Shawnee senior Zack McCauley may have high aspirations as a first-time varsity golfer, but he’s already had an experience on the course that can’t be topped.
That came when he hit his opening tee shot in the Russ Hogue Memorial at Cherokee Hills on Aug. 9.
The cancer survivor had to endure almost three years of chemotherapy, multiple surgeries and extensive rehab just to get to the point where he could swing a club. Even now, he has to ride a cart during matches.
But just being able to play sports again means the season has already been a success.
“The thing that hurt me the most at first was when the doctor told me no more sports,” Zack said. “That was my life. You take away sports, you take away my life.
“The highlight of the year for me was being able to go out for a match and play on a sports team again for the first time in so long — and knowing I’m not like some of the other cancer patients I was with who weren’t so lucky.”
McCauley was a three-sport standout as he rose through the ranks for the Braves, playing football and basketball and running track. But he began to experience discomfort in his right leg just after Christmas of his freshman hoop season.
He went to Dayton Children’s hospital, thinking it was a fracture at worst. But doctors found a cancerous mass in his tibia.
Within two days, he was fitted for a port for aggressive chemo treatments, spending every other week in the James Cancer Center at Ohio State for months. In April, they replaced the tibia with a cadaver bone, but he developed complications.
He underwent a full knee replacement with a rod in his leg stretching to just above the ankle.
After being immobile and then walking with the help of crutches and later a cane, he finally could move under his own power for the first time last February.
The hardest part of the ordeal was the side effects from the chemo.
“It kept burning my nose and head,” Zack said. “It was like lighting a fire in my body.”
It wasn’t easy for his parents to watch.
“We’ve been through ups and downs, a lot of crying,” said his mother, Tammy McCauley. “But he’s a trooper.”
Zack said his coaches have been supportive, insisting that he attend games and team functions. And teachers have gone out of their way to allow him to make up work and stay on course to graduate this spring. His grade-point average hovers between 3.2 and 3.4.
And he received some news this week he’s been hoping to hear: he’s been cleared to start shooting baskets again.
But he’s realistic.
“I’m good, I’m mobile, but I can’t really run,” he said. “I’m hoping to play basketball again, but it’s been so long. Football has always been my favorite sport. That’s out of the question. Even basketball is going to be a tough little push.”
But you won’t find McCauley feeling sorry for himself.
“When I was in the hospital, beside me were two other guys who had the cancer I had,” he said. “One of them ended up having their leg amputated, and the other person didn’t make it. His parents weren’t there for him, and he didn’t have the support like I did.
“It made me feel depressed for them. But it also made me feel more grateful that I was able to make it with all the supportive people around me.”
One of those sources of strength was his girlfriend, Shawnee soccer player Brieanna Jarrell, who underwent ACL surgery as a sophomore two years ago and was rehabbing at the same time as Zack.
“This is going to sound cheesy … but she would always make me laugh and smile. We were friends since my freshman year, and she always encouraged me and pushed me,” he said. “Having her there made me feel comfortable and not as worried. She would also help me with my school work. She was one of the main reasons I got through that.”
For the first time in three years, Zack has a sport to focus on and some normalcy, though he’s never considered himself a golfer. He shoots from 45 to 48 for nine holes for the perennial Central Buckeye Conference contender, which is about average in high school.
But he provides inspiration to his teammates with his presence alone.
“They look up to Zack. They see how hard he works. And they want him out there,” said third-year coach Charlie Mowell.
“It’s just a shame cancer messed up his life, but he’s one of those guys who doesn’t give up. If he wants to do something, he’ll try to do it the best he can. He’s still trying, even though he’s got knocked off his feet.
“He’s a special kid.”
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