I must be careful as I go
Through summer’s sun and winter’s snow,
Because I am building for years to come;
This little chap who follows me
– Excerpt from “The Little Chap Who Follows Me” (author unknown)
These are the words that Zachary Lederer lives by. The poem, made famous by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, reminds Lederer that there is now a spotlight on him. “I’m trying to be a good role model with all the eyes on me. I’m thinking, I need to do this right for the little kids looking at me,” Lederer said in a private interview.
In the Beginning…
Zach Lederer was told at age of 11 that he had a brain tumor and would need surgery to remove it, causing him to be put into a medically induced coma for a week and restrained to living from a bed for another month after. His muscles had weakened. He couldn’t lift his hands above his head. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t stand up on his own.
Nonetheless, Lederer lived to see another day. His strength and perseverance beat brain cancer, a disease that kills about 13,000 people in the United States each year, and is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in children and young adults. Lederer beat the statistics. “In my mind, I was perfectly fine,” Lederer said. “My first thought was: why me? Why me?” At such a young age, his naivety about the dangers of brain cancer turned out to be one of the greatest advantages.
On January 25 of this year, Lederer underwent surgery again to remove a second tumor in his brain. This time around, he had a completely opposite reaction. He looked at it as a chance to show the world how strong he could be. “Most people don’t get this opportunity in a lifetime, but I’m not even 19 and I’ve had that opportunity twice,” Lederer said. “Now that I’m 18 and know more about cancer, my response was: why not me?”
Lederer is going through this for the second time in eight years. That’s why he has a much more positive outlook on the situation. The patients down the hall from him in the Johns Hopkins Hospital Children’s Center are a big reason for this.Down the hall from Lederer, there is a four-year-old, a nine-year-old and a 12-year-old all fighting the same cancer battle that he is. “These guys are the strongest people I’ve seen in my life,” he said.
Lederer took it upon himself to be a role model for them, as well as cancer patients around the world. Unable to play football for his first three years of high school, Lederer sought a way to stay involved with sports. So he became a student-manager for his high school football and basketball teams. He continued that job until his senior year when his doctors finally cleared him to play football for a season.
Lederer developed a fondness for managing because it provided a way for him to be part of the team when he wasn’t allowed or physically able to compete on. “Sports has played an incredible role in my life. As a manager, I was somewhat both [a player and a fan], kind of like the middle man between the players and the fans,” said Lederer. “It was just a cool position to be in.” The simple idea that he would be able to get back on a football field or a basketball court pushed Lederer to get better – more than any doctor or parent could.
Fast forward to this year, his first as a college student. Lederer got involved with Maryland basketball camps over the summer. Before he knew it, he found himself as a manager for both the Terps football and basketball teams.
Lederer takes his job seriously. Just 48 hours out of surgery, he took his regular place on the sidelines next to head coach Mark Turgeon as his team took on Virginia Tech at home. Ignoring requests to take the day off and rest from his mom and Dr. Benjamin Carson, a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon and Lederer’s doctor since he was first diagnosed, he helped manage the Terps to a 73-69 win. “In my mind, the only thing that will make me feel better is going out to the basketball game and being normal again,” Lederer said.
That Monday, Lederer received a spinal tap that made the pressure in his head to become so extreme that it caused long, splitting headaches. There was one problem, though: the Terps were playing a conference game in two days. You can bet that Lederer was there to watch his team win yet again, this time against the University of Miami. “I like the idea that eyes are on me, and I can’t slip up,” Lederer explained. “Obviously it was painful, but I just put my head down and do my job.”
The Birth of Zaching
An hour after his January 25 surgery, Lederer made his father take a picture of him posing in such a way that has become viral in so many ways. He lifted his arms up over his head and flexed his muscles. The picture was then posted on Facebook, where some of Lederer’s cousins and friends mimicked him by taking similar pictures. One even with a caption: “Tebowing is out, Zaching is in.”
Not long after, people all over the country, Terps and non-Terps alike, started taking pictures of them “Zaching” as a sign of support for Lederer. Why the muscle flex pose? This is a question that Lederer can’t answer. “Why that pose, I really couldn’t tell you,” he explained. “I’m in a bed so there’s a limited amount of poses I could do at the time.” However, “Zaching” has a few meanings behind it. “The thing that upset me was that people would worry about me,” Lederer said. “I hope I can alleviate any ounce of worry by doing this pose and showing you how strong and how good I look.”
When Lederer sees someone performing his pose, in no way is he thinking about himself or his own popularity. “It makes me realize how great the world is and how great humanity is,” Lederer said. “In my mind, they’re not supporting me; they’re supporting all cancer patients. I would rather have them supporting all cancer patients than me. I’m one person.”
This is just the point that Lederer hopes to get across to the world with the new trend he set. “It means the world to me to know that you’re supporting my fight and everyone else’s fight against cancer,” he said. With people all over Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and any other social network “Zaching,” the trend is slowly becoming a phenomenon, especially with the help of weekly shout-outs from Maryland alum Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter.
At halftime of the Maryland-Boston College game, Lederer came out onto the basketball court and flexed his muscles. All of Comcast Center followed suit and “Zached” with him. “It’s just the coolest thing ever [to see that],” he said. During the Maryland-Miami basketball game on Feb. 21, freshman guard Nick Faust and senior center Berend Weijs both “Zached” by throwing up the guns in support of Lederer and ultimately cancer patients worldwide.
The Man Behind the Trend
If there’s one thing that Lederer wants people to realize, it’s the fact that he just wants to be a normal guy, a small fish in a big pond, as he is a member of the 4,000-strong in Maryland’s freshman class.
In addition to his love of sports, Lederer is really into poetry, as exemplified by his inspiration in the words from “The Little Chap Who Follows Me.” “I’m goofy as can be. If it’s fun I’m doing it,” Lederer insisted. “I try to be a nice guy – real easy-going.
He is also a broadcast journalism major in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. And although Lederer isn’t taking classes this semester for medical reasons, he already has visions of possible career paths. “I’d like to be a coach, maybe a journalist or something in broadcasting, maybe an inspirational speaker as my life has turned 180 degrees in the last month,” Lederer said.
He also made it clear that he doesn’t want all the attention that he is getting. Not because he is shy or selfish, but for a reason bigger than the popularity of “Zaching.” “I’m not the only one fighting cancer.”
“Zaching” went viral for good reasons. A simple flex represents his strength and perseverance. Having lived through two brain surgeries, Lederer has shown the world that not only can he beat cancer, but so can every cancer patient in the world as well.
He isn’t the only one fighting cancer. There is the four-year-old. There is the nine-year-old. And there is the 12-year-old. “Here I am, 18 with cancer, but man have I lived a life. I’m living the dream,” Lederer said proudly .