EMORY, Va. – Long after Saturday’s VHSL Class 1 state semifinal football game, Zach Brown looked around Fred Selfe Stadium before entering the locker room.
It was the final act of a memorable journey for the Patrick Henry senior.
As a four-year starter at running back, Brown led the Rebels to 41 wins and the best record in school history this season.
“It was a special run,” Brown said. “I hate that we couldn’t go all the way, but we worked our butts to get this far.”
PH won 13 straight games dropping a 41-16 decision to a quick and strong Galax squad Saturday on the Emory & Henry campus.
It was a painful day in more ways than one for Brown. After battling a serious ankle injury since the fifth game of the season, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound team leader faced a question Saturday morning.
“I woke up and asked myself I had another game in me,” said Brown, who underwent ankle surgery as a sophomore.
While Brown admitted to feeling waves of pain after every tackle and hard landing, he pushed through the misery and scored on a pair of two-point conversion runs.
“Of all the games I played since the injury, this was definitely the hardest,” said Brown, who also saw playing time at linebacker. “But there was no way that I could stand on the sidelines and watch this game go by.”
PH head coach Mark Palmer came to expect that sort of bravery from Brown.
“Zach was only able to take part in one practice this week, and he did a run-through with his ankles wrapped,” Palmer said. “Zach was a big part of this team and he loves his teammates, so he wanted to be out there with them today.”
While the Galax defense was geared to stop the PH running attack, it was obvious from the first offensive series that Brown lacked his old zip that allowed him to run through and past defenders. He managed just 10 yards on 10 carries.
So just how healthy was Brown?
“Zach gave everything he had, but it probably would be kind to say that he was at 75 percent,” Palmer said. “I feel so bad that Zach had to battle injuries in his high school career. He probably missed a total of 14 games, but he was always encouraging and teaching the younger guys when he was out.”
According to senior quarterback Dakota Rector, Brown earned the respect and admiration of his peers the old-fashioned way.
“Zach’s example has meant everything to us,” said Rector, who directed the PH offense for two years. “His determination to play though injuries showed what kind of guy he is and how much cares for all of us.”
Rector pointed to two sequences Saturday where the courage and commitment of Brown was evident.
The first act came before the game when Brown gathered all his teammates into a huddle and spoke about the overall importance of the day.
The other sequence came in the second quarter when Brown remained in the game despite aggravating his injury.
“That made me want to play even harder,” Rector said.
Rector and company could only wonder what difference a healthy Brown could have made.
“It would have been huge,” Rector said. “In my opinion, Zach is the best running back in the state when he’s at full-strength.”
Brown rushed for a total of 4,379 yards in a PH uniform. But as he was greeted by dozens of well-wishers after Saturday’s game, Brown pointed to a bigger picture that involved an enthusiastic gathering of over 5,000 at Fred Selfe Stadium.
“I will not remember the score of this game or certain things that happened, but I will remember running through that tunnel of alumni before the game,” Brown said. “To see the community come out like this and show us love, there’s nothing like that rush and that image will stay with me.”
Much was expected of Brown after he posted phenomenal stats at the youth league and middle school level. Those expectations grew after Brown scored a touchdown in first varsity game.
“Growing up, we all dreamed of this type of season and Coach Palmer stressed the importance of brotherhood,” Brown said. “We kept each other accountable, stayed together and really went after it.”
What is the next stop for Brown?
“I’m going to take my talents to intramural sports at Virginia Tech,” said Brown, who wants to become a pharmacist. “I will never forget these past four years, and I will probably remember it in my ankles as well.”