as well — to his own developing brain.

But in those times — barely more than a decade ago — science was only beginning to figure out the damage that repeated concussions and subconcussive hits can do to the brain. And so, concussion after concussion after concussion, Zac Easter suited back up and went onto the field.

Because that’s what a man does. Especially a football man. Especially an Easter man.