Published in The News-Herald
February 10, 2016
Sprawled out on the turf at Bomber Stadium on a warm September evening, Zach Silbermann did all he could to convince himself his ears had lied to him.
The tingling sensation in his left knee told him his ears spoke the unfortunate truth.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound middle linebacker from Kenston had just shot through the A-gap on a blitz against visiting Medina and planted his left leg to unload on the unsuspecting quarterback when he heard his anterior cruciate ligament snap.
“I laid there and was like, ‘Yeah, that’s my last play of my senior year,’” Silbermann recalled.
That it was, and there was no getting around it. He knew it before a doctor even looked at it.
But was it the last snap of his career?
Not if he has anything to say about it.
As big-time FBS college football players across the nation spent the early hours of Feb. 3 signing their national letters of intent, thus cementing their college intentions, Silbermann sat in a Kenston classroom scribbling away at math problems and science notes.
But while many would have let go of their college football dreams with such a devastating injury, Silbermann hasn’t. After months of rehab, and with at least three more months of such work yet to go before he is at any semblance of 100 percent, Silbermann is getting numerous looks from big college football programs.
The dream is still alive.
“You know, I never thought about not playing college football,” Silbermann said. “That’s not something I’m ready to give up on.”
This was supposed to be Silbermann’s dream season. After piling up 120 tackles as a junior, earning All-Ohio recognition and getting his first offer from Morehead State, there seemed to be nowhere to go but up for the physical middle linebacker.
The Bombers had knocked off Amherst Steele in the season opener, and Silbermann was licking his chops when the coaching staff called for a double-barrel blitz of the A-gaps on the second play from scrimmage against Medina.
Then boom — bye-bye ACL and bye-bye season.
“Everything was gone, just like that,” he said. “The bus rides, the team dinners, the moments in the locker room with my teammates. Priceless stuff. Stuff I had worked so hard for. Gone in an instant.”
There were moments of anger, Silbermann admitted. There were plenty of tears.
But doubt was never an option.
“Twenty years ago, a torn ACL was a death sentence to an athletic career,” Silbermann said. “It won’t be for me.”
Silbermann traded his helmet and cleats in for a ball cap and a whistle. He became an on-field student assistant coach for Coach Jeff Grubich’s team, showing his leadership skills by taking younger players under his wing — players he was supposed to line up next to on Friday nights.
Not long after he had surgery to repair the torn ACL, he began a rigorous workout regimen to go with his newfound coaching duties.
“How important was he to us? We were 2-0 in games he started and lost seven in a row after he got hurt,” Grubich said. “When the season was over, his teammates voted him the MVP. That tells you right there what they thought of him and what he’s meant to the program.”
As reports of his workouts got out and colleges began to come back around, interest began to spike. Morehead State underwent a coaching change, Silbermann said, so they exited the picture. But plenty of others — Silbermann declined to go on record to name them, but rest assured they’re big-name programs — are interested.
“When I get on the field again, I’m going to turn some heads,” he promised. “Whoever gives me that chance, I’ll climb the depth chart and be a big part of the team just like I was at Kenston.”
In some ways, the injury was good for Silbermann. He said he watched more film than he ever had before because, hey, he was in a coaching capacity now. He felt responsible for not just his play, but putting his teammates in the best position possible to be successful.
He got to see games from the coaching box and sideline, vantage points he had never seen before.
And he discovered a newfound appreciation for his health.
That often happens when it’s taken away from you.
“When I was cleared to run on a treadmill a month and a half ago, I was exuberant,” he said. “I know a lot of people who think running on a treadmilll is a burden. I don’t anymore.
“Don’t take stuff like that for granted because it can be gone in an instant. Trust me, I know.”
Grubich foresees a future in coaching for Silbermann. That very well might happen. But not before Silbermann makes good on his intention to get back on the gridiron.
He vows his last moment on a football field won’t be sprawled out on the ground on Sept. 4, 2015, hoping in vain he hadn’t just heard what he thought he heard — his ACL snapping.
As the hum of the treadmill and the clanging of weights fill his afternoons, one thought dominates his mind. It’s a pact he says he has made with himself.
“I will be an impact player again.”
Reach Kampf at JKampf@News-Herald.com; @NHPreps on Twitter