One individual can make a major impact on an entire group of people.
Then again, one group of people can make that same impact on one individual.
Last November, as every member of the Perkiomen School football team rushed off the bus and flocked to their assistant coach at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia, both impacts were evident.
About six months after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease better known as ALS, Perkiomen School assistant football coach Tom Ziemak took part in the Greater Philadelphia Walk to Defeat ALS.
As far as Ziemak knew, his Walk team ‘Z Strong’ would consist of about 150 family members and friends participating in the early-November two-mile walk.
He was in for quite a surprise.
Sitting in a wheelchair scooter with his back to the road, the assistant coach was quickly surrounded by a sea of purple as the players flocked to their coach from the bus sporting their game day jerseys.
“It was so special,” said Ziemak, commonly referred to as ‘Z.’ “I had no idea that the football team was going to be there. We were sitting there at Citizens Bank Park, and out of nowhere the guys completely surrounded me. It was awesome.”
“I’ll never forget the expression Z had on his face,” recalled head coach Tom Calvario. “It was absolutely priceless. It was all the managers, the coaches, the trainer — everyone came and showed their support. The tears of joy every one of us shared — it was amazing. I’ll never forget that day.”
In total ‘Z Strong’ raised $10,280 for the ALS Association, doubling its goal amount and earning Highest Rookie Team honors for having the most walkers and most money raised for a first-year team. Boasting almost 200 members, Z Strong was the ALS Walk’s biggest rookie team in the past 19 years.
Ziemak’s wife Chrissy, along with Perkiomen School athletic trainer Melissa Miller, brought up the idea of having a handful of players attend the walk. That handful of players quickly turned into an entire roster, as every single player was in attendance.
It was a day the Panthers felt they owed the day to Ziemak.
“He bonded with every single one of our players,” Calvario said. “When we presented them (the players) with the idea of participating, no one on the team even batted an eye. Every single one of them wanted to be there that day.
“It was a Sunday — their day off, their day to sleep in — and every single one of them wanted to be at the walk.”
The players had an inclination to give back to someone who had given so much to them.
“He’d done so much for us all season,” said junior running back Josh Cruz. “He was out there with us in the heat of the summer, and in the cold during the (fall). That was our way of paying him back and saying thank you.”
This past season, the Panthers compiled a 7-2 overall record with several players posting career seasons. Both of Perk’s losses came on a combined four points.
Much of that success came as a result of Ziemak’s coaching and fine-tuning throughout the season.
Coaching practice while getting around on a golf cart, the former St. Pius X High School quarterback/safety gave each of his players plenty of help to improve, whether it be one-on-one after practice or in the heat of the drills. Though he couldn’t physically demonstrate lessons to the players, one thing was always evident — his love and knowledge for the game.
“Sitting there coaching football, talking football, watching football, being a part of a football team again — that was awesome,” he said. “The guys looked at me as a coach. Nothing more, nothing less. They listened and respected everything that I taught them.”
But it was about more than just respect. The Panthers knew Ziemak had plenty to teach them from not just a physical aspect, but also a mental standpoint.
“He became more than just a coach,” said senior wide receiver Ja’Ren Hampton, “he was a mentor to all of us. As much as he taught us about football, he taught us even more about life and how to act like men.
“He always talked to us about staying positive, smiling and laughing. It was a blessing to have him as a part of our team this season.”
Ziemak became the blessing Calvario knew he would be on the Perkiomen sideline. After several failed attempts of getting Ziemak to join his coaching staff over the past decade, Calvario was finally able to convince his old friend.
“Over the years, Z could never commit time to us because of work,” said Calvario. “I called him up a few days after he had been diagnosed and we talked for hours. We talked about everything — life, sports, him now having to leave his job.”
And that’s when it clicked.
“So then I asked him ‘Z, do you have the time now that you think you’d want to come out and help coach?’” recalled Calvario. “I didn’t care if he’d be there one day a week or five. He’s got a ton of knowledge about the game. I knew he’d be a great addition to our staff.”
It was an offer Ziemak couldn’t refuse.
“I was all out of excuses,” laughed Ziemak. “I told him I’d be honored to coach with him.”
As the season went on, Ziemak found himself engulfed in football. He spent less time worrying about his diagnosis and more time worrying about Perkiomen football. In the end, Ziemak made it to every practice during the regular season and was on the sidelines for all nine of the Panthers’ games.
Any time he wasn’t with the team, he could be found at home studying game film, designing new plays and even scouting players across the area for future Perk teams.
“That filled up his hours and really gave him a purpose each day,” said Chrissy Ziemak. “Football was becoming his life. He really cared about the players on the team, so he was focused on helping them get better.”
Much like this past season, the ALS Walk proved to be a defining moment in Ziemak’s journey. The walk served as a tribute, not just to a coach, but a friend, a mentor — and for some — an idol.
“I’ll always look up to him and respect him for what he’s done for us,” said Hampton. “Everything we went through as football players — that was nothing compared to what he’s been through.”
As the season went on, the assistant coach watched his players develop — not just in-between the lines, but also in their everyday lives off the field.
“The first time I met this team over the summer, it was a group of boys,” said Ziemak. “By the final game, they were a team. They came together and got so much better by all of the hard work they put in this season. I’m proud to say that I was a part of it.”
Records and statistics aside, there is one main thing Calvario will take away from this past season.
“November 1, 2015,” Calvario said with a smile. “That’s a day that I will never, ever forget.”
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