Zach Zehr was a senior quarterback at Deer Creek-Mackinaw High School in the fall of 2001. He was into school, football, teenage type things.
When the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center occurred on Sept. 11, he called an audible on his immediate future. College would have to wait. Zehr was joining the Army.
“It was just something I felt like I should do,” he said.
So while his fellow 2002 Dee-Mack graduates were settling into dorm rooms, Zehr was performing missions in Afghanistan. What was it like?
“It turns you into a man quick,” he said.
The experience served him well. Zehr’s focus now is on molding young men and preparing them for life in his role as head football coach/athletic director at Arcola High School.
Some of it is football-related, but it goes beyond that for Zehr, whose 11-0 team plays a Class 1A quarterfinal against Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley (also 11-0) Saturday at Gibson City.
If a player wants to be a team captain at Arcola, he must come in for an interview. The player is required to dress in a suit and tie and meet with a panel.
“They come before a large group of people (seven) and get drilled with uncomfortable questions,” Zehr said. “As teenagers, you don’t normally have that experience. If you have a job, it’s at a fast food place where you fill out an application and you’re hired. The first time they have one (a job interview), they’ll know what to do.”
The discipline aspect of that is a carryover from Zehr’s military service, which ended after a year and a half because of an injury. At 20, he was back home and attending Illinois State.
Soon, Zehr’s Hall of Fame coach at Dee-Mack, Jim McDonald, called and asked him to join his staff. He jumped at the chance.
“Once I got out (of the Army) and figured out that (teaching/coaching) was what I wanted to do, I just kind of went all in,” Zehr said. “It’s like anything, if you want to be good at it, you have to put the time and effort into it.”
Zehr was a volunteer assistant under McDonald for two years — “I couldn’t pay him a dime,” McDonald said — then spent two years at Fieldcrest as an assistant under Brett Cazalet, a former Dee-Mack assistant coach. When Cazalet moved on to Dunlap, Zehr followed and was defensive coordinator there from 2009 to 2012.
He was hired as head coach at Arcola in 2013 and after going 3-6 his first season, the Purple Riders finished 10-1 last year and are 11-0 so far this season.
“I had a million good kids (at Dee-Mack), but this kid is exceptional,” said McDonald, who retired as Dee-Mack coach after the 2005 season. “He’s a teacher first. The first thing he cares about is how his kids act and how they behave. Second, he worries about their grades. Third, he thinks about the wins.
“He’s just a terrific role model for kids. He has the military discipline, but he has a sense of humor and he talks to the kids. He really wants to see them succeed.”
Zehr said the approach is familiar. He saw it all the time while playing for McDonald.
“The only football I knew was the way he did it,” Zehr said. “The only coaching I knew was the way he did it and what I saw him do. He’s who I’ve emulated. I wanted to be like him.”
Now 31, Zehr is married with a 1-year-old son. He has a history degree from ISU, but teaches P.E. and driver education in addition to his other duties at Arcola. It is a busy but productive life.
“He’s a breath of fresh air,” McDonald said.