COLUMN: Zane Williams, you’re all heart
There he goes again, ball tucked away and head slightly bent as he looks for any gap before he’s forced to absorb the punishing hit that he has to know is coming. He’s a marked man, in the sights of all 11 defenders even before the ball is in his possession.
The contact is brutal; gang tackles, dives at his knees, blindside hits … and it goes on and on for 48 minutes as he lugs the ball 39 times. His final tally: 145 yards, and he earned every single one of them as his season total expands to 1,258 ground yards, the fifth-best total in Class 3A.
And afterwards? Zane Williams was smiling. Seriously, he was beaming. He was tired and he was sore, but those were welcomed feelings. Why? Because he felt normal again, maybe for the first time in nearly a month.
“It’s just awesome to be back,” Williams, Webster City’s senior star tailback, told me late Friday night after he helped push the Lynx past the finish line and back into the playoffs with a 27-14 slugfest victory over Boone.
It had been a scary, anxiety-riddled 28 days between when Williams carried the ball for the final time in a 179-yard, four-touchdown performance in a 37-27 win over Ballard on Sept. 22 to when he returned to the field on Friday.
What very few people knew in September while Williams was rocketing to the top of the 3A rushing leaderboard was that something was just a little bit off. Oh, he looked invincible, but he soon found out that wasn’t the case.
On Wednesday, Sept. 27, Williams was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare heart abnormality that had been with him undetected since birth. In WPW syndrome, an extra electrical pathway between the heart’s upper and lower chambers causes a rapid heart beat. It most often creeps up when an individual is in his or her teens or 20’s, and for most it doesn’t cause significant problems. Symptoms include dizziness, shortness of breath, fainting, fatigue and anxiety, among others, and if it’s untreated, particularly if other heart problems are present, it can be serious. In the most extreme cases, sudden death can occur.
Just the phrase — sudden death — is enough to send chills down the spine.
Now imagine you’re a teenage boy, seemingly in the prime of your life, and you hear that diagnosis for the first time. What would your reaction be?
Williams was scared. He’s not ashamed to admit it, nor should he be. In that moment, his budding football season and athletic career flashed before his eyes. Perhaps even his life did as well.
“It was really scary because I never knew what my heart was going to do,” Williams said. “When you feel something, all of a sudden you’re really paranoid.”
WCHS head football coach Bob Howard was one of the first people outside of Williams’ family to get the news and it rocked him. In that moment, football was meaningless.
“It’s just high school football,” Howard told me as we sat on the sideline and talked about Williams following the Lynx 20-0 loss to second-ranked Dallas Center-Grimes on Sept. 29, the first of three games that Williams missed.
But Williams was thinking about football, and about his brothers on the field who were in the midst of a special season when his life was turned upside down.
“When I first got the news about my problem, my doctor said I might not be able to play football again because they didn’t know if they could schedule my appointment,” he said. “But luckily I got in quick so I could get back out there.”
Here’s the part of the story that amazes me. Williams had a heart defect, one that required a procedure called catheter ablation to fix, and yet he was somehow able to return to the field this season. With this procedure, a tube is placed in a vein through a small cut near the groin and travels up to the heart. Once there, the area causing the fast heart rate is destroyed using a special type of energy called radiofrequency or by freezing it, which is known as cryoblation.
Williams, who was named the WCHS homecoming king during the month-long ordeal — a little good to go with the bad — underwent the procedure on Wednesday, Oct. 11. He received a clean bill of health and was cleared to return to the team seven days later. Two days after that he was back on the field against Boone.
How? I mean, seriously … how? The mental anguish alone would cripple most and, physically, Williams was put on the shelf for nearly a month.
But on Friday, it would have taken an army to drag him off the field. And it was only fitting that he was the one in position to intercept Boone quarterback Mason Hulse for the second time to put the game on ice in the final minute.
“It’s guts, but it’s also because he’s conditioned for three years,” Howard surmised. “He’s never missed strength training and he’s never missed speed training and it shows. A lot of kids would have lost all of their conditioning … plus, he’s mentally tough enough to get past being tired and not wanting out of the game.”
Even with the three-game absence, Williams still won the District 2 rushing title by 340 yards, an indication of just how special this season has been and even what might have been. His return makes ninth-ranked WCHS (8-1) a serious threat in the state playoffs that will get underway on Friday.
That’s the football side of it and that holds some importance. But the human side of this story is one of success, even if Williams never carries the ball again. He endured a scare that most will never feel and he came out the other side with a smile on his face.
No matter what the scoreboard says, Zane Williams has already won.