Even the Luck of the Irish Favors the Prepared

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

If there has ever been a "Natural," it is Zach Tapel, a truly Hobbsian figure, Roy Hobbs that is. Just like his cinematic namesake, Zach was blessed with lots of raw talent. As a freshman at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep., he was promoted from the J.V. Basketball Team to the Varsity Team for the postseason, and he helped the Irish win the State Championship. As the starting point guard, he led the S.H.C. Varsity Basketball Team to back-to-back C.C.S. Championships, each season falling one game short of returning to the state's title game. In his sophomore year, he started at quarterback on S.H.C.'s Varsity Football Team, and was named Second Team All W.C.A.L. Although he only occasionally played slot receiver that season, he was third in the league in receiving. In his junior year, the coach thought his skills were more urgently needed in the safety, slot receiver, and running back positions, and in those capacities, he earned First Team All W.C.A.L. honors.

Zach and his teammates had high expectations for their senior year, with their sights set on a C.C.S. Championship in football and a state championship in basketball. The year started well, and all seemed to be going according to plan. The S.H.C. Football Team had beaten S.I. to win the Bruce Mahoney Trophy and they seemed to be cruising to the C.C.S. Final, when the wheels came off the wagon. On a seemingly innocuous play against Mitty in the C.C.S. Semi-Final match, one of Zach's teammates fell against the side of his knee, and he felt something pop. He tried to continue playing, but he had zero lateral mobility. Zach's season had come to an abrupt end; he had torn his A.C.L. The following week, having received the diagnosis from the orthopedic surgeon, when Zach entered S.H. Varsity Basketball Coach Darrell Barbour's office and delivered the bad news, the two of them cried together knowing the impending surgery signaled the end of Zach's high school athletic career.

Unfortunately, Zach had encountered what many young athletes in our culture experience, a traumatic sports injury. In an instant, his entire life had changed not just as an athlete, but as a person. He was no longer able to do some of the things he loved to do most, things by which he largely defined himself. The effects of the traumatic sports injury on a student athlete are many fold. The physiological impact to a young athlete is considerable; at a time when chemical changes in the body are dynamic, the young athlete is deprived of the endorphin rush of vigorous exercise and of competing at a high level. Socially, although the injured athlete is still friends with his teammates, a subtle curtain is drawn between them as the injured player is no longer able to share in his teammates daily routines. Psychologically, no young player ever imagines himself as being seriously injured; that is what happens to "other" players. The young athlete now sees himself as the dreaded "other," and the experience is accompanied by self-blame, shame, confusion, and a loss of self-esteem. All this results from the impact of the injury itself; the long rehabilitation process further traumatizes the wounded athlete.

True to form, Zach tried to put the best face on the situation. He diligently followed his doctors' and coaches' instructions, but not knowing any better, Zach was adrift at sea in uncharted waters. He trusted that day by day his knee would gradually improve. However serious sports injuries do not just miraculously heal on their own. That is not the natural order of things. Successful injury treatment outcomes require experienced sports medicine doctors who work closely with experienced athletic trainers to oversee a long-term, comprehensive rehabilitation. The budgets of most athletic programs are stretched thin and do not allow for sports medicine doctors or sports psychologists let alone experienced athletic trainers to implement comprehensive, long-term, rehabilitation protocols. Even injured student athletes whose families have the financial means are fortunate if their parents are savvy enough to seek out such specialized medical care.

For the remainder of his senior year at S.H.C., Zach continued to support his teammates, and he trained as best he could in hopes of pursuing his athletic dreams. Despite lots of hard work and his best efforts, the knee did not respond the way he had hoped. Not wanting to give up on his dreams, he played football for the College of San Mateo his freshman year, but it was frustrating because he was unable to perform at the level to which he had become accustomed prior to his injury. Disillusioned with his life post knee surgery, Zach decided to gray-shirt at C.S.M. He began working and making money, and he drifted away from sports and school. Like the character in "The Natural," he got sidetracked - but his mind was always on the game.

After a few years away from athletics, he realized there was a hole in his life. He missed sports; they were still a passion for him. After much soul searching, and with encouragement from his mother and his girlfriend, Zach decided to try his hand at coaching. He contacted his old Strength and Conditioning Coach at S.H.C., Colin Peuse, who invited his former student to assist with S.H.C. Football's spring workouts. Not surprisingly, Zach, a natural leader who was always popular with his teammates, was well received by the students, and soon S.H.C. Head Varsity Football Coach Barry McClaughlin hired him as the team's defensive backs coach.

At the same time, the fledgling coach thought it would be important to walk his talk, and he decided to start working out again. His friend and former teammate at S.H.C., Matt Cinco, invited Zach to train with his uncle's program. Matt Cinco could sympathize with his friend because his own promising athletic career had been cut short by injuries, consecutive concussions, first in football and then in baseball. Cinco is the nephew of Murray Athletic Development Director John Murray, and he and his other buddies, Josh Fox, Conrad Fox, and Doug Parrish, also friends and former teammates of Tapel's, were already training at MAD's Garage location on Geary Blvd. Zach fell right in with his old teammates and got to work.

MAD Director John Murray recalls that Zach was intrigued with the nuances of MAD's unique training style from the jump. He asked insightful questions and seemed to grasp the efficacy of MAD's training regimen almost immediately. Zach's eyes were further opened by the fact that Josh Fox, who was conducting his off-season workouts at the Garage after a tremendous college career at U.C. Davis, had suffered the same A.C.L. injury as Zach's during Fox's freshman year at U.C. Riverside, but Fox had been able to successfully rehab his knee under the guidance of MAD's specially trained and experienced coaches. Josh has since gone on to have a successful professional career playing in Australia for the Ballarat Miners, and next year he will compete with the Fiji Mens National Basketball Team in the FIBA Men's Basketball World Cup.

At the Garage, Zach was also able to watch Doug Parrish rehabilitate a serious foot injury which he had sustained during his rookie season in the Canadian Football League with the Edmonton Eskimos. Eventually, Doug was able to continue his career, and this year he signed with the British Columbia Lions. Seeing his friends successfully recover from their sports injuries, Zach could not help but think that things might have been different had he had access to similar rehabilitation opportunities. But rather than being bitter, the young coach doubled down on his commitment to help young athletes. He had caught a bad break; now what was he going to do about it? He decided he was going to use his experience to further help the kids he coached. Just like in "The Natural," there was the life Zach learned with, and the life he would live afterward. In the afterward, Zach was determined that no athlete in his charge would ever fail due to lack of proper rehabilitation oversight.

This is why when S.H.C. freshman Evan "Blue" Branch-Haynes broke his ankle while playing basketball last January, alarm bells sounded in Zach's head. At 6'2" and 270 lbs., Blue had demonstrated considerable talent playing football in his freshman year. In the strapping freshman, Coach Tapel saw a nice kid, a smart kid, one with a good attitude and lots of potential, and the young coach was determined to do everything in his power to ensure that Blue would have every opportunity to fulfill that potential. Zach convinced Blue to check out MAD's facility in San Francisco, and much like his coach had, the freshman athlete quickly comprehended the value of MAD's training methods and embraced them enthusiastically. Zach was aware that MAD provided full and partial scholarships to some of its athletes, and when he approached MAD's Director on his young player's behalf, John Murray was happy to arrange a full scholarship for Blue.

Coach Zach Tapel and Evan Branch-Haynes

Blue became a training fanatic. At 5:00 p.m., after spring and summer training sessions with S.H.C. Varsity Football, Zach would drive Blue from S.H.C. to MAD's Institute of Physical Culture on the S.I. Campus. The two would work out for another couple of hours, and then the dedicated coach would take his young protégé to the BART Station where he would ride the train back home to Richmond, often arriving home after 9:00 p.m. In the summertime, during the off-season, every Monday through Thursday, without fail, Blue made a five hour round trip to MAD each day. His commute consisted of two Bart rides between San Francisco and Richmond sandwiched between bus rides at both ends of the line. With his great attitude, hard work, and amazing commitment to his training, Blue became a favorite of MAD Head Coach Eric Bringas and the rest of the MAD Staff. In both the September and October issues of MAD's newsletter, MAD Times, MAD coaches acknowledged Blue in the newsletter's "Excellence In Action" section. This fall Blue's exceptional efforts have paid off with his outstanding play for the Irish Varsity Football Team. As a sophomore, Blue started on the defensive line for the Irish's Varsity Team, and he even scored a two point conversion.

Some might attribute Josh Fox's, Doug Parrish's, and Evan "Blue" Branch-Hanes' success to the luck of the Irish. True, they were fortunate to have rehabilitation opportunities which were not available to their also talented friend/coach Zach Tapel, but what they were able to achieve with those opportunities, their achievements, are their own. Any contention to the contrary evokes Thomas Jefferson's quote about luck that "The harder I work, the more I seem to have of it." As young Coach Tapel is fond of saying on this subject, "Hard work doesn't come with any guarantees, but not working hard guarantees you will fail." The successes of Josh, Doug, and Blue are not due to the luck of the Irish. Their accomplishments are due to each athlete working hard, working smart, and making the most of his natural ability. The luck of the Irish, that is the luck of the Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep. Irish, is that they were able to attract a "Natural" like Zach Tapel to their coaching staff, a young man who can absorb some of life's toughest lessons and mine them for gold to share with his student athletes, who eagerly shares his knowledge, wisdom, and experience with tremendous energy and enthusiasm. For S.H.C., having Zach Tapel does not merely represent the luck of the Irish; it is a pot of gold. Every school should be so lucky.

Congratulations to Zach, Blue, and the entire S.H.C. Varsity Football Team for their successful season thus far. Go Irish! We wish you a long run in your postseason play.

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