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Junior safety Zac Foutz played the best game of his career two days before he began battling a life-threatening illness.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Junior Zac Foutz rejoins the Cave Spring football team after missing the last half of the 2012 season while recovering from fungal meningitis.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Tonight, Cave Spring junior Zac Foutzwill play in his first football game in almost one year as the Knights visit William Byrd.
Thursday, August 29, 2013
More than 1,700 high school football players at 44 Timesland high schools will suit up tonight for 2013 season-opening games.
None will be more thankful for the opportunity than Cave Spring junior Zac Foutz.
Ten months ago, the Cave Spring linebacker enjoyed the best game of his career when he intercepted three passes and returned one for a touchdown in a victory over Christiansburg.
Two days later, the Roanoke County teenager was hospitalized in serious trouble.
Foutz contracted fungal meningitis from a tainted steroid injection that originated from a compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts. Foutz was the youngest among 749 victims nationwide, but he counts himself lucky. Sixty-three persons, including two in Virginia, died as a result of the shots.
The Cave Spring athlete received the injection in mid-September to help him overcome a back injury from the previous winter. Approximately two weeks later Foutz’s parents, Ben and Andrea, were notified that their son’s injection had been recalled.
Foutz will never forget the night of Oct. 4. It was the eve of Cave Spring’s game against undefeated Salem.
“I get home from practice and I’d forgotten all about it,” Foutz said. “I was so focused on the game.
I’m up in my room. They call me downstairs and they have the news on. That was the day the news broke. They sat me down and told me the news.
“I’m sitting there devastated. The looks on their faces and the tones of their voices made it sound very serious. And it was. I asked them, ‘Has anyone died?’ Even when I say it now, chills go through your body.
They said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘How many in Virginia?’ They said, ‘Two.’ You just kind of look at it like, ‘It could be me next.’ That’s all you think about. It could be you.”
A two-way starter, Foutz played against Salem with Cave Spring trainer John Swartz closely monitoring his temperature. Two weeks later, Foutz received a spinal tap before the Knights’ homecoming game against Blacksburg. He played, but was limited to punting duties because he was forced to miss several days of school and some practices leading up to the game.
“I went to homecoming, then on Sunday, my parents sat me down and made a criteria that I needed to go to school every single day and go to practice every single time,” Foutz said. “And I did. I worked hard trying to push through school.”
A week later on Oct. 26, Foutz led Cave Spring to a 37-24 win at Christiansburg. It was now Day 38 since the injection. Doctors had told the Foutz family that the incubation period for meningitis was between seven and 42 days.
Foutz thought he was almost out of the woods.
“I’m thinking I may have gotten lucky,” he said. “I may have dodged a bullet here. I didn’t look like anything was restricting me.
“You do feel on top of the world. I had one of the best games of my life. Nothing’s wrong with me. My dad was telling me he thought I was back.”
Trouble arrived on Day 39.
The family and some of Foutz’s teammates and friends went camping to celebrate Zac’s birthday. Midway through that Saturday, Zac began to realize that the sore neck and headache he developed were not the usual postgame aches and pains.
“I’m thinking I’m dehydrated, that I haven’t eaten enough, that it will get better,” he said. “It just kept getting worse and worse.
“I remember finally telling my parents, ‘This is too much.’ I’m ripping pillows up. It was the worst pain I’ve ever had in my life.”
His 2012 football season was over.
Foutz checked in at LewisGale Medical Center on Sunday. The following day he was transported to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital where he stayed for two weeks, spending much of the time in a quiet, dark room to protect his senses from sound and light.
“I got about two hours of sleep every night,” Foutz said. “I really didn’t want to sleep. I remember thinking, ‘You’d better thank God for what you have.’ I remember thinking every night I wouldn’t be able to wake up and see my parents, or see my friends, or ever play football again.”
A better day has dawned for Foutz.
Tonight, he will play in his first football game in almost one year when Cave Spring visits William Byrd.
Cave Spring head coach Tim Fulton will be happy to put Foutz in the lineup at strong safety and wide receiver for many reasons.
“You see it from so many different levels,” Fulton said. “From a football standpoint you go, ‘Our team benefits from him playing.’ That’s great, but let’s put that aside, because that’s not what we’re really talking about here.
“We’re looking at the return to health of a 17-year-old boy with his whole life in front of him that months ago was up in the air.
“I’ve known Ben and Andrea for a long time. I have a daughter the same age, so then you look at it from a parent perspective. He had such a great game, and within 48 hours we’re sitting here saying, ‘Is he going to make it? Is he coming back? Where are we?’ ”
Foutz has not had smooth sailing since he was discharged from the hospital last November.
He missed two months of school while taking a powerful antifungal medication. He missed most of Cave Spring’s basketball season and underwent numerous tests with a wary eye on the possibility that the disease could creep back into his system.
When he first went home, the pain came with him.
“It’s going through my head that the battle isn’t over yet,” Foutz said of his thought process at the time. “There was just as much pain if not more. You can’t just rely on doctors, nurses or the hospital always being there. I had to push through it. It was a tough time.
“Going through it, you learn a lot of things. I definitely try to apply it to my life now.”
Foutz already is paying it forward.
Through a promotion by Food Lion and Kellogg, Foutz was chosen to have his picture appear on boxes of Frosted Flakes cereal with $1 from each box sold benefitting the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals up to a total of $50,000.
The cause is more than personal for the Cave Spring athlete. Two of his schoolmates — Kendall Bayne and Hannah Bryant — are battling their own serious health problems.
“They go through it every single day,” Foutz said. “That’s why I try to do everything I can with all these fund-raisers. I never thought it was going to happen to me. Kendall and Hannah don’t get to do the things they love. They don’t get to see their friends every single day like I do now.
“It really gets you inside.”
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Foutz was not physically ready last winter when he rejoined Cave Spring’s basketball.
“My mind could do it, but my legs and my hands and my body just couldn’t do it,” he said. “I’m thinking, ‘My body’s messed up forever. It’s not going to work.’ ”
Foutz was biting nails during the football preseason as a lower leg injury slowed his progress.
Now he is finally back.
“Everything is going to wash away on Friday night like it always does,” Foutz said. “It’s going to feel the same, but it’s going to feel different. Ninety-nine percent of the people who went through what I did would probably never play again. I feel like I have something to prove.”
Foutz spent a total of 17 days during his hospitalization last fall.
Last year Foutz’s jersey number was 17. He’s No. 21 now.
“Seventeen,” Foutz said. “Pretty ironic isn’t it?
“It’s not my number this year.”
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