People of the Year: Zach Herrera

How could they ever pay it back? That was the question Mike and Gwen Herrera wrestled with for 30 days this summer, as nearly 1,000 people streamed into their son’s fourth-floor hospital room and offered everything from their time to their money to their prayers to … heck, their hair.

How could they ever pay it back? That was the question Mike and Gwen Herrera wrestled with for 30 days this summer, as nearly 1,000 people streamed into their son’s fourth-floor hospital room and offered everything from their time to their money to their prayers to … heck, their hair.

How could they adequately thank a community that had brought them breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for a month, paid for all of their son’s medical bills and drove from miles away just to encourage a family going through the unthinkable?

And how could they respond when, after (reluctantly) turning away a church group after one particularly exhausting night, they looked out their son’s window 15 minutes later to see a group of 30 people singing with their hands raised to the hospital room, lifting up a teenager many of them had never even met?

“Thank you,” Gwen said, “just doesn’t seem like enough.”

More than four months and a few hundred thank-you cards later, it still doesn’t.

Herrera is one of About magazine’s People of the Year. Until June 24, 2016, he was a relatively unknown Hoover High School student whose biggest claim to fame was finishing his sophomore season as one of the leading tacklers on the Vikings’ junior varsity football team.

That all changed on a fateful Friday when Zach Herrera called his mom to tell her he had a headache.

Gwen was out with her daughter, Alexis, buying ingredients to make cookies for Alexis’ high school graduation party, which was scheduled for two days later.

“He was sitting right here when he called and said, ‘Mom, my head hurts,’ ” said Gwen, sitting on her living room chair during an interview two days before Thanksgiving. “He didn’t get them (headaches) a lot, but when he did, I would say, ‘Oh, you spent the night somewhere, you got two hours of sleep, you’re dehydrated.’ So I just said, ‘Grab a bottle of water and you know where the aspirin is.’ ”

Again, Zach said, “My head hurts.”

Then, “Mom, I can’t see.”

Then, “Mom, I can’t move.”

Finally, “Mom, I’m dizzy.”

Gwen called 911, then called a neighbor to check on Zach. The living room floor was covered with photos that were going to be used for the graduation party and when they found Zach, one was stuck to his skin. He was taken
to Mercy Medical Center, then life-flighted to Akron Children’s Hospital where the Herreras were told their son just suffered a brain aneurysm and was in critical condition.

What the Herreras didn’t know—and wouldn’t know for several weeks—was that there was nothing the doctors could do.

The line of visitors to the call hours of Zach Herrera snakes through the halls of Hoover High School. (CantonRep.com / Bob Rossiter)
The line of visitors to the call hours of Zach Herrera snakes through the halls of Hoover High School. (CantonRep.com / Bob Rossiter)
Zach had a cerebral arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which the Mayo Clinic describes as a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain. It’s rare, affecting less than 1 percent of the population, and it’s either present at birth or develops soon afterward. A brain AVM also is fixable, if you’re “lucky” enough to need an MRI or a CAT scan at some point before it hemorrhages, usually between the ages of 15 and 20 (if ever). Zach was 16.

Because Zach’s brain needed to be elevated at a 30-degree angle for the first few weeks, the doctors couldn’t perform an MRI, which would have told them if he had any chance of recovery. So, the Herreras were left to hope and pray, watching their son’s body improve without knowing if his brain ever would.

“He looked like he was getting better,” Mike said. “Every day, another machine was turned off, another IV was taken out. His hair was growing back. Physically, his body was as strong as it ever was. We just had to wait until he could get the test to see if his brain would recover.”

As they waited, Zach’s story struck a chord in Stark County, first on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, then in news reports in The Canton Repository and Fox 8 News. His Hoover teammates shaved their heads in unity. Opposing players dropped by with signed footballs. A little girl with special needs called to speak with Zach and, after a little bit of digging, Mike found out she had been bullied before Zach put a stop to it. A parent of a Hoover student handed Mike a cross and said, “My daughter would kill me for telling you this, but for the last three years, the password on her computer was Zach Herrera.”

“Visiting hours did not apply,” Mike said. “People would come at 1 or 2 in the morning. The visiting room became our room. We took over the cupboards and the refrigerator, and no one complained.”

Meanwhile, a family friend started a GoFundMe page that raised more than $25,000. Local businesses also stepped up, with donations coming from Scoops Ice Cream, Grinders Above and Beyond, Texas Roadhouse, TD’s Tailgate Grill, the Barrel Room, Midnight City Crossfit, Mama Guzzardi’s, Hall of Fames Lanes and on and on and on.

“I can’t even remember them all,” Gwen said, teary-eyed.

By July 13, Zach was stable enough to get an MRI, which confirmed the doctors’ worst fears: He never had a chance.

“We were there for a month,” said Mike, “but Zach was gone that first day.”

The Herreras took him off life support and he died July 23. But the story didn’t end there.

The Vikings dedicated their football season to Zach, maintaining his locker in the locker room, wearing a sticker with his jersey number (40) on the back of their helmets and running onto the field before games holding his jersey. In front of the student section was a sign that read “#ZachStrongForever #40.”

Other schools joined in, with the student sections from Lake and GlenOak wearing orange in his honor. GlenOak painted “#Zachstrong” on the school rock. Perry put Zach’s picture on its scoreboard and the back of its program, along with Ellen Brenneman’s poem “The Journey’s Just Begun.” Louisville’s fans released orange and black balloons, Lake’s band members put 40 on their drums, and Green’s football players laid roses in front of the student section. Jackson’s band wore ribbons in his honor, then formed 40 on the field during the halftime show. One of Zach’s Hoover teachers, Amanda Humphrey, also coaches volleyball at Lake Center Christian, where she dedicated one of the regular season games to honoring Zach and raising money in his honor.

Zach’s medical bills totaled $1.9 million. The insurance and donations covered all of it.

His funeral expenses were thousands more. Again, the donations covered it.

poy_herrera4“I can truly understand how people lose everything in situations like this,” said Mike, who said the family plans to donate the excess money back to the community. “Without that kind of outreach, I don’t know where we would be. It’s something we never had to worry about. God, to have that burden taken off our shoulders was amazing.

“Was it hard talking about it all the time? Yeah. But did we do it? Yes, because we owed that. I still feel like we owe it.”

Mike didn’t attend a football game until late in the season—“I just couldn’t do it”—but remembers standing on the sideline during one game when a man came up to him, introduced himself and said, “You know, we never expected anything in return.”

“I was like, ‘What?’ ” Mike said. “And he said, ‘My wife and I donated $100, and we got a thank-you card from your wife. We never expected that.’ I’m like, ‘That’s what she does.’ ”

As Mike chuckled, Gwen walked over with a wicker basket stuffed with cards. She sent thank-you cards to everyone she could, then admitted she didn’t send them to the people who donated on GoFundMe because she didn’t have their addresses.

“Our goal is to thank everyone,” Mike said. “It might take a year, it might take two years. But I know she won’t stop until everyone receives a thank-you card.”

Through all of this, there is still one question to answer: Why Zach? Why did his story connect with the community in a way other tragic stories didn’t?

“I had a parent say to me, ‘You know, we’re so happy for you guys and the way the community is surrounding you, but Zach wasn’t the star quarterback, he wasn’t the super stud, so I don’t understand,’ ” Mike said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, he kind of was.’ Find a kid on that team that didn’t like Zach or didn’t respect Zach. Find a kid on that team that, when they were upset Zach wouldn’t crack up or calm down.

“One of the football players, his best friend Cord (Haubert) said it best (in a Repository article), ‘Zack had no enemies. He fought with no one, unless they needed taken care of, then he took care of it. It was always for someone else, never for him.’ ”

Zach wasn’t a straight-A student. He wasn’t 6-foot-5, 220 pounds with a scholarship to Ohio State. He was a 5-foot-6, 150-pound linebacker who knew he had to prove himself worthy at every level—and did.

“I think that’s why the community rallied around him,” Mike said. “Because this was a kid worth rallying around. They knew it in the bottom of their heart. There was no guesswork. They knew this kid was worth doing this for. They knew he was genuine.”

—Joe Scalzo

Where to buy

The Repository
Select Rite Aid Stores
Spee-D Foods
Buehler's Fresh Foods
Fishers Foods, including 44th Street NW, Tuscarawas St. W, Fulton Drive, Lincoln Way E. and Cleveland Ave. NW locations
Aultman Hospital Gift Shop
Mercy Medical Center Gift Shop
Gervasi Vineyard Marketplace
Carpe Diem Coffee Shop, downtown Canton and Belden Village Mall locations
News Depot
Avenue Arts Marketplace
Yum Yum Tree Alliance
Grapes in a Glass