Centennial's Zach Lederer plays football despite a brain tumor and a ventricular shunt in his skull

By Jason Mackey
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 12:28 AM

The easiest thing for Centennial senior Zach Lederer would have been to suppress this desire, to ignore the urge to play football after undergoing brain surgery when he was 11, an operation that left a ventricular shunt embedded in the back of his skull, running down his spine and into his abdomen. Doctors are no longer certain the shunt is carrying fluid from his brain, yet they acknowledge it could puncture at any time, requiring yet another surgery. Lederer also had never before played organized football.

But Lederer has always been an athlete, obsessed with soccer, basketball and baseball, and considers football a way to conquer his ordeal- three months split between two hospitals, a week in a medically induced coma, radiation - and prove that there was no way he was going to let a brain tumor dictate his life.

"I didn't want to live in a bubble and worry about every little thing that may happen to my head," said Lederer, 17, who is listed on the team's roster as 5 feet, 10 inches and 150 pounds. "I wanted to live life to the fullest."

Lederer remembers being at Johns Hopkins Hospital, undergoing multiple tests and wondering why nobody could make the pain stop. And at one point, in the middle of a December night six years ago, John and Christine Lederer were told that their only son would "take a turn for the worse very quickly."

The next morning, however, the Lederer family was informed that Ben Carson, a world-renowned brain surgeon, had examined Zach's tumor - and saw hope. Carson installed the shunt, resulting in a quarter-sized lump Zach can feel when he runs his fingers through his hair. Carson even removed two chunks of bone from the back of Zach's skull to give the brain additional room to swell. Six months later, the removed parts of Lederer's skull were replaced with a 21/2-inch titanium plate, which remains in the back of his head.

"His was an extremely unusual situation. Extraordinarily unusual," Carson said. "In fact, I've never had quite that same scenario in the 25 or 30 years that I've been practicing."

Zach's tumor has shrunk from approximately the size of a walnut to a mass now with the diameter of about a centimeter, the family says. And now, with five years of stagnancy, Carson has cleared Zach to play.

"I've been practicing neurosurgery for almost three decades now, and I've yet to see an athletic injury to a shunt," Carson said. "It's something you warn against and talk about, but I've never actually seen it. . . . Hopefully Zach won't be the first."

'A scary, scary time'

When Zach Lederer was in sixth grade, he began to experience serious headaches about every third week - debilitating and often accompanied by vomiting. Migraines or a virus, the family figured. So they saw the family pediatrician near their Ellicott City home, hoping that a week later he'd be fine.

Later that day, Christine and Zach were sent to Columbia for an MRI exam, and when they finished around 5 p.m. they expected to go home and find out the results the next day. Instead, the Lederers were directed back to the pediatrician's office; doctors said there was little time to waste.

"It's a sign things aren't good when they keep the doctor's office open for you," Christine Lederer said.

The tests showed that Zach had a brain tumor, which led to his first surgery on Dec. 14, 2004, a date John and Christine remember as if it were a birthday. During the 14-hour operation, Carson found that the tumor was wrapped in blood vessels, negating any possible removal or even a successful biopsy.

That operation, complicated by a clogged path to the tumor, caused Zach's brain to swell. This created the fear of brain damage, so the Lederer family agreed to place Zach in a medically induced coma. About a week later, when Zach finally woke up - he was expected to come out of the coma in around 48 hours - the swelling had gone down, but he had lost all of his motor skills. "He could only blink," John Lederer said.

Wary of getting too close to the tumor and causing another negative reaction to brain surgery, it was decided - with Zach now two months removed from the first surgery - that whatever was going to be done to neutralize the tumor would have to be done another way. So Zach underwent 30 sessions of radiation, which eventually started to take effect. And through an intense physical rehabilitation program, he began to regain his motor skills.

"It was a scary, scary time," John Lederer said.

During the three-month experience, the Lederers were visited by Baltimore Ravens tight end Todd Heap, who, upon learning about the story through the team, posed for a picture with Zach next to his hospital bed. That picture hangs over the door to the family's game room, essentially a catch-all for Zach's personalized memorabilia from the professional athletes who've heard his story.

Zach idolizes Heap, the same way he does Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and John Wooden, the legendary coach of the UCLA men's basketball team. He even thought about writing Heap to tell him about playing football. But, after much deliberation, Zach decided against it, wanting to ensure he made the team first.

Getting on the field

A year ago, it was Zach Lederer's job, as the team manager, to make sure the Centennial football team adhered to its practice schedule, had full water bottles and practiced on a lined field. During games and practices, Zach charted every play and on Friday nights would even wear a headset.

"It was the real deal. . . . I looked legit," Lederer joked. "I used to tell everybody I was calling the plays."

During this time, Lederer became close with Centennial's coaching staff and one day last fall had a talk with Ken Senisi, the team's head coach. Senisi broached the subject - half-jokingly, at first - of Lederer getting into a game, perhaps to kick an extra point. Lederer scoffed. If he was going to do this, he wanted to score a touchdown or make a tackle. Not kick.

But the idea was quickly shot down at home. Their only son had a brain tumor, Christine and John Lederer reasoned; fantasy football was about as far as they'd budge. Zach didn't give up. At one of the team's offseason workouts, Zach talked to Senisi again and figured this time he'd approach things differently.

"Always go to dad first with this kind of stuff, that way I knew I could get some positive feedback before my mother shoots it down," he joked.

So John and Christine talked again. They knew their son had been cleared by Carson to do pretty much anything he wanted, though they had kept that from Zach, fearful of any unforeseen developments. Eventually, they relented and spent about $300 on a top-of-the-line helmet, complete with 18 shock absorbers.

"I'm not 100 percent on board with the decision, but I'm not completely against it either," Christine Lederer said. "If he gets through the season uninjured, I'll say it was a great decision. But right now, that's a little hard to judge."

'He's just another guy'

During a recent seven-on-seven drill pitting Centennial's starting offensive skill players against the second-string linebackers and defensive backs, Lederer lined up opposite the outside receiver, a cornerback in man-to-man coverage.

When the ball was snapped, Lederer backpedaled, arms pumping at his sides. Before the wide receiver broke inside on a post route, Lederer turned and opened his hips. As the ball sailed toward him, recognizing it was a bit underthrown, Lederer jumped in front of the wide receiver to knock the ball away, a textbook pass breakup.

"For someone who's never played, he's done a great job picking things up," senior safety Edwin Heck said. "He's just another guy, honestly."

Although he was already respected because of how seriously he took his role as the team's manager - a few minutes after his pass breakup, Lederer put his head down and quietly volunteered to catch extra-point attempts, a manager's job - Lederer didn't have to win over any of his teammates.

"I had a lot of respect for him already, but now that he's playing, it's definitely gone up some," junior quarterback Jeremy Brown said. "Just what he went through and that he's playing football, that's pretty amazing."

Lederer, who practices as a backup running back and defensive back, doesn't fret about playing time. Although he's taken some hits in practice, he has yet to get in a game for the Eagles, who are 0-2 in Howard County and host Atholton on Friday afternoon. The only thing he does want is for others to take note of his story, to realize that they too can pick themselves up after something uncontrollable has knocked them down.

"I guess one of the main reasons I'm doing this is to inspire people to reach their full potential," Lederer said. "By managing, I was contributing to the football team, but I figure I can contribute to the whole community if I play football because now I'm inspiring more [people] as opposed to just sitting on the sideline. So, I guess to just affect more lives and inspire people is the real reason I did it."

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