NC State football's Chandler Zavala sees future snap into focus with series of life-changing events
Demetrio Zavala's voice cracks over the phone.
The words of his son, NC State offensive lineman Chandler Zavala, are still fresh in his mind after their most recent visit — the first time they'd seen each other since Demetrio had died and been brought back to life on a surgery table.
The experience had changed them both. There was more honesty and openness in their talks, more tears and hugs, and more appreciation of the time they were spending together.
There was plenty to celebrate as they sat in Zavala's Raleigh apartment over the summer.
Demetrio had recently become a grandfather and Zavala an uncle after his sister, Chase, gave birth to a baby girl. Demetrio had been medically cleared to return to work as a corporate executive chef and Zavala, after several months of fighting and nervous waiting, had been cleared by the NCAA to return for a final year of college football.
"He told me, 'Dad, I don't know what I would do if I ever lost you,' " Demetrio told the USA TODAY Network. "He said that I had always taken care of him and that he promised he would do the same for me. He talked a lot about the opportunity he had in front of him and how blessed he felt."
Demetrio looked into his son's eyes and saw something different, something new. Zavala had always been determined, enough to work his way from a Division II program to a starting spot at NC State in less than a year. But during the past year, Zavala had almost lost his father, and over the course of several months faced an uncertain future where college football would no longer be a part of his life. Determination had been replaced with unfettered resolve.
"There's a lot more motivation for me to handle my business," Zavala told the USA TODAY Network. "My dreams are on the line this season, and more than ever, I feel like I'm playing for more than myself."
'We brought you back'
Chandler Zavala was leaving a rehab session at NC State's football facilities in December when he got the scariest call of his 23-year-old life.
His 2021 football season had been over for weeks after he had suffered a herniated disc during a Week 5 win over Louisiana Tech that forced him to undergo season-ending surgery. Zavala was already planning for next season and looking forward to the upcoming trip to San Diego to cheer his team on at the Holiday Bowl.
Day-to-day:N.C. State football OG Chandler Zavala is 'day-to-day' after suffering undisclosed injury
"Something has happened to your dad," his stepmother told him. "He's in surgery."
Zavala nearly dropped the phone and broke down on the sidewalk. He had just seen his father a few days before for a pre-Christmas visit in Raleigh. He had seemed perfectly healthy.
"I had just gotten home (to Florida) and it felt like someone took a hot samurai sword and cut my whole stomach open," Demetrio said. "I collapsed on the floor. I called 911 and the first responders had to break open my door to get to me. I was in so much pain."
Demetrio was taken to the hospital and rushed into emergency surgery. His appendix and part of his large intestines had ruptured. He was in surgery for seven hours before waking up confused in a hospital bed.
"We lost you there for a moment," the doctor told him. "But we brought you back."
Demetrio's first call was to his son. Zavala was searching for airline tickets to Florida when Demetrio told him to stay the course and travel with NC State to the West Coast. He was lying in a hospital bed with a 4-inch hole in his stomach. He was weak and scared. He didn't want his son to see him this way.
"At first, I told him he didn't have a choice and I was coming down there. I mean, he's my best friend." Zavala said. "But he really wanted me to go with my teammates and enjoy the trip. I went, but it was hard to stay focused. I made sure to talk to him as much as possible."
The trip to San Diego was a bust.
UCLA bowed out of the Holiday Bowl hours before kickoff due to COVID-19 protocols. The news came less than a day after Bruins coach Chip Kelly said his team would do anything in its power to play, even if it was down to 11 players.
The No. 18 Wolfpack (9-3) ended the season short of 10 wins, which they had a chance to accomplish for the first time since 2002.
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It was a frustrating end to one of the best seasons in program history, but Zavala was excited for his chance to return in 2022 with a strong nucleus that's expected to vie for an Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Zavala was entering his sixth year in college, but NC State coaches were confident his medical hardship waiver would be approved by the NCAA.
Although his college football career had begun in 2017, Zavala played only a handful of games as a freshman at Division II Fairmont (W.Va.) State because of a knee injury and did not play in 2020 after the entire Mountain East Conference canceled the season amid the pandemic. The NCAA granted a blanket waiver to all athletes in 2020-21 for an extra year of eligibility and, per its rules, to allow football players another year of eligibility if they suffer a season-ending injury before competing in four or more games.
Zavala denied:NCAA denies medical waiver for NC State OL Chandler Zavala
In late December, his waiver was denied by the NCAA.
"That was a really tough time for me," Zavala said. "With everything going on with my dad, the thought of not getting to come back and play another year with my teammates was a lot."
In February, he told the USA TODAY Network that he planned to appeal the NCAA's decision to deny his medical hardship waiver. His story picked up traction online, and the hashtag #LetChandlerPlay became a popular rallying cry on social media.
"I think it was eye-opening for Chandler to see how much people really cared about him," N.C. State spokesperson Annabelle Myers said. "He had been here one year, and didn't play for most of the season, but he got to see that he was beloved and that everyone was pulling for him. I think it was a really special thing."
In March, NC State coach Dave Doeren told the USA TODAY Network that the university had filed the appeal on Zavala's behalf and would secure legal counsel to aid his fight.
"We want to help fight what we think is an unfair situation," Doeren said.
'They call me in for Hail Marys'
Jason Montgomery, a former NCAA investigator and compliance administrator at NC State, was hired as the attorney to handle Zavala's case — a last-ditch effort to prolong his college career.
"They call me in for Hail Marys," Montgomery said. "The thing is, each one of these cases is so fact-specific, and the only way to get the NCAA to reevaluate something is to present some new information and is the institution willing to push on this issue and collaborate."
Overturned:Chandler Zavala will return to NC State after NCAA overturns medical waiver decision
According to Montgomery, previous medical evidence from Fairmont State did not show the severity of his injury or the proper documentation from doctors. Zavala played in only three games during his freshman season, but the mishandling of his injury by the team trainers, who did not follow NCAA protocol, did not sufficiently prove that he was hurt.
"The NCAA got caught up with contemporaneous documentation of his injury," Montgomery said. "There wasn't a level of detail in the trainer's notes that showed the level of his injury."
Winning the lottery
It took two months to collect enough evidence for a proper appeal. Montgomery knew at best Zavala had a "50-50" chance.
On April 13, Zavala got a call from N.C. State's compliance office: The appeal had been accepted and the NCAA had overturned its decision. He would be allowed to play again for the Wolfpack, bolstering an offensive line that returned third-team All-ACC center Grant Gibson, left guard Dylan McMahon, right tackle Bryson Speas and right guard Derrick Eason.
Demetrio had woken that day with a funny feeling in his gut — not pain — but a sense that his son would receive some good news.
"I called him and said, "You got news today, right?' " Demetrio asked.
"How did you know?" Zavala responded.
"I could just feel it," Zavala said. "It was such an amazing moment for him and for me, everything we'd been through that year. I knew how badly he wanted to come back. I think it was just a huge relief for everyone like we could all move on and focus on the future."
The next day, Zavala returned to NC State's athletic complex and found the empty locker he had packed up months before. He smiled as he placed his pads back in their rightful place and looked at the nameplate that trainers had never removed.
"It felt like winning the lottery," Zavala said. "I was so excited. I wanted to tell everyone. Honestly, I was so thankful that everything in my world felt right again. Now, I'm just ready to go to war again with my brothers."
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David Thompson is an award-winning reporter for the USA Today Network covering NC State and Duke athletics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at 828-231-1747, or on Twitter at @daveth89.