ST. PETERSBURG — In a week where making a strong impression can mean so much, Zach Zenner can only hope Saturday's East-West Shrine Game goes as well as Sunday did.
On the annual players' trip to Shriners Hospital for Children in Tampa, the running back from South Dakota State bonded so well with a 5-year-old named Brennen that Brennen's mother emailed not only the Shrine Game but his college coach as well.
"They really seemed to hit it off — he was very gentle and kind and took such a liking to Brennen," his mother, Kolleen Osterberger, said by phone Wednesday.
Brennen, now in kindergarten, has been a patient at Shriners since he was 2 weeks old due to hip problems. He got a football and autographs from players Sunday and spent a half-hour playing foosball with Zenner. On Saturday, he'll be in the stands at Tropicana Field with his family.
"It was a great time for me —I've got little brothers and sisters, so I was just hanging out," said Zenner, 6 feet and 220 pounds. "We were just hanging out playing foosball, and he seemed like a great kid and a great family."
Zenner spent time in college shadowing a specialist in pediatrics — he graduated with a degree in biology and hopes to go into medicine after football. His challenge Saturday will be showing scouts that he can hold his own against the top players from major-college programs.
It's hard to imagine more success running the ball than Zenner has shown at I-AA South Dakota State, where he rushed for more than 2,000 yards in each of the last three seasons, combining for 45 touchdowns in the last two years.
He's fared well in occasional competition against elite competition — in 2013, he rushed for 202 yards and two scores in a loss at Nebraska, in 2012, he went for 183 and a score in a loss to Kansas, and last fall, he rushed for 103 and two scores against Missouri.
"It's an honor to be here — everyone's trying to do something to stand out, and that's the name of the game in a game like this," said Zenner, who played for the Jackrabbits after starring at Eagan High School in Minnesota.
Two of the top Shrine Game players last year were small-school standouts — quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois) and receiver John Brown (Pittsburg State) — and he'll split time in the West backfield with another I-AA star in North Dakota State's John Crockett, who rushed for 1,994 yards last fall.
The Osterberger family hails from South Florida, so they're Miami Hurricanes fans for the most part, but come Saturday, they'll be at the Trop, cheering for a Jackrabbit.
"He's looking forward to seeing the game Saturday," said his mother, who has an SDSU shirt coming soon from Zenner's coach, "and really hoping to spot Zack."
Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.