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Embedded with a makeshift handle of lightly colored wood, the football rests between the players lined nose-to-nose, dripping with sweat. The heat from the artificial turf radiates, and for a fleeting moment, practice at Highland is peaceful.
"READY. SET. GO!" shouts coach Brody Benson as he simultaneously initiates the drill with one swoop of the stick.
Pads crash. Helmets clank. Playing defensive line is not for the faint of heart. It's a position predicated on nastiness. Spin, swim or rip getting to the quarterback requires a special combination of speed, size and strength, and this drill is designed to expose the timid.
Benson moves to the next group. Senior Braden Saddler, at 6-foot-2 and 262 pounds, inherits the role of offensive lineman. His task: crush junior Zach Schreiter.
Born with achondroplasia, a form of short-limbed dwarfism, Schreiter concedes two feet and more than 145 pounds, and yet his stance is unwavering.
The cadence creates the collision, Schreiter thrusts both hands into Saddler's breastplate, withstanding the first blow, and undercuts the block with leverage to reach daylight.
"Good hands, good hands," Benson praises.
Schreiter quietly trots to the back of the line and Benson moves to another group. There's no special treatment, because Schreiter isn't viewed differently. He's a football player for the Rams, so the coaching staff and his teammates don't celebrate his performance they expect it.
"That's the tagline. If you're willing to work hard, this team is going to accept you," Benson says. "They have a clear understanding [Zach's] not looking for any handouts. He wants to have the same opportunities these other kids are having."
More alike than unalike
Schreiter realized he was growing slower than his friends in his youth a fact that resonated deeply when he needed a special chair in preschool and permanently solidified after the teasing started.
"They called me a midget, or called me names," Schreiter said.
Everyone born with achondroplasia has a diminutive stature, with the average male reaching 4-foot-4, while females typically grow three inches shorter. The condition shrinks the arms and legs and enlarges the head, but hardly influences intellectual development.
So although it was painful, Schreiter shrugged off the bullying. He elected to be positive instead, and soon his classmates recognized he was more alike than unalike. Eventually the teasing dissipated and Schreiter felt comfortable pursuing athletics. He joined the wrestling program his freshman season, but his dream of playing football would have to wait.
Schreiter was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer attacking the immune system. It was another test of mental fortitude. "It's in the back of my mind this could kill me, but I have a great attitude," Schreiter said.
He viewed the situation in the same light as his achondroplasia: "Don't let it bring you down," Schreiter explained. "If you keep positive, a lot of good things will happen for you."
He underwent chemotherapy, which he described as "poison" that "takes away your strength, your stamina, and makes you feel like crap," but after the fourth cycle, he was declared cancer-free.
A new world
Benson, an intensely passionate but genuine coach, watched Schreiter in his weight training class. Impressed by his work ethic and dedication to the exercises, Benson introduced the idea of him becoming the team manager, but Schreiter had another vision.
"I've never seen him ask for special accommodations, so it really didn't surprise me when he wanted to play," said Benson, who noted that aside from using plates to hoist his feet during lifts and instructing drill partners to kneel to teach proper alignment, Schreiter is treated identical to everyone else.
"He's one of the hardest-working kids I've ever seen. He's a fighter," said Colton Pulver, who starts on the offensive line and rotates on defense. … "If you really put your mind to it, you can do whatever you want. He's a good example of hard work, and that's what this team is all about."
There is an obvious conundrum in facing Schreiter, however. Should larger players go full-speed? Benson said the natural instinct is "to back off" for fear of hurting him, but added, "I don't think that's what he wants."
"In the weight room, he's as strong as everybody else. Physically, I don't worry," Benson said. "Obviously once he starts playing, teams aren't going to take it easy on him. That's what I've tried to have my guys do, is not take it easy."
Schreiter is faced with disadvantages, but he's also blessed with a fundamental core value of playing defensive line: Fire out low. For that reason, Benson uses different philosophies to help create successful results.
"Basically, I'm telling him to have the greatest get-off," Benson said. "If you can get on the hip and get in the backfield, you're going to have a chance to cause havoc, versus getting hands-on, locking out, and controlling the gap, because realistically, I don't think that's going to happen."
The advice, Schreiter said, has "opened a new world [that] even the smallest competitor can take down the biggest." It would have been easy for Schreiter to fall victim to limitations, but he wasn't willing to sacrifice the lessons and the memories.
"He's going to be able to hold onto his experience for the rest of his life," Benson said. "High school football is less than four percent of your life, but you talk to people who are 80 years old they talk about high school football and their experience."
About Zach Schreiter
• Born with achondroplasia, a form of short-limbed dwarfism.
• Measures in at 4-foot-3, 115 pounds, plays defensive tackle for the Rams' JV team.
• Underwent four cycles of chemotherapy for Hodgkin's lymphoma.
• Also joined the wrestling program in his freshman season.