Ask him to move away at age 14, and it’s not a big deal.
But force him to take an ice bath, and he’ll never forgive you.
He’s Zach Wright, a senior forward for the No. 3 North Carolina men’s soccer team. He prefers to lead by example, and he always makes the conscious effort to make the “next right thing” — whatever that may be. And from his first steps to the hardest decision of his life, one thing consistently guided him.
“He was a soccer player,” his mom Martha said.
Zach zipped past the other kids. The 3-year-old league wasn’t supposed to keep score, but his coach did anyway. He dropped candy in a box for his players with every goal they scored.
“We kept score,” Zach said with a smirk. “We won.”
He liked the speed; the game was constantly moving. Nothing would slow the Texas native down. Nothing, of course, besides the 30-mile drive from Bastrop to Austin for Zach’s middle school club practices.
The drives each and every day took a toll, though. So much so, that when St. Stephen’s Episcopal School — an Austin boarding school with a soccer academy — offered Zach a scholarship, he had to consider it.
It wasn’t easy. For the first time, Zach had to make a decision that would shape his future.
Of the reasons for him to stay — living with his parents, going to school with friends he’s known his whole life — his growing love for football also held him back. That is, until one game when a kid a couple of years older and about twice Zach’s size gave him a hit his mom has yet to forget.
“After the game,” Martha said, “ he came up to me and said, ‘You know, I don’t think I’m going to have time for football.’”
And it was settled. Zach took the first step away from home.
It was Sept. 4, 2011.
Zach had already gone off to St. Stephen’s for the year, and Martha was shopping at Walmart. She stepped out of the store and felt huge gusts of wind so strong that cars were being blown across the parking lot.
Zach called his mom to ask what was happening and if she and John were okay.
“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Martha recalled.
Three separate wildfires overtook Bastrop County throughout September and into October as a result of strong winds caused by Tropical Storm Lee. Now known as the Bastrop County Complex fire, it destroyed 1,673 homes, including the Wrights’.
A few months after the fire, when Zach was home for a break, he visited his old property with his parents. He stood where his room once was, shoulders slumped, gaze down.
While he’ll always miss his childhood home, he had a new home at St. Stephen’s with his sidekick Andy Lopez.
The two were inseparable, and they still are. The forward and midfielder have played soccer together since they were 12. In high school, lights went out at 10:45 p.m. But the faculty knew better than to try to confine Zach and Lopez to their respective rooms.
“We would always sneak out to the common room with a couple of our other friends and make just a big pot of Ramen noodles,” Lopez said. “We’d be up until like two or three in the morning … playing video games and just sharing stories.”
At the end of his junior year of high school, Lopez sat down with some of his St. Stephen’s teammates and told them that he was moving for his final year of high school to play for Sporting Kansas City’s U18 team.
Zach wanted to come with him. And again, just like when he was faced for St. Stephen’s in the first place, Zach was faced with another jarring decision: His friends and family or his soccer career?
“It was the hardest choice I had to make,” Zach said. “But I had to make the choice to keep moving forward.”
Zach was a soccer player, and he was determined to make the next right choice whenever he could. So Zach took another step — or maybe, a leap — away from home to spend his senior year at a new high school in a new state.
But at least he was with his best friend, playing the sport he had always loved.
Martha and John thought they were done with kids. They’d raised two sons of their own before Zach entered the picture.
“We were very attached to him from the day he was born,” Martha said.
Martha and John watched Zach — their biological grandson — on weekends, and when Zach was 2, they were granted full custody. When Zach was 11, they officially adopted him.
Because Zach’s biological parents were absent for much of his life, he thought of Martha and John as his parents.
“For a long time, I didn’t even think about it,” Zach said. “I just thought they were Mom and Dad the whole time.”
While his parents don’t regularly travel to his games anymore, they follow his team on whatever media platform they can.
“They watch every game,” Zach said. “They’re always texting me, calling me … probably calling me too much.”
Since coming to UNC with Lopez as a member of the 2014 recruiting class, Zach has notched at least five assists each season. He’s up to eight this year in just 15 games, a career best. He’s also scored three goals for the 13-2-1 Tar Heels, who just clinched a third straight Coastal Division title.
“The thing about Zach,” John said, “is that he’s always going to make good decisions. We’ve never had to worry about him. He’s proven he has the ability to do that himself.”
But just because he’s made some big decisions, Zach isn’t without his childish quirks. Ask Lopez, who posts pictures of half-eaten pancakes on his Snapchat story. Zach doesn’t eat the crusts on sandwiches, and he certainly isn’t eating the outside of his pancakes.
And, of course, no ice baths. As teammate James Pyle will let you know, Zach hates those. But if dunking in a bucket of ice will allow him to keep moving forward, the soccer player can come around to it.
After all, he always has.
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