Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Never, never, never give up'

Jets tight end Sudfeld lives by words of Winston Churchill

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The metal dogtag hangs around Zach Sudfeld's neck nearly everywhere he goes.

It dangles under his pads when he's on the football field, and he takes it off only when he showers. It was a gift from his grandfather, and the Winston Churchill-inspired quote engraved on it epitomizes his journey from hard-luck youngster to tenacious New York Jets tight end:

"Never, never, never give up."

Sudfeld could have easily walked away from football a few times. Many people told him he should have.

A broken leg and dislocated ankle in his senior season at Nevada appeared to abruptly end a college career marked by setbacks and six surgeries. He had nothing more to prove, they told him, and he'd been through enough adversity.

"I'm a football player," the 24-year-old Sudfeld said, his long, reddish-brown hair pulled back neatly behind his head. "I couldn't let it end that way."

And, he didn't. Not even close.

Sudfeld -- nicknamed "Studfeld" by friends and teammates -- is a 6-foot-7, 260-pound backup tight end who has played in eight games as a rookie, including two starts, with four catches while carving roles on the scout team and special teams.

"The sky's the limit for him because each day he gains more confidence," Jets tight ends coach Steve Hagen said. "He makes like freak catches in practice."

As his blocking improves, Sudfeld's playing time figures to increase. He gets about 10 snaps a game, but he's used to having to prove himself.

"We loved watching Rudy growing up, but Zach's no Rudy," said Sudfeld's father Ralph. "He has demonstrated he belongs here. Nothing was handed to him. Nothing. He just kept saying, 'Nope, I'm just going to keep going.' "

That perseverance was born in part from being raised in a family whose business is delivering hope.

The Sudfelds are heavily involved with Assist International, a humanitarian organization started by Sudfeld's grandparents Bob and Charlene Pagett in a spare bedroom in 1990 that has since completed over 500 projects to help the needy in 61 countries.

Ralph Sudfeld is the executive vice-president. Zach's mother, Michelle, is the director of fundraising for abandoned and orphaned children. Zach's twin brother, Matt, is the director of strategic development. When each of his grandchildren turned 13, Bob Pagett let them pick a project on which they could accompany him.

Zach chose a trip to Romania, where an experience at an orphanage still resonates.

"You go to the streets where these kids came from and it's just devastating," he said. "You can't get those images out of your head. It's an amazing thing when you hold an orphan in your arms. You're like, 'Man, I have no issues.' "

Sudfeld has since been to Myanmar and Thailand, and plans to go to Africa during the off-season. He'll join the rest of the family full-time in the business someday, but after his playing days are through.

Sudfeld was born 10 minutes before Matt. He spent most of his childhood and teen years in Modesto, Calif., trying to catch up to him on the football field, basketball court or pretty much anything that provided even the smallest measure of competition.

"Growing up, whenever we'd get into a fight, I was just a lot tougher than him, even though he was taller," Matt said with a laugh.

They're fraternal, and their drastic height difference -- Matt is 5-foot-11 -- makes it difficult to imagine they're brothers, let alone twins.

"We're as close as you can be," said Zach, whose younger brother Nate plays quarterback at Indiana. "But growing up, he was way more athletic."

The family has a theory on the moment Zach went from being a tall, skinny, awkward guy to one of the toughest players on the football field. It was the day during the twins' sophomore season in high school that Zach was moved up to varsity from junior varsity to fill in for some injured tight ends.

He dropped the first two balls that came his way. He rebounded, though, with three catches on a last-minute drive. Modesto Christian High School had the ball at the three-yard line with one second left, and coach Mike Parsons dialed up a slant to Zach.

He caught the ball and cradled it in the end zone for the winning score against rival Mariposa.

"We joke about it like, 'Man, if you dropped that ball, you'd be teaching math somewhere,' " Matt said. "From that point on, he developed more of an edge and by the time he was a senior, he was just a force."

The twins went separate ways for college, with Zach heading to Nevada and Matt going to Brown -- but both continued to play football.

Zach walked on to the Nevada football team that featured current 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, eventually earning a scholarship. He showed promise, despite not playing a lot behind starter Virgil Green. Injuries -- a shoulder, a knee and a broken wrist -- provided some other bumps in the road. But, heading into his senior year, he was poised for a breakout season.

On Sept. 10, 2011, the Wolf Pack opened the season at Oregon. At the start of the second quarter, with 35 family members in the stands, someone rolled into his left leg. His femur broke, and his ankle was dislocated and turned 180 degrees.

"My toes were pointed to the sky and I was on my stomach," Zach recalled.

He was carted off the field, and many believed he was done with football.

"Everyone was telling me that it was time to hang up the cleats," he said.

Sudfeld had other plans.

He was already working on his master's degree in business administration, so he'd continue to do that while he rehabilitated and planned his next comeback. He persuaded coach Chris Ault to keep a spot on the roster for him, and was awarded a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.

A year after all the doubts and tears, Sudfeld was back on the football field.

It's a comeback story with a Hollywood-style script: Sudfeld started every game for Nevada as a sixth-year senior, caught 45 passes for 598 yards, set a school record for tight ends with eight TD catches, and was a semifinalist for the Mackey Award, given to the nation's top player at his position.

"You just go, 'Listen, man, congratulations to you. You went out and willed yourself to do that,' " Ralph Sudfeld said. "That's what makes you so proud as a parent."

There were still more "hiccups," as Zach calls them.

Sudfeld wasn't invited to the NFL combine in Indianapolis. He also went undrafted a few months later. New England signed him as a free agent, and Sudfeld had a terrific training camp and became a fan favourite. He made the Patriots' opening roster, but after four weeks and no catches, the Patriots waived him.

Almost exactly 24 hours later, the Jets were calling.

Matt compares his brother to Tom Hardy's unbreakable character Forrest Bondurant in the 2012 crime drama Lawless.

"He just can't die," Matt said. "He always survives. I was like, 'Zach, that's you, man. Injury after injury, undrafted, cut, but you keep coming back."'

Just as that cherished dogtag urges Zach every day.

"It's always there and is just a constant reminder that no matter what happens, it's all going to work out," he said with a smile. "You've just got to continue to move forward. No matter what."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2013 B12

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