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Ex-Whitney High star Zack Graves returns to Sierra College football after ‘freak accident’

Junior college running back healthy at age of 23
By: Jeremy McDonald / Special to the Journal
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Winston Churchill once said, “Never, never, never give up.”

That statement can be applied to Zack Graves, who never gave up on his dreams to play football following a medial collateral ligament tear in 2010 during his grey-shirt freshman season at Sierra College.

Entering the fall of 2009 at Sierra, Graves was coming off a successful career at Whitney High School, rushing for 4,218 yards and scoring 55 rushing touchdowns for the Wildcats during his junior and senior years. Graves ran for 2,783 yards and 39 TDs in a mammoth ’08 campaign when the Wildcats went 13-0.

Graves grey-shirted his first year for the Wolverines and by the fifth game of the season in 2010, he was looking to take the college scene by storm.

"In the two or three games that he played in, you saw glimpses of how good Zack can be,” said former Sierra College head coach Jeff Tisdale.

But tragedy struck the young athlete.

“It was a freak accident,” Graves said. “It was the fifth game of the season against (American River College). I ran up the middle and my knee buckled.”

Graves was diagnosed with a partial tear of the MCL in his left knee. Doctors told him that he would be out for three weeks and surgery wouldn’t be needed.

So the then 19-year-old entered a rehabilitation program to strengthen the ligament, but three weeks proved to be too soon as he damaged the ligament further, completely tearing his MCL.

“I should’ve sat out for the rest of the season to strengthen it,” Graves said. “But the doctors said it would take three weeks to heal, so I rehabbed hard and came back too soon.”

Over the next few years, Graves rehabbed hard trying to make a comeback without surgery.

But surgery proved to be the only option and on Aug. 12, 2013, Graves went under the knife.

Following the surgery, he would rehab hard, strengthening his knee, building strength and speed to get back to the field.

“The goal was always to comeback. I never had the chance to play college football,” he said. “I never had a chance to finish it, to see where I can take it.  I’m not letting anything hold me back and I’m motivated to finish it this time.”

When he was ready, Graves contacted Sierra defensive coordinator Ed Eaton about returning to the team. Eaton told the now 23-year-old that he was welcome back to the team with open arms by new head coach Ben Noonan and former Placer football coach Jim Gray.

 “He came out three weeks ago and when I saw him I was like, ‘Alright let’s see what you have,’” said Gray, who now is the running backs coach at Sierra.

Gray had concerns with how much was left in the tank, but was surprised following the offseason camp.

“He’s as good as any of the young guys and as fast as anyone out there in the backfield,” Gray said. “He’s currently in the three-man rotation at running back.”

Graves, though, admits that he has been shaking off the cobwebs during practices.

“I was rusty a bit, reading the defense and blocking,” he said, “but my speed and strength is there.”

With training camp on the horizon, Graves is currently in a three-man battle for the starting position with Conrad Tanyi from Spanish Springs High of Sparks, Nev., and Johnny Cooley from Granite Bay High School.

Graves, however, is more focused on the team as a whole rather than who’s starting.

“They’re really good backs,” he said of Tanyi and Cooley. “We’re all going to play and help the team win. It’s not who’s going to start, but we’re going to compete.”

Gray was impressed by Graves’ attitude and mindset.

“Zack came in and didn’t care if anyone knew who he was,” Gray said. “He’s a workaholic and he’s earning respect right now.”

The plan moving forward hasn’t changed much for Graves. He still wants to go on to a four-year university and become a physical therapist. But he acknowledges that his focus is on the here and now to help Sierra win as many games as possible when the season starts at City College of San Francisco on Sept. 6.

Graves also said if he could advise athletes who find themselves in a similar situation after being injured, he would tell them that no one knows their body better than themselves.

“Don’t rush it,” he said. “Trust what you are feeling.”