Life is precious. I don’t have to tell you that twice. In one moment, in one instant, everything can change.
In 2009, a young man named Zachary Schrah was preparing for his first varsity football season on the offensive line for Plano East High School in Plano, Texas. During one April spring practice, the Panthers were running drills when things did change in an instant. Zac unexpectedly collapsed.
“He didn’t have any signs that anything might be wrong,” said Kendra Briscoe, Communications and Marketing Manager for Living for Zachary, a foundation launched in his honor.
No signs. No symptoms that anything was going wrong in this seemingly healthy high schooler. His teammates and coaches rushed him to the hospital, where he later died at age 16. His family learned not long after that Zac suffered a Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) after living with an undiagnosed heart condition called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), which causes the heart muscle to thicken.
“[His family] was so taken aback learning this information ... that he had gone through this his entire life, not knowing that there was something that was so devastating just waiting for him,” Briscoe said.
San Francisco 49ers center Jake Brendel was an offensive lineman on the Plano East High School football team who played alongside Zac, and he was equally as shocked by his sudden passing.
Just months after her son’s death, Zac’s mom, Karen, founded Living for Zachary, a non-profit that raises awareness about SCA and how it affects young people. While SCA isn’t as common in young people as older generations, it does take the life of 16 people under the age of 18 per day, according to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation. Like the organization founded in Zac’s honor, Brendel lives for Zachary on-and-off the field, and his former teammate has inspired Brendel’s “My Cause My Cleats” for many years.
“He [Brendel] has been involved in our mission pretty much from the start,” Briscoe explained. “For him, it’s clear that this really impacted his life.” Living for Zachary raises awareness about SCA by doing youth heart screenings, distributing AEDs (Automated external defibrillators) to organizations that work with youth, hosting CPR/AED training classes, giving out scholarships, and holding other awareness events.
“Our youth heart screenings have reached several counties, our AEDs go throughout the state of Texas, they’re open to any organization in our state,” Briscoe said. “We have now performed over 9,500 youth heart screenings.”
The non-profit believes AEDs can make a huge difference in saving a young person’s life and give them a chance at surviving a sudden cardiac event. In fact, only nine percent of those who have an SCA survive receiving just CPR before emergency services arrive. But when an AED is used, that survival rate jumps to 38 percent. Of course, it’s not a guarantee, but it sure makes it a lot more likely.
“Those are devices that will restart a heart and can assess a person’s heart rhythm if they do go into cardiac arrest,” said Briscoe. “Those are life-saving devices that we try to get into as many youth-based organizations as possible throughout Texas.”
Living for Zachary has also formed a lifelong partnership with Brendel, who has been a guest at the organization’s gala and has brought the foundation national attention through his role in the NFL. The 49er has made it his personal mission to honor Zac’s legacy throughout his career.
Had such a great time at the #LivingForZachary HeartBeats Gala. If you don’t know about this wonderful organization I urge you to google them. It’s a great group of people on the mission to put an end to the high rates of sudden cardiac arrest within our community’s youth https://t.co/IDM7QlxjaX— Jake Brendel (@jakebrendel) February 28, 2018
“To have someone like Jake, who has been involved with us from the start, who has really been so hands-on with us in our mission, and for him to have such a personal connection, it really it means everything to us,” Briscoe said. “We are just honored to have the platform to be able to share with people hopefully just save one more life if we can.”
It clearly means everything to Brendel, who wore number 54 back in college but now wears 64 (Zac’s number in high school) proudly across his chest every game day. That’s the same number that Zac donned on the practice field at Plano East on an April day that changed his life — and Brendel’s, too.