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Thomson High's Zach Washington overcomes medical issues to become Bulldog's inspirational leader
Leaving his heart on the baseball diamond

Zach Washington shouldn't be doing this.

He shouldn't dive for that hot grounder. He shouldn't slide into second base. He shouldn't swing that bat or make that throw.

But he does. Every inning. Every day.

"I shouldn't be playing; I should be watching," said Zach, Thomson's High School's starting second baseman. "But I just couldn't do that. I wanted to get out and play the sport that I love so much. This game is a big, big part of my life."

Zach shouldn't even be here, talking incessantly and buzzing around the halls at Thomson High School. Doctors told his mother that his appendix had burst while he was still in the womb and chances were he'd never even be born alive.

Eighteen years and 15 surgeries later, he's down to only a quarter of his intestines left. There are times when he hurts. But he keeps the pain to himself. And he continues to play his heart out, giving to his teammates and to the game everything he can muster.

"That's the only way I know how to play this game," said Zach. "I have to give it my all."

Against the odds

The news came to Tiffany Washington when she was just 13 weeks pregnant: There were particles floating in the stomach of her unborn son. His intestines had ruptured, and doctors were not hopeful.

It would be the first time that Zach decided to beat the odds.

Born at University Hospital, the new baby and his mom were separated for a few days while doctors worked to save him. The family transferred to the Medical College of Georgia Children's Hospital, where Zach was placed in intensive care. Family members - including her parents Tom and Sherry Hodge, along with Patti and Chris Brammer - kept constant vigil over the little baby with tubes coming out of what seemed like every orifice.

"Zach was my gift from God," said Mrs. Washington, who raised her son by herself until getting re-married to Stoney Washington several years ago. The couple has two other sons, Aaron, 16 and Caleb, 13.

The first two years of Zach's life were spent going back and forth to the hospital and to doctors for checkups. Since birth, he's undergone more than 15 surgeries.

Swinging for the fences

Amidst the check ups, doctor visits and stays in the hospital, there was a constant there for Zach: baseball.

"He plays the game like there's no tomorrow," said Mrs. Washington, who is an LPN at Dearing Elementary School. "He gives his all in every game. He wouldn't have it any other way."

There's a blurry picture of him as a toddler, walking down a hospital hall and hooked to an IV bag. He's wearing black socks up to his knees, tennis shoes, a baseball jersey and a baseball cap.

A few years later, he's swinging a plastic bat in the front yard.

A few years later, he's got his own baseball card as a member of the 1996 Brewers.

A few years later, he's got his hat on backwards and cocked to the side, his name inked on the underside of the bill.

And on and on.

Over the years, he's heard all the knocks. Especially the one about his size. Zach stands a head shorter than many of his Bulldog teammates.

Thomson Assistant Coach Aaron Hall says Zach plays a lot bigger than his size.

"He's a hard worker," said Coach Hall. "He wants to be the best infielder out there. He's a leader. And he talks non-stop. He's got a lot of energy. He's really an inspiration to this baseball team."

Life after baseball

Zach is also an inspiration off the baseball field. His mom credits him with being her driving force.

"He's so mature for his age," said Mrs. Washington, noting that he's never been late returning home and always calls her to let her know he's arrived safely when going somewhere. "He's so thoughtful - always thinking about others before himself."

Her son is now in need of another surgery - one that doctors actually suggested that he undergo before his senior season. There was only one flaw: He wouldn't be able to play his senior season of baseball. It was a trade Zach would not make.

"I didn't really want to do that because I know this is the last year that I can play baseball," he said. "It really means a lot to me to have this last chance to play."

After the surgery this summer, Zach plans to attend Augusta State University and hopes to one day become a health and physical education teacher and baseball coach.

"I think I was meant to coach," said Zach, pointing out that he has received lots of encouragement from Craig Chapman, the health and P.E. teacher at Norris Elementary, as well as Neal Tam, assistant principal of Thomson-McDuffie Junior High School.

As a THS senior, Zach's been learning firsthand what it would be like to actually work as a teacher in a classroom environment. He is involved in an apprenticeship program through the McDuffie County Board of Education where he actually receives compensation for helping in Coach Chapman's classroom.

"He is the kind of kid that every teacher and coach wishes they had a room full of," said Coach Chapman. "He never quits, never complains and never gives up. The students love him and look up to him. He's got the biggest heart of any person I've ever known."

Zach says he gets along well with students because he learned patience a long time ago and because students are close to his age.

"I love my job," said Zach. "I get paid. I get experience. And I get to have fun and to establish relationships with students and teachers in our school system. I get to experience a little of both worlds in this job."

One first and last blast

At the crack of the bat, he just knew.

In the swing game of the best-of-three series against Rutland last week, Zach came to the plate with Thomson needing a little spark. In a lifetime of baseball, the player that was always a little small for his age had never gone long.

"Man that was the best feeling I've ever had," said Zach, as he stood beaming in the dugout after the three-run homer sailed over the left center field fence.

Witnessing Zach's homer was one of the biggest highlights of an individual ever for Thomson Head Coach Terry Holder.

"I was so thrilled for Zach," said Coach Holder, noting that Zach is the type of young man that every parent wants their child to be like.

"He has so much character," said Coach Holder. "He has so much determination to live life in the right way."

So what if he hurts a little. So what if he doesn't feel well some days. So what if he's only got a few feet of intestines left and facing surgery that will take away the love of his life.

Zach Washington has the heart to pull through, inspire others and fulfill the promise God set forth for him.

"His spirit has never wavered," said Mrs. Washington. "Zach is so strong because he's been through so much in his life. He realizes how precious life really is everyday. He and our family get so much strength from our family and from God. We couldn't have made it this far without God."

Web posted on Thursday, May 14, 2009

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