Being a free agent can be a daunting situation for any athlete to be in. It’s a game of unknowns; there’s a lot of waiting and wondering. Which team will show interest in me? Will I get another shot to play the game I’ve sacrificed so much for? Luckily for NFL running back Zach Zenner, he’s got a backup plan: working at Sanford Research.
Finding time to balance work and family can be challenging for anyone, but for Zenner, that’s just scratching the surface. During his time away from the off-season workouts and his cherished family time with his wife and son, the former Jackrabbit great can be found surrounded by medical books and flashcards.
“Right now I am studying for the MCAT,” Zenner said. “I’m retaking that in the end of March.”
Zenner attended South Dakota State University where he excelled both on and off the field. As a star running back, Zenner was named a three-time All-American and a three-time Walter Payton Award finalist. He ranks near the top in all statistical FCS rushing categories. Zenner went on to graduate from SDSU with a 3.87 GPA and a degree in biology/pre-med. He played running back for the Detroit Lions from 2015 to 2018.
While patiently waiting for a team to contact him and for his MCAT results to come back, Zenner plans on trading in his shoulder pads and helmet for goggles and a lab coat.
In joining Dr. Jill Weimer’s research team at Sanford Health, Zenner hopes to discover effective drug treatments and hopefully, eventually, cure rare genetic diseases.
“I don’t really know exactly what my next research project is going to be,” Zenner said. “I know that the lab works on Batten disease, Recklinghausen’s disease and a couple different rare disease models.”
His best days are still ahead
Although Zenner has a promising future in medicine, he has made it clear that he intends to play football for as long as he can. With this mindset, Zenner knows how important it is to stay in football shape year-round.
Zenner is coming off a heavy workload in the second half of the 2018-19 season, with the last game of the season being arguably his career best. While there are no sure bets in the NFL, Zenner is optimistic that his best days on the field are still ahead.
“As a free agent it can be hard to tell where you’ll end up,” Zenner said. “We’ll see if they want me to come back. If they do, I’ll be ready.”
As a Sanford POWER elite athlete, Zenner has spent a lot of time working out and training at the Sanford Fieldhouse.
“I think Sanford has really done a good job of going all in,” Zenner said. “The investments they have made at the Sports Complex are really what separates them from the competition.”