Liberty player’s attitude while fighting cancer, community support inspires Valley
By Richard Smith
West Valley Preps
Zach Hunzinger’s recovery from bone cancer is a testament to the value of community and willpower.
Hunzinger is about 75 percent of the way through treatment for osteosarcoma in his left leg. From May 3, when he initially tweeted out his condition, the Valley has embraced the senior who played center for Liberty High.
While the community became a source of strength for the Hunzingers and Liberty football through this trial, Zach’s recovery has been aided by his unrelenting resolve. Almost immediately after his diagnosis, the teenage tapped into a reservoir of strength he never needed to access before.
“For the first two hours I was thinking, ‘This is crazy. I never would have thought I’d get this.’ I cried a little bit,” Hunzinger said. “But then I thought about what I needed to do and what was the next step. I told my parents, ‘Don’t worry. I’m getting through this.’ That was pretty much when the transition hit — the day of.”
By that night, he was at a better place than his parents.
“I didn’t let him see me cry. I think I cried myself to sleep that night. As a parent, that’s the worst nightmare. Your kid has cancer,” Megan Hunzinger said. “To see a 17-year-old that’s strong and healthy and has his mental attitude. His determination to fight this head on was admirable and courageous. And I’m in my room bawling like a baby.”
His last, three-month phase of chemotherapy resumed this month and should be complete at some point during the Christmas season.
Before restarting treatment, Hunzinger connected with another football player in the area that just learned of his osteosarcoma diagnosis.
He had never met Deer Valley junior Chase Sazone. Zach was at Hotel Mayo (the informal title of an inn near the Mayo Clinic) when he found out a guy that played a couple miles away had bone cancer in his arm.
They met at the Hunzingers’ Peoria home the last weekend of September and are fighting together.
“I immediately hit him up on Twitter and I was like, ‘Hey dude. I know we don’t know each other but we’re both going through the same thing. Anything you need, questions you have and motivation, ask me.’”
Hunzinger is now a bit of an expert on the rare cancer — which is even more unusual to find in a teen. And the inspirational nature of his plight caused the football community, in particular the West Valley, to embrace him.
Zach said the response has amazed him from the day he tweeted it out.
“It was crazy because it blew up everywhere. I would get messages from people I didn’t even know, like from Shadow Ridge, from our rival school Centennial. Everybody, including their coaches, were texting me saying ‘We may not be brothers on the field but we’re brothers off the field,’” Hunzinger said. “It was definitely a good feeling to have everybody behind me. It definitely gave me more strength and motivation to beat this thing.”
Centennial offensive tackle and friend Jacob Fyffe gave the Coyotes Hunzinger’s #50Strong bracelets.
Very quickly, his treatment grew from a concern within the program to a Valley-wide effort.
“He was getting tweets from college coaches. People we didn’t even know in our neighborhood were dropping stuff off. The school, his coach and the coach’s wife, parents, the team — everybody came together and were here for us. It was amazing,” Megan Hunzinger said.
While the Lions prepared for the season missing one of their team leaders, Hunzinger’s determination and upbeat approach buoyed them.
“It’s been emotional at times for us but seeing Zach often and his strength and attitude makes all the difference,” Liberty coach Mark Smith said.
Zach went to the hospital nearly every other Thursday through Monday for treatment from May to July.
He said the effects of chemo were not that severe. Nothing in the hospital hurt like missing the Lions opening game Aug. 17.
“I remember the first game we had against Brophy. They gave me the award and a signed football from former Cardinals player Roger Wehrli. But when I got home that night, I did not stop crying. I told my parents this was the hardest thing I’ve had to go through,” Hunzinger said. “I want to be out there, especially being my senior year. I decided if I’m not playing now I kind of have to coach. My offensive line coach said which people need help. So I take my crutches on the sideline at practices, make sure they’re doing our assignment right and blocking this right. I almost wore the headsets one game.”
Mentoring made sense for what was to be the Lions only returning offensive line starter.
His surgery date was even tougher to take. He would have left knee replacement and distal femur replacement surgery the morning of Aug. 31 — and Liberty hosted neighborhood rival Sunrise Mountain that night.
At first he asked to change the date but was told the timing was crucial. He watched the PSBN webcast of the game in a bit of a stupor, but by the time the Lions came back for the 49-43 win he was full of emotion — and Megan Hunzinger said the nurses were cheering for Liberty.
“It was kind of a blur watching that game. I was in and out because I was still on the meds they gave me. But I remember it was in the fourth quarter and we were down and I thought, “I gotta sit up and watch this. This is crazy.’ When we won I texted all of them and we had a group chat in our #50Strong group. They all texted me and said this one was for you,” Hunzinger said. “One of my best friends Ryan Puskas — we’ve played together since we were little — he texted me and I almost cried during his text because of how much it meant.”
The surgery took seven inches out of his femur, yet Hunzinger took his first steps the next day. His early success gave him extra strength. He can now walk without crutches.
“They wanted him to go around the nurse’s station one time. He completed it one time and said, ‘That’s it? Let’s go again.’ So he went six times around. He was doing the steps the next day. Then soon after that we were throwing a football around in the therapy room. The goal for that was him to be standing with no support. I’d throw the ball right at him, and then I’d throw it to the right side and put more pressure on the right side. Then to the left, with more pressure on where he had the surgery. He ditched the walker the first day. He’s an overachiever,” Megan Hunzinger said.
That spirit has grown as Hunzinger continued hitting benchmarks early. It also permeates his family and teammates.
“Yes, people who say it can’t be done are often interrupted by others doing it and that is the mind set Zach goes by,” Smith said.
Hunzinger was in the hospital five days after the surgery, then needed to return about 10 days later to have his stitching redone.
He was developing blood pockets and the blood began to ooze through the stitching. They opened up the leg, redid the stitching drained out the area and gave Hunzinger 80 staples on the outside of his leg.
“We’re just thankful to be at the Mayo Clinic,” Megan Hunzinger said. “The team is just incredible. They communicate back and forth. They have a surgeon and oncologist trying to figure everything out and trying to get him to go to school too. It’s a never-ending schedule.”
About a month ago he joked that next week he’ll be running. More seriously, the mentality of ‘next week I’ll play football,’ continues to motivate him.
The Lions are undefeated and intent on crashing the 6A party. To follow them on game nights, Hunzinger changed his chemotherapy schedule from Thursdays through Mondays to Mondays through Friday morning.
During the Oct. 5 home game against Boulder Creek, the #50strong logo was painted at the 50-yard-line. And Hunzinger led his teammates in a halftime walk around the track in support of cancer survivors.
While missing his senior season has been incredibly difficult, the lineman is driven by the belief he will return to the field next fall.
“My goal is to finish the chemo, rehab this to where it feels like (surgery) hasn’t happened and then play college football,” Hunzinger said. “I’ll try to walk on somewhere, and if the juco stuff doesn’t disappear I’ll definitely take that route. I have a good relationship with a coach at MCC, Ron Sowers. I trained with him all the time. If the juco stuff does go away, I’ll definitely try to walk on at ASU because I have a good relationship with some of the coaches there too.”
He is similarly determined to overcome the odds in his career choice. Hunzinger wants to be a firefighter.His father, Chuck, is a police officer and his sister’s fiancee is a firefighter.
“I like helping people and motivating people. Firefighting is just fun,” Hunzinger said. “When the doctor told me that may not work, I told my parents it’s going to work. I’m going to find a way to make that happen. I respect what they’re saying benefits me. But to me, it’s always yes.”
Many have helped his family through this trying year.
The Phoenix Rising youth soccer program led a car wash at the Arizona Sports Complex in Peoria. The Haymaker Restaurant Company contributed a portion of their profits on a day in June to Hunzinger’s cancer treatments. Infinite Jiu Jitsu in Anthem, where Hunzinger is a student, hosted a fundraiser.
And several local celebrities, from the Arizona Cardinals to Kevin McCabe, host of AzPreps Live on Arizona Sports 98.7 have stopped by during his hospital stays.
Donations continue to be accepted at donate.americanyouth.com/zach50.
“Thank you to everybody that has contributed monetarily, food-wise, with support, prayers, thoughts and fundraisers,” Megan Hunzinger said.