By GRETCHEN HENKEL
Win one for the Gipper. Football fans, sports aficionados, and probably every American are all familiar with this phrase. Knut Rockne, famous coach of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, sought to inspire his players during half-time in a game against Army, in the midst of a losing season. “Win one for the Gipper” were his words of inspiration. George Gipp was a star player under Rockne who died just a few days after leading the Irish to victory over Northwestern. The senior halfback and quarterback succumbed to strep throat (penicillin had yet to be invented) at the age of 25 on December 14, 1920. Rockne’s immortal words entered the American lexicon in large part due to a 1940 movie, Knute Rockne – All American. Actor and future American president Ronald Reagan portrayed the doomed George Gipp with actor Pat O’Brien playing Rockne. Win one for the Gipper became a campaign standard for Reagan when he sought the highest office in the land. (Reagan served two terms, from 1981-1989.)
You might say that the players on the Secaucus Recreation Pee-Wee Patriots football team Won one for Michael Zena, and won mightily as they took home the championship trophy for the second consecutive year in 2016. Michael, a popular and well-respected player for the Pee-Wees for three years, had to to a serious injury. The nine-year-old (he’ll turn 10 on June 21) fourth grader at Huber Street School is not only a knowledgeable and nimble football player, he also wrestles and plays baseball. Michael’s father believes that his son injured his back during a wrestling match in December 2015. Thinking that Michael had only suffered a muscle strain, his son finished out the wrestling season and then continued right into baseball season, pitching for three different teams. When baseball season ended in July, the Zena family went on vacation. (Michael’s 15-year-old sister, Gianna, plays second base for the girls’ varsity softball team at Secaucus High School.) Upon their return in early August, Michael geared up for football season. Michael started at the running back position, and on the first day of practice, he had a noticeable “drag” to his left leg. He said he felt okay, but his parents, Michael and Angela, decided to pull him from the practice session.
Michael was due for a physical that week and the doctor advised that he should get x-rays of his leg and back, which he did at Hackensack Hospital. The x-rays were negative and the doctor said for Michael to rest for two weeks and to take Advil. Michael rested and then returned to his team. “I could see tears in his eyes,” Michael Sr. said about his son. “I asked him what was wrong, and he said he couldn’t walk.” Michael and Angela called the doctor who then sent the youngster back to Hackensack for an MRI. The test showed that Michael had a fracture to his L5-S1 vertebrae. He was fitted with a brace that he continues to wear, even when he sleeps, and is currently in physical therapy twice a week. “It’s still an uphill battle,” Michael Sr. said, “because it’s taking longer to heal than expected. The strength in his back and leg aren’t one hundred percent yet, so the doctor recently recommended that he sit out baseball season this year.”
We had the opportunity to interview Michael at our office one afternoon just recently, and found the young athlete to be wise beyond his years and also a walking encyclopedia of football facts! (His favorite pro team is the NY Giants.) Michael, accompanied by his patient and loving mother Angela, showed us his brace that wraps rigidly around his torso. His Pee-Wee teammates had autographed the brace, much like one would do with a plaster cast, but the names were starting to wear off. Michael, a team player, never missed a practice nor a game once the regular football season started. He was at his team’s side throughout the season, inspiring his teammates to play their best, and they did, winning it all for the “Gipper” (aka, Michael). Even though he was sad that he couldn’t play, and was in pain a lot of the time, Michael never let on his true feelings to his teammates, a pretty remarkable feat for one so young. Michael’s coach Sean Pena, who is also the coordinator for the entire Rec football program, said Michael was an integral part of the team, even though he spent the season on the sidelines. “He supported his teammates and had an enduringly positive attitude throughout the season,” commented Pena. The coach said the friendships the boys make now, in the second through fourth grades, sustain them throughout their lives. “We teach all the kids about teamwork, commitment and sacrifice — Mike embodies all three.”
Michael’s support and commitment to his team in the face of personal pain and uncertainty prompted Sean Pena to initiate the Michael Zena Spirit Award. The first recipient of the award was, of course, Mike Zena. The youngster accepted the award at the Rec football dinner on January 4. At the dinner, Michael gave quite a descriptive account of his injury and the ensuing football season, giving almost a play-by-play description of the playoff and championship games that led to the Pee-Wees taking the championship on November 11, 2016, in a game against Ridgefield. (Michael could always find a career in sports broadcasting!) Here’s just a snippet of the exciting finale of the championship game, in Michael’s words: We tied the game up 12-12 and now the championship play. Michael Lamanna calls “hike” and busts through the middle of the defense and crosses the goal line. I screamed, “Oh my God!” We scored, 13-12, Secaucus wins! We are the champions again — back to back! We got our trophy, took pictures, and the team signed my back brace. The coaches and my teammates came up to me and said, “Hey, Zena, this championship is for you!” With everything I went through, having to sit out and not play with a fractured back, crying, and wishing I could play with them, having them say that to me proved my point. This team was my family. That felt like a brotherhood. I’ll never forget!
Although he could have been home-schooled while recuperating from his back injury, Michael chose to attend school, and never missed a day! His grandmother gave him a journal to write in about his experiences and he faithfully, in between playing video games, having physical therapy, and attending his team’s practices and games, wrote about his ordeal of pain, the healing process, and his hopes for the future. We were amazed by Michael Zena’s knowledge of sports and especially his passion for the game of football. He told us he has “seven back-up plans” in case athletics don’t come through for him, one of which is “singing.” (We already mentioned he’d make a great sportscaster.) Michael has an upbeat, positive attitude and his poise and loquaciousness are well beyond his years. We hope he will be able to pursue his life in sports, but only if he gets the green light from his orthopedic doctors. And by the way, Mr. Bonin (fifth grade teacher at Huber Street), Michael thinks you’re “cool,” and hopes he’ll be in your class next school year!