Displaying his characteristic courage, Zach Lederer bravely attempts to recreate the notorious strongman pose — biceps flexed and fists clenched — that turned a 2012 photo of his steely-eyed resolve to fight cancer into an Internet craze called "Zaching."
But debilitating weakness on the left side of his body, caused by swelling on the right side of his brain after treatment for a third brain tumor, has left him unable to raise his atrophied left arm above his chest.
The pose may not be possible right now, but the spirit behind it remains steadfast. Zach, a 2011 Centennial High School graduate, insists he's "living the dream," which he defines as having positive friends, family and coaches supporting him as he recovers from a devastating illness that would have overwhelmed most people.
Now a new chapter of his self-proclaimed dream life will open with the inaugural 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament at Centennial on Sept. 21. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Zaching Against Cancer Foundation, established by Zach's parents, John and Christine Lederer, and will go toward establishing two $2,500 academic scholarships.
"I think this is an awesome idea," Zach said from his Ellicott City home last week. He would have been a junior broadcast journalism major this semester at the University of Maryland, College Park but is taking time off from school to undergo rehabilitation therapy in Howard County two to three times a week.
"I honestly believe I was meant to help people in the community with their outlook, since the world can be a negative place at times," he said.
"The people around me are so great, and my parents and coaches are so positive. How can I not mirror their attitudes?" he asked. He said he boosts his optimism by watching videos with positive messages and keeping "negative people out of my path."
Zach's theory about his purpose in life is seconded by his two favorite coaches, Chad Hollwedel and Rob Slopek, who will run the tournament.
"Zach has always been positive," said Slopek, a Burleigh Manor Middle School physical education teacher who taught him for three years and who is a women's basketball coach at Stevenson University. "And he's still positive — all the time."
While calling Zach's compliments about his coaches' impact "flattering," Hollwedel said he believes the reverse is true when it comes to who influences whom.
"I see it the other way around," said the Centennial High School physics teacher and varsity basketball head coach, for whom Zach served as team manager for three years. "Zach inspires me; he inspires everybody."
After the Zaching
The 2012 Facebook pose known as "Zaching" was imitated for months by Hollywood celebrities, professional sports teams, cancer patients and sympathetic supporters around the world. Many people posted photos of themselves Zaching, and many of the shots are still displayed at zaching.tumblr.com.
The craze snowballed after Zach's pals posted his defiant pose on the Internet in January 2012, not long after surgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore removed most of Zach's second brain tumor. The first was discovered when Zach was 11 and a sixth-grader at Burleigh Manor.
Friends promoted Zaching as an alternative to "Tebowing" — a pose popularized by former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who was known for dropping down on one knee to pray on the football field before NFL games.
Zaching T-shirts were handed out to students attending a Maryland football game last fall at the University of Maryland, where Zach was serving as team manager, a job he hopes to resume.
"After Zaching went viral, I had Facebook friends in places like Greece, Australia and at the Great Wall of China," he said. "I still keep in touch with some of them."
But in a dispiriting turn of events in March, the 20-year-old was on the verge of completing treatment for a third brain tumor discovered last September when doctors detected the swelling.
He is cancer-free after chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but the swelling brought on by excessive radiation has racked his body with symptoms similar to those of a stroke victim, his mother said. He walks slowly, dragging his left leg, and he holds his left arm close to his chest.
"In some ways, battling the side effects of radiation has been more difficult to handle than the cancer was," Christine Lederer said of her son's current health crisis. "But that's life, and Zach just does what he has to do."
He has the strength to move his affected limbs, "but his brain needs to be trained to coordinate his muscles," she said, adding that it's a slow process.
"We don't know if Zach will recover 100 percent," she said. "But if I have anything to do with it, he will."
'A pretty good idea'
Hollwedel and Slopek were out celebrating after a basketball game last spring when they came up with the idea for the 3-on-3 tourney.
"Chad and I are both very driven and have big ideas, and somehow the idea came up about hosting a tournament," Slopek recalled. "We thought it was a pretty good idea."
Turned out the Lederers did, too.
"When I approached John and Christine about the tournament, they said they were looking for a fundraising outlet for their Zaching Against Cancer Foundation," he said. "It all just fell into place."
During initial planning stages, Zach went out to breakfast with his coaches.
"I really wanted to be respectful, but I said the three of us can't do this on our own," he said with a laugh. "We all agreed that my parents are the smart ones in the group, and luckily our goals matched theirs."
The foundation is finalizing its status as a nonprofit and is working on the criteria for the one-year scholarships, which will be given each year to one boy and one girl from Centennial High who have a personal connection to cancer, Christine Lederer said. The candidate pool may be expanded to other county high schools in the future.
Open this year to students at Burleigh Manor and Centennial, the tournament will be played on a half-court and calls for participants to form three-person teams, which will be grouped by age. There will be boys, girls and coed divisions, Hollwedel said.
Since Mount Hebron High has selected Centennial as its opponent for its homecoming football game at 1 p.m. the same day, the tournament will start at 3 p.m. with Burleigh Manor players — so that Centennial students are free to attend the football game, he said.
Hollwedel and Slopek also plan to run a golf tournament to benefit the foundation, with details to be announced in the spring. Adding a formal dinner and silent auction as a third fundraising event is also being discussed.
"I think it will be exciting for the scholarship recipients," said Zach, deflecting a question about how it feels to have all the events held in his honor.
"That's just Zach," Hollwedel said. "He's always concerned for other people."
His mom says Zach's desire to fight back against cancer has never waned, despite the roller coaster medical journey he's been on.
Zach said he hopes to be in front of the camera one day, reporting on breaking news or sports. But he won't likely be reporting on medical issues — he says he's dealt with so many health issues that he'd prefer not to confront those topics again.
"I've had a great life, though," he adds. "I am living the dream."
Team registrations for the 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament to benefit the Zaching Against Cancer Foundation are due Sept. 17. For information, send email to Chad_Hollwedel@hcpss.org or Robert_Slopek@hcpss.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun