When 19-year-old Zac Epplin passed away last Wednesday following a nearly two-year battle with a rare form of bone cancer, we all lost something.
Zac filled many roles throughout his life and his loss leaves voids that can never be filled. His incredible life and inspirational story will never be forgotten.
Zac was always a fierce competitor and dedicated athlete. He worked hard on the field and in the weight room to hone his craft while playing soccer at Gibault Catholic High School.
Though he won a state title in baseball during his junior year, Zac wanted more. He wanted to win a championship with his soccer teammates, with whom he had a close bond.
Though the Hawks had fallen short of their goal each of Zac’s first three years, his senior season appeared to be their time. The team was loaded with talent and experience. Zac himself was coming off a spectacular junior season in which he scored the game-winning goal against rival Columbia in the regional championship game.
Zac and his teammates were ready. This, they promised, was their year.
Gibault kicked off the season with six straight wins, including a memorable triumph over powerhouse SLUH, the first victory for Gibault against the Junior Billikens. Everything was going exactly as they pictured.
Then tragedy struck. After a doctor’s appointment to check on a lump in his abdominal area, Zac was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
Though teammates were stunned and devastated by the news, Zac refused to let friends forget about the mission. A man of great faith, he chose to embrace the challenge ahead of him, drawing courage from Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
The Hawks took Zac’s words to heart and dedicated the rest of the season to him.
Gibault coach Matt Reeb remembers how the team rallied around Zac’s cause.
“As the season progressed they began to realize that the game of soccer was not just an avenue to compete or display their talents, but instead the soccer team became a brotherhood,” Reeb said. “Zac’s diagnosis rocked the foundation of our team, but instead of falling apart, the team grew closer and huddled around him.”
Zac wasn’t just in his teammates’ hearts — he was there in person, sitting on the sidelines at each game.
“Zac’s passion for his teammates was very evident as he would show up to games just minutes after completing chemotherapy,” Reeb recalled. “The strength and heart that he showed made others around him strive to be better on the field in their performance and off the field in their relationship with Christ.”
Inspired by his example, the Hawks fought to accomplish their goal. The team’s fire and spirit propelled them to the state title game. Zac got the start, raising his hand to the crowd as he was announced.
Hours later, Zac was hoisting the championship trophy as the Hawks faithful chanted his name. The Hawks had achieved the dream.
But while Gibault’s storybook season had come to an end, Zac’s battle raged on. Several more rounds of chemotherapy followed in addition to surgery. Despite the struggles, Zac never let cancer take his spirit.
Though Zac’s body ultimately gave way to the disease, he certainly did not lose his battle with cancer. He continued to demonstrate courage and faith. He continued to be a loyal and unselfish friend.
“Zac genuinely cared about others,” said friend and teammate Austin Gregson. “Even in his final days, Zac always asked how his friends were doing and what was important in their lives.”
Zac also maintained a positive attitude, even on his worst days. Frank Mantia, another teammate, further attested to his friend’s selflessness and toughness.
“He beat cancer every day by getting up and going about his everyday life acting like everything was fine so that everyone else could be happy when he was around,” Mantia said.
That courage was clearly a common trait in the Epplin family, and one that rubbed off on all of Zac’s loved ones. His parents Bev and Doug, brothers Luc, Matthew and Andrew, girlfriend Kassy Clark and friends and family displayed poise and composure throughout the entire process.
“Seeing him go through what he went through as strong as he was will be something that keeps me strong the rest of my life,” Mantia said.
Reeb, who keeps in touch with former players, noted the way Zac’s teammates have grown.
“Zac may be gone, but his impact is carried on within the hearts of his teammates as they now live for a greater purpose,” he said.
Zac’s bravery and tenacity inspired more than just those closest to him. “Zac’s Superfans” could be found all throughout
Monroe County and the area. Zac garnered the support of the entire Immaculate Conception School and Gibault communities. Thousands of dollars were raised for his cause.
The support did not stop there. Other schools and communities pitched in as well. Columbia High School proved that cancer knows no rivalries, donating a portion of the proceeds from its 2013 cancer fundraiser to the Epplins.
Tim Meyer, Zac’s uncle, spoke on behalf of the Epplin family, describing the awe-inspiring amount of support, which has continued in the week since Zac’s death.
“The family has been overwhelmed the last two years with the support of so many,” Meyer said. “Many were family and friends, but there were also so many as well that had no previous contact with us. That in itself shows the type of community we live in and the Epplins are extremely grateful for all the love and support that continued to be provided.”
While it was his fight that inspired so many, Zac was much more than a cancer patient. His qualities of faithfulness, bravery, loyalty, determination and unselfishness shone most brightly in the face of adversity. But those who knew him insist he had always possessed such commendable attributes.
Gibault principal Russ Hart remarked upon Zac’s immense popularity.
“Zac was one of those special people that everyone liked,” Hart said. “He was just very likable and kind. He had an infectious smile and when you would meet him in the halls or in the classroom, he made you feel comfortable. He made everyone feel comfortable.”
For Reeb, Zac was more than just a player. He was a reminder of God’s love.
“I sit here humbled today by the impact Zac Epplin has made on my life,” he said. “I am blessed to have been his coach, and I pray for everyone that was touched by his life and story.”
Mantia added that Zac “genuinely cared more about others than himself.”
Gregson remembers Zac’s friendly, outgoing and caring personality.
“He was very comfortable in his own skin and his dry sense of humor kept us all entertained, as we never quite knew what he was going to say next,” Gregson said. “He had the ability to bring out the best in others and he would do his best to lend a helping hand when needed.”
Meyer reiterated the sentiments of Zac’s friends.
“There was a lot to be jealous of him, and he accomplished more in 19 years than most,” he said. “We should all be proud of that.”
Zac’s number 9 soccer jersey will hang forever in the rafters of the Gibault gymnasium. The memorial will stand as a powerful reminder of Zac’s story and of his life.