You don’t know this kid.
He doesn’t live in this state, play a sport or attend high school. He even cheers for the Baltimore Ravens.
But trust me on this one: Zach Lederer, who has survived two bouts with brain cancer before his 21st birthday and has inspired a nationwide trend called “Zaching,” is worth your time.
He was mine.
And he’s someone we should all strive to emulate, no matter whether it’s our own problems we’re dealing with or someone else’s.
A few years before I was hired at the Observer-Reporter, I lived in Manassas, Va., and covered high school sports for The Washington Post.
One year, while making football preview calls in Howard County, Md., I stumbled upon a kid named Zach Lederer, who was going out for the team at Centennial High School.
Zach, as I would learn, had never played high school football before and would probably only see scant time on the kickoff team, a few snaps as a defensive back in mop-up duty – hardly one of the best players on the team.
But what made Zach’s story so intriguing was that he had already beaten brain cancer at a young age and still had a ventricular shunt embedded in the back of his skull.
Was the ideal thing for Lederer to play football his senior year? Of course not. But he had been a team manager, loved sports and wanted to do this as a way of proving to himself, and others, that the score was Zach 1, Cancer 1.
Lederer played. No serious injuries occurred. Word spread about what Zach was doing, and other media outlets picked up on the story.
Ravens tight end Todd Heap, who had visited Lederer in the hospital years back after learning of his complicated story – one that even involved world-renowned surgeon Dr. Ben Carson – hosted Lederer and his family for a game. CNN had Lederer on The Human Factor.
All of this carried one over-arching theme: that the 18-year-old Lederer, then a high school senior, was extremely vocal about beating cancer, treating it much like a game of one-on-one; screw it, he thought, you’re not getting the best of me.
The attention on Lederer calmed slightly during the spring of his senior year, then picked back up full force when it was learned that the cancer had re-emerged during his freshman year at the University of Maryland.
Again Lederer underwent chemo, surgery, the whole deal. Again he said cancer didn’t stand a chance. He even wore a Superman cape into the radiation room and posted the picture to Twitter.
But perhaps the most important thing that happened was that after surgery, Lederer had his dad, John, take a picture of him flexing, arms up in the air.
This has become known as “Zaching.” And it caught on.
“Zaching” now has its own Wikipedia page. It was featured on ESPN, among other places. University of Maryland athletes have been photographed while “Zaching.” Same for professional ones, comedians and politicians. Look it up. It’s “Tebowing” with attitude.
Lederer maintains an active presence on Twitter and encourages other cancer patients to tweet “Zaching” photos, serving as a role model to those his age and younger as they confront cancer at an early age.
He also approaches his ordeal with a bit of levity – “planking” on a stool in the hospital, bragging about embarrassing his mother, Christine, while walking through Johns Hopkins wearing his cape, using the hashtag #baldboyproblems.
Not only does Lederer want his message to be heard, but he wants those also affected by cancer to stand strong, to look in the mirror and say, “How dare you challenge me?”
Which, after getting to know Lederer, is an awfully good question.
Lederer has been an inspiration to me, my wife and our family. We text here and there, usually when the Ravens play the Steelers. I was honored when he asked to interview me for a writing class.
He’s one of those stories that come around once in a lifetime, sort of Maryland’s answer to Freedom graduate John Challis.
His story and attitude should lend some perspective to any of our silly, day-to-day complaints.
It’s why you should care about Zach Lederer, even if he’s a Baltimore Ravens fan.
Jason Mackey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org