“Love, Zac” by Star Tribune reporter Reid Forgrave seems destined to simultaneously unite and divide readers.

The uniting will center on sympathy for the death of Zac Easter, who committed suicide at age 24 after years of mental and physical agony connected to repeated concussions from playing football starting in third grade through high school in Indianola, Iowa.

The division will center on reader attitudes about the U.S. sport of football: Should it be banned, continue as is, or exist somewhere in between those goalposts? How each reader answers that conundrum in 2020 will probably determine reaction to Forgrave’s frequent wrestling with the desired outcome.

(Disclosure: Forgrave is an avid football fan. I stopped following football at every level when I entered junior high school, 60 years ago.)

Zac died in December 2015, meaning his suicide feels fresh in the minds of his loved ones. In addition to quoting liberally from years of Zac’s handwritten and digital diaries, Forgrave spent countless hours with the football-obsessed Easter family: the athlete-coach father, the sport-loving mother, the older brother, the younger brother, both of whom played on the Indianola high school teams. Along the way, Forgrave produces an Easter family tree going back six generations, set in the context of Iowa history, with an emphasis on the Indianola region. That family saga includes a love of guns, which are used for target practice, hunting deer and other wildlife, plus protection. Zac would eventually kill himself with a gun his father kept in a family pickup truck.

An honorary family member cooperates with Forgrave, too — Zac’s girlfriend, who is also his best friend and the only person to whom he confided early during the downward spiral of brain damage, a spiral that in turn led to alcoholism, abuse of narcotics, job losses, depression, and overtly reckless behaviors.

At intervals throughout his well-written narrative, Forgrave removes his intense focus on Zac to provide character sketches that offer divergent perspectives about football: the high school coach; the high school team’s athletic trainer, a woman, who experienced hatred for removing Zac from games because of worry about concussions; Zac’s physicians and mental-health counselors; researchers at the national level trying to understand the worst outcome of football concussions, the fatal syndrome labeled chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

In the future, families will be confronting whether their children should participate in football — and, if yes, at what age the participation should commence. When Zac began playing in third grade, knowledge about the short-term and long-term impacts of concussions could fairly be termed as “limited.” That is no longer the case.

 

Steve Weinberg is an author in Columbia, Mo. During the 1970s, he reported for the Des Moines Register, visiting Indianola often.

Love, Zac
By: Reid Forgrave.
Publisher: Algonquin Books, 288 pages, $27.95.
Event: 7 p.m. Sept. 21, www.magers­andquinn.com/event.