Fitting In and Standing Out

Fitting In and Standing Out

Men's basketball manager Zac Brady is graduating from Johnson & Wales University this weekend and his mother Linda is worried about him. Not because he had acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM), but rather he's not very good a cooking meals or doing his laundry, just like most 22-year-old males.

When he was born, Zac developed faster than most babies. He learned to crawl at seven months and was walking by 10 months. At 15 months he went in for his MMR vaccination, but three days later his fever spiked and he was very off balance.

His parents took him to the doctors at Hasbro Children's Hopsital where he was originally diagnosed with viral meningitis, but after several rounds of tests, the doctors discovered he had acute disseminated encephalomyelitis. Zac was critically ill, included seizures and coma, and although he recovered from the illness, it ultimately left him with long term physical impairment

ADEM is characterized by a brief but widespread attack of inflammation in the brain and spinal cord that damages myelin – the protective covering of nerve fibers. ADEM often follows viral or bacterial infections, or less often, vaccination for measles, mumps, or rubella. The symptoms of ADEM appear rapidly, beginning with encephalitis-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue, headache, nausea and vomiting, and in the most severe cases, seizures and coma. ADEM typically damages white matter, leading to neurological symptoms such as visual loss, weakness even to the point of paralysis, and difficulty coordinating voluntary muscle movements. The condition affects each patient differently, depending on which part of the brain is affected. For Zac, all of the effects of encephalitis are physical, but he can do everyday tasks like driving a car, which he's done since he was 17.

His condition hasn't caused any learning disabilities or cognitive problems. In fact, Neurologists have said he's exceeded all expectations. Cognitively, Zac is on par or even surpasses the level of his peers. When he walks across the stage of the Dunkin Donuts Center on Saturday he'll graduate cum laude with a 3.60 grade point average in sports, entertainment and event management.

"Seeing the way people treat me differently is weird," Zac said. "Everyone is nice to me and it may seem weird, but when all everyone is, is nice to you, you just want people to treat your normally. That has caused me to work even harder in my classes to show them that I'm just as smart and as capable as everyone else."

Once he was released from the hospital, Zac was paralyzed on the right side of his body. The crawling he had just mastered seven months ago had to be relearned all over again. Zac required months of intense physical and occupational therapy in order to learn how to eat, crawl and walk.

Sports have been a part of Zac's life since he first learned to walk and doctors have said his athleticism helped with his recovery. When he was younger, Zac competed in sports with everyone else, but once he couldn't keep up his parents switched him into adaptive sports were he excelled even more. He was repeatedly named MVP of the varsity unified basketball team at NKHS.

Basketball has been Zac's favorite sport and even though he couldn't be on the court, he still wanted to be involved. He found a home as the manager for the North Kingstown middle school and high school basketball teams and he wanted to continue to serve that role in college.

When it came time to choose a college, Johnson & Wales seemed like a natural fit for Zac because it wasn't too far from home – which his parents liked – and it had sports management – which he wanted to study. A mutual friend Derek DeMasi, set up a meeting for Zac with JWU head coach Jamie Benton.

"We were thrilled when he got on with the basketball team," Linda Brady said. "Jamie treats him like anyone else and that matters a lot to Zac. He wants to be challenged and treated like anyone else. Zac hasn't let his condition slow him down and it's frustrating when people have low expectations."

Hip surgery kept coach Benton out of the office until the start of practice in October when Benton planned on introducing Zac to the team. When he went to introduce Zac to the team, he learned the team had already welcomed him with open arms, particularly Tom Garrick and Quarry Greenaway.

"Tom and Quarry took me under their wing and treated me like one of the guys," Zac said. "Basketball has had a big impact on my life. There's no other experience like it and I would do it all over again if I had to.

Zac lived on campus for his first three years then moved back home for his senior season. He interned with the JWU basketball team in the winter and during the spring term, he interned with the North Kingstown HS athletic director.

"If Zac had just been a student who just went to class it would have been a different experience for him," Linda said. "Outside of basketball, he's struggled to fit in; the other students don't always treat him like one of their peers, but basketball is a place where he's comfortable.  The players don't see Zac differently and know what he's capable of. They treat him like one of the guys."

During practice, Zac's duties range from typing up the practice schedule to running the clock during drills. On game days he's responsible for setting up the concession stand and tracking inventory as well as assisting the coaching staff with any needs they have during the game.

"I threw him right into the fire," Benton said. "One of the first things he told me was 'There's nothing wrong with me' and I told him 'I'm not going to treat you like there's anything wrong.' He's got an unbelievable sense of humor that a lot of people are going to miss."

A student of the game, Zac isn't afraid to share his expertise. Freshman Nate Patenaude was struggling with free throws and Zac helped him out one day after practice. Patenaude's free throw shooting improved the last part of the season and he made three free throws in the final 30 seconds to help JWU seal the GNAC Championship at Albertus Magnus.

The experience Zac has gained with the basketball team has been expanded during his internship at North Kingstown. He helps athletics director Dick Fossa pay bills, assists with edibility, manages schedules and supervises home games. Zac hopes this opportunity will be the first step in his journal to a career in athletics.  

Like a lot of graduating seniors, Zac is trying to get a full-time job that will set him on the path to a career in sports. On top of the competing with the rest of the job seekers, the interview process isn't always the fairest to Zac. His slight speech impediment can be exacerbated during phone interviews, which may have deterred potential employers from moving him along in the process.

He's hoping to get on in any capacity with an NBA or minor league team in the south. He likes the idea of living in the south because there's less of a chance of slipping on ice or snow, plus more opportunities to play golf – where he routinely shoots in the mid-to-lower 90s.

While Zac may be like most 22-year-old college graduates in nearly every facet, as he's proven as a manager for the men's basketball team and in the classroom, he certainly knows how to stand out above the rest.