CEDAR GROVE, N.J. — True grit defines those who persevere, despite serious obstacles.
That quality is evident in Nick Zecchino. The college athlete navigated life-altering physical hardships, yet never lost sight of what he wanted to achieve.
Zecchino’s difficulties began his senior year in high school, when the multi-sport athlete fell ill during baseball season. Later diagnosed with the autoimmune disease ulcerative colitis, he endured multiple surgeries and weight loss. Yet Zecchino, who now plays center for Purdue University, never gave up on his dream to play big-time college football.
Zecchino isn’t alone. Other athletes have sustained their careers while coping with this disease.
An estimated 3.1 million adults (1.3%) in the United States have been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Jake Diekman, a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, has been open about his life with ulcerative colitis. Former NFL kicker Rolf Benirshke was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis during his second season with the San Diego Chargers and had his large intestine surgically removed. He went on to play for several seasons.
Los New Orleans Pelicans’ basketball forward Larry Nance, Jr. lives with Crohn’s Disease. Former New England Patriots offensive tackle Matt Light also dealt with Crohn’s throughout his pro career. Neither let IBD sideline them.
Now, in his final season as a deep snapper for Purdue, part of the Big Ten Academic Alliance, Zecchino recalls his difficult journey. He credits his family and love of football for his survival. He explains why he never stopped fighting.
Zenger: Your journey back to the gridiron this year has been tough. Could you explain the diagnosis of ulcerative colitis and how it changed your life.
Zecchino: I never heard of it until I was diagnosed. I hear more people admit to having it now, but it’s kind of an embarrassing disease. It’s an autoimmune disease. It’s ulcers in your colon — your body starts attacking itself, and it can’t fight off the disease. My struggle was tough. In February 2016, it was Signing Day. I signed my scholarship to play football for UConn (University of Connecticut).
A few months later, it’s baseball season, and I’m not feeling well. I’m sick, I’m losing weight, I have no appetite, I started going to the bathroom a lot, and I started seeing blood in my stool. As the weeks go by, I tell my dad, “This is bad. There is blood every time I’m going to the bathroom. I don’t feel good.” I went to the doctor and got a colonoscopy.
I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. I tried every medicine under the sun and nothing worked. I played that first UConn season in 2016. I was still sick. From the first game to the last, I lost nearly 60 pounds. I went from 200 to about 145 from September to December. I was anemic; they thought I would need a blood transfusion at one point.
After that season, I couldn’t go back to school that spring, so I stayed home. I was trying to get healthy. Everything I would try would only work for a couple of weeks. It was tough. You’re supposed to be in college. Hanging out with your friends, playing football, enjoying life — and I was sick.
I went back to UConn the next summer, but I wasn’t well. So, my dad and I made the decision to stop playing. If I can’t play, I can’t play, but I had to get healthy. I was too sick to function in daily life. I couldn’t even leave the house. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. When I came home, that was the end of my UConn career. I was home for two years.
Zenger: What were the next steps toward healing?
Zecchino: I went to two doctors in New York City: Dr. Kornbluth and Dr. Greenstein. They helped me tremendously. I followed their direction, and I was getting better. I was looking healthier, putting on a bit of weight, eating, not going to the bathroom as much. Then it was back and forth with the medicine. The doctors told me that surgery should be the last option because of how tough it is on your body. But it was my only option to get healthy and live my life. We ended up doing the surgery.
I got my first surgery on July 2, 2018. There were three in all — from removing my colon and getting a surgical new colon and colostomy bag to a final surgery when everything was reattached — and they removed the bag. We were taking a chance. Luckily, I came out healthy. Some people aren’t as fortunate. I had three surgeries in six months. January 2, 2019, I said: “I want to keep playing football.” My family and that goal got me through my surgeries.
Zenger: What did your road to recovery entail?
Zecchino: I got back in the gym. I was about 150 pounds. I was mentally drained. I couldn’t even bench press the bar. I was so weak, but that was my starting point. It changed drastically in weeks.
Zenger: How did you end up at Purdue?
Zecchino: My dad and I would look up schools that had junior or senior long snappers to see where the opportunities were. Luckily, Purdue had two senior long snappers. My special teams coach at UConn was now at Purdue. He knew me and my story, so I called him and told him that I was healthy and wanted to play. He told me to come, they needed a long snapper, and they would love to have me.
In June 2019, I came out to West Lafayette, Indiana, to play for Purdue, and I’ve been here since. It had only been about six-to-eight months since my last surgery. But they needed me to play, and I wanted to play. I have put on about 40 pounds, and I’m stronger, faster and healthy. Thank God that he blessed me to be able to do what I love to do.
Zenger: What was making your debut at Purdue against Nevada like?
Zecchino: That Nevada game was my first game back since being sick, my parents flew out to Reno. I couldn’t believe that I was back playing college football at a higher level. That Nevada game was a dream come true.
It was “wow, this is amazing!” I appreciate everything much more and take it day by day. Everything works out if you want and trust something badly enough. You have to work for it.
Football helped me get through my illness. I don’t have a ton of hobbies. I’ve grown up around the game. My dad was a long snapper and played football at Tennessee. All I’ve loved and ever wanted to do was play college football.
I want to let people know, a sickness or illness doesn’t have to hold you back. Just keep going.
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