There was a swelling of Bulldog Pride as students, many donning orange and black school colors and "I Run For Zack" T-shirts, flocked to the gymnasium for the afternoon pep rally at Zephyrhills High. • The marching band played rousing tunes. The football team gathered on the gym floor. Cheerleaders flipped through their routines, and the bulldog mascot danced as students split into their respective clans to vie for the treasured "spirit stick," by making the loudest noise they could muster. It’s typical fare when gearing up for the season opener, which was Aug. 24 against Wiregrass Ranch High. • But this wasn’t just about football. This also was a rally of support for a fellow student who is in the fight of his life.
In June, a few weeks after his 18th birthday, senior Zackary Springfield was diagnosed with stage 4 Ewing Sarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of bone cancer. He had pain in his back for a while, said his mom, Mirtza Springfield, and a feeling of malaise that made it hard to get him out of bed in the morning. It wasn’t like him. This was a kid who competed on the school cross country, track and soccer teams.
After a few medical visits, doctors discovered a mass on his right lung.
"We knew there was a 99 percent chance it was cancer, and it was," said his dad, Doyle Springfield.
Since his diagnosis, Zack has undergone chemotherapy treatments at John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg to attack the cancer that had spread throughout his body, but not into his bone marrow.
With chemo comes side effects — low blood counts that lead to transfusions, weakness and the loss of his hair. Zack has more rounds to go before starting a second protocol, and will take classes through a program for homebound students during his senior year.
Throughout it all, his spirit has been stellar, said his mom.
"He’s determined to fight it. He has a lot of faith in God," she said.
"He’s a fighter for sure," said former Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Trever Miller, who befriended Zack while visiting patients at All Children’s with Rays player Grant Balfour. "He’s going to beat this cancer for sure."
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In a county booming with growth, Zack Springfield is small-town Zephyrhills all the way. His parents and his sister, Suzanne, 26, are grads of Zephyrhills High. His mom ran track, as did his sister.
"He’s probably one of the nicest kids I’ve ever met," said social studies teacher and cross country coach James Kretschmar. "He’s so polite. Ask him anything, and he’ll do it."
"He’s one of those ‘yes, sir,’ ‘no, sir,’ kind of kids," said soccer coach John Soellner, adding that Zack has an open invitation to join the team on the sidelines during games even though he can’t play. "I love keeping him around. His attitude is contagious. Never complains. Would try anything you ask him to. He’s a great kid. A great kid."
The community is behind him.
To help with medical expenses, the cross country coaches and team raised about $4,500 selling wristbands with the inscription "Zack Fights the Bone But Not Alone." A poker run sponsored by Creative Soul’s Café raised approximately $3,500. In October, the cross county team, which helps organize the annual Rattle Snake Run, plans to donate proceeds that typically go to the team to the Springfield family.
Those efforts were about raising money, but there was support of another kind.
"Zack’s dad mentioned that the family and some friends were going to shave their heads for Zack and asked if I would, too," Kretschmar said. "They were going to do it over the summer when Zack started chemotherapy, but I said, ‘Let’s do it big and get support from the school. Let’s wait for the first pep rally.’?"
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While students found their seats in the gymnasium, Zack hung out in the lobby with Trever Miller and his sister, who was snapping pictures with her dad’s camera. His parents waited on stage, where his dad and others readied themselves for their extreme haircuts. Volunteer barbers came from Massey’s Barber Shop, Infusion Salon and 4/One The Gentlemen’s Quarters.
"I don’t have anything planned to say," Zack said. "I’m winging it — just going with the flow. I’m not used to this. I’m one of those quiet kids."
Maybe not so much anymore.
As he was called up to the stage, he tipped his cap to the cheering crowd and danced across the floor.
"Zack was diagnosed with cancer, but that did not stop his spirit." Kretschmar told the crowd amid chants of "Go Zack!"
Zack shook hands with a bald Danny Wade, 16. The night before, he was the first classmate to get his a free shave. Then Zack took electric clippers and with a wide grin, made the first swipe at his dad’s graying locks. He joked with his best friend, Seth Pelfrey, 17, who was getting his head shaved, along with his dad’s long-time friend, Kevin Bahr, and coaches Kretschmar and Soellner.
Seth said he didn’t mind losing his hair.
"He’s the greatest kid I’ve ever met," he said. "He always has a smile. I’ve never seen him down at all. We need more kids like him."
With that, Zack headed back out onto the gym floor to lead seniors in what would be their winning chant for the spirit stick.
"Just to see his energy was fun, a lot of fun to see him enjoying himself like that, because a lot of time he doesn’t have the energy," said his clean-shaven dad. "He won’t be able to attend school for his senior year, so being able to plug himself into things that mean a lot to him is important. This is like one day that he gets"
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.