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Football

Badly hurt as a child, DeKalb's Zuerek Day battles back to play football, track in college

The sound of Zuerek Day’s leg breaking rattled across the field.

Playing cornerback for the DeKalb Bengals as a sixth-grader in 2010, Day made an otherwise meaningless tackle in the second half of a blowout victory. He had tried to get up and walk, but a broken left tibia and fibula immediately sent him back to the grass writhing in pain. His mother, Amonaquenette Parker, initially withstood the urge to run out onto the field to check on her screaming son.

After Bengals coach Jerry Wright called for Parker, Bengals assistant coach John Walker stopped her and, with tears in his eyes, told her the injury was bad – really bad.

Day was loaded into an ambulance – raising his hand to a roaring crowd – and driven to the hospital where the original doctor said that they set his leg and the procedure to fix it would leave him in a cast for about three months, but he might not fully recover and walk properly again.

It meant he might never play football again.

However, orthopedic surgeon Anthony Sorkin, attending the game from out of town to watch his nephew on the opposing team, saw Day’s injury and called around to local hospitals. He finally contacted Parker and told her that they should try something different, a procedure that would keep Day out for a full year, but he would make a full recovery. Day eventually made that recovery and is now preparing to play football and run track at Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Sorkin had joked with Parker at the time that it was a good thing he didn’t leave the game early, considering the score was lopsided. Some could call Sorkin’s presence at the game and decision to stay good luck.

Parker prefers to call it divine intervention.

‘I was so upset’

Day was an active child, whether he was building forts at Prairie Park, jumping into the Kishwaukee River or playing sports.

In the blink of an eye – rather, the snap of a leg – that was gone.

The kid whose teammates once called him “Sweet Feet” spent at least nine months in a wheelchair, an external fixator with rods drilled into his leg making him sedentary. His father, Jermaine, would carry him up and down the stairs to his room. While his team went to Kentucky for a big football tournament, his teammates, which included future DeKalb stars Derek Kyler, Cole Tucker and Dwayne Lacey, tried to keep him involved by bringing him into team breaks, but he still wasn’t playing football.

“The worst part was the pain and not being able to play sports,” Day said. “When the summer happened, I could literally hear people going outside and playing and riding their bikes. I was so upset.”

However, Day still was a child. Much to the displeasure of his mom, he’d roll his wheelchair down hills and admittedly did a lot of things he shouldn’t have done. He wanted to do anything but stay inside.

Eventually, the wheelchair and external fixator were traded in for crutches and a boot. He was finally cleared, but when he returned to football at Huntley Middle School a few weeks into the season of seventh grade, he was placed on the B team – playing defensive line.

It was good to be back, but it wasn’t the same. He wanted to be with all of his friends on the A team and even playing again, he avoided contact – sticking his leg far away from the tackle and even wearing a soccer shin guard to protect it.

A year later, he was moved to running back of the A team in eighth grade at Huntley. However, life as a running back is one filled with contact – something Parker learned after doing some research.

“When I realized he was serious about football even after breaking his leg, I still didn’t know much about it so I had to go out and get that ‘Football For Dummies’ – seriously, I bought the book,” said Parker, who is an assistant principal at DeKalb High School. “At that point I understood how much contact that position had, but he wanted to do it.”

He fumbled three times in his first game and worried he had lost his spot. The following game he scored four touchdowns.

A season on the sideline

Day had big hopes for his junior season at DeKalb High School.

After playing the previous two years with the sophomore team, he spent the summer before the 2015 season dreaming about what life will be like on varsity with his friends Kyler, Tucker and Lacey – all of whom became key players for the Barbs as sophomores.

Instead, Day was stuck behind seniors and regulated mostly to the bench – scoring a few touchdowns in garbage time and watching as his friends lit up the scoreboard on Friday nights to a cheering crowd. Even what should have been his best moment of the season – scoring what would have been the game-winning touchdown late in the game against Sycamore – was called back because of a penalty before DeKalb kicker Connor Tierney nailed a last-second field goal to win it, 31-28.

It was a humbling season, Day said. Instead of catching passes and scoring touchdowns, he walked off the field with fans telling him he played a good game even though he hardly played at all. When they were younger, Day and his friends talked about playing on varsity and getting recruited to Division I schools. Now that they were older, he watched as the recruiting letters came pouring in for the others while he only heard crickets from prospective colleges.

Both Day and DeKalb coach Matt Weckler said he had trouble catching the ball his junior season. With playing time already limited, every dropped pass during practice felt as if it would result in a night’s sentence to the sideline.

“I had no drops in a game junior year, but in practice I just couldn’t catch,” Day said. “In practice, I would drop a ball and go, ‘Well, there goes my chance at playing this Friday.’ ”

‘A good Christmas gift’

What a difference a year makes.

As a senior, Day had 36 catches for 658 yards and 16 total touchdowns and made the Daily Chronicle all-region team. In a back-and-forth thriller against Sterling – with both offenses scoring so much the lights at DeKalb literally went out for 20 minutes – he had four catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns. In four playoff games, he had 12 catches for 341 yards and four total touchdowns.

“The playoff run, he just made plays,” Weckler said. “When we got to the playoffs, he was a legitimate threat for us and a target for us that we utilized a lot. To me, that showed he continued to grow as a player and honed in on his skills and played well when it came down to crunch time.”

The catches and touchdowns were finally there. The college offers, however, were not.

The Barbs’ season ended with a trip to the Class 6A semifinals – the first time DeKalb had made it that far since 1980 – and still Day never heard from any colleges. Checking Facebook after Christmas, long after the season had ended, he saw a week-old message from a football coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater, a Division III powerhouse that has won six national championships. He wanted Day to give him a call.

“I remember thinking this is a good Christmas gift,” Day said with a smile.

He took a visit in January and immediately loved it and head coach Kevin Bullis – who Day said reminded him of Batman – gave him an offer after the visit. He wanted to blurt out that he would accept, but instead decided to talk it over with his mom and pray about it. They went on an unofficial visit in February – more letters and offers from other schools started to trickle in – before accepting and signing his letter of intent on April 12.

The previous month, while running indoor track and field at the Illinois Top Times meet, Day had finished in seventh place in the 60-meter hurdles – long before he took third place in the 300-meter hurdles at the Class 3A Outdoor Track and Field State Championships.

There was a college coach at the Illinois Top Times meet asking DeKalb girls track coach Tywon Green about Day and if he’s going anywhere. It was Mike Johnson – the head track coach for Wisconsin-Whitewater.

There’s that divine intervention again.

Most cherished item

There is sports memorabilia covering most of Day’s bedroom.

There’s a flag for the New York Giants, a small poster of former NBA star Kevin Garnett and a Chicago Bulls banner. There’s a large collection of track medals he’s won over the years hanging in his closet and the bibs he wore at the state track meet pinned above his bed, a small replica of his DeKalb football helmet on a shelf and plenty of certificates hanging on his walls. There’s even his extensive shoe and watch collection – a watch for every kind of occasion.

When it comes to talking about the most cherished item in his room, there’s no hesitation from Day.

He said it’s a small football jersey – “Day” written on the back – from the DeKalb Bengals season when he was in sixth grade and broke his leg. The children’s size jersey is comical when Day, now a 6-foot, 183-pound man, holds it up next to him. However, it’s a reminder of the moment that everything changed for Day – the beginning of events that seemed to prematurely end his football career, if not for some of that divine intervention.

“I think about it a lot because everything that I am is because of those moments,” Day said. “Not a lot of people have broken their leg and been told they’ll never run again and become one of the fastest people in the state.”

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