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The perfect gift for the season

On Jan. 20, 2011, Zach Gabbard, a 17-year-old basketball star playing for the Perham Yellowjackets (with a record at that point of 11-0) collapsed with a cardiac arrest early in a game at Glyndon. His heart stopped and he came within a beat of dying right there on the basketball floor.

Fortunately for Zach, who loved basketball with a huge passion, two Perham doctors and an expired-licensed nurse by the name of Denise Cuchna (pronounced Chuck-na), were at the game and there was an electronic defibrillator on hand at the school. The nurse had been a paramedic and knew how to operate a defibrillator. The three checked Zach and found no pulse. Cuchna gave Zach CPR in a stunned, totally silent gym then connected the defibrillator and shocked the young athlete's heart several times before a faint beat was finally restored.

Just as the National Anthem was being played before the game, when Nurse Cuchna stood up, she found a coin about the size of a quarter on the floor in front of her and, paying no attention, put it in her pocket. About three days later, buying a cup of coffee on her way to work, she dug out the coin and couldn't believe what she had found. It was a well-worn Guardian Angel coin, same on both sides. She got instant goose bumps when it hit her, then she sobbed.

Zach was rushed to the hospital in Fargo, still hovering on the verge of death. He was placed in the intensive care unit, being kept alive by a heart machine and a respirator. His heart would not take over on its own. The following day, scores of teammates, parents, students, rival players and supporters from Perham and elsewhere were gathered in the hospital, waiting and hoping for a miracle. Just a few were allowed into the ICU to whisper encouragement to the unconscious athlete. When sometime girlfriend, Kelli, whispered, "I love you. We're going to the prom together if I have to push you in a wheelchair," Zach's respirator immediately responded.

The crowd gathered in a circle, joined hands and a powerful, emotional prayer was offered. At the same moment, a silent prayer was being offered at a basketball game in Fergus Falls, 50 miles away. Within minutes, as a result of the skill of the doctors and prayers at the hospital, Fergus Falls, and Perham and on the Caring Bridge website, Zach's heart started beating on its own. The folks at the hospital thought they'd witnessed a miracle.

The story goes on. Zach was transferred to the University of Minnesota Hospital for specialized heart care. His loving parents switched off attending to him daily. The Caring Bridge was swamped with literally thousands of messages of encouragement and prayers. Eventually, coaches and teammates were allowed to visit Zach.

The Perham School (School of Champions) responded as champions do, with class. The wrestling team designed a warm-up jersey with Zach's name and number on the back, while the front said, "One Town, One Team." The whole town wore special Zach t-shirts. The community organized a gigantic fundraising effort for family expenses. Generosity flowed from all directions, with many auction gifts and donations from outside teams and communities. The entire school and community effort in Zach's hometown could truly be called, Perham's Finest Hour.

Meanwhile, the emotional Yellowjackets, led by their emotional coach, Dave Cresap, playing without one of their top scorers, continued to win ball games. Only one rival, the Pelican Rapids Vikings, caught them in an overtime thriller in Pelican Rapids. For the rest of the regular season, the well-balanced, close knit team had a number of close calls, but managed to survive. Someone always came through, often a player from the bench. By the end of the regular season, the Jackets were in the state tournament with a record of 23-1, playing games in Minneapolis in the huge Williams Arena and Target Sport Center.

The day before the team was to leave for the state tournament, boosted by a huge student assembly and send-off, a 10th grade student in the school was murdered by her boyfriend. Shockwaves pulsed through the student body for the second time in three months. The situation was handled masterfully once again by school administrators, counselors and the students themselves. The team send-off was canceled and the team solemnly boarded their bus and headed for the tournament. The following Monday, all team members were at their schoolmate's funeral.

There is so much to tell. In the dressing room before the first tournament game, Zach, out of the hospital for the first time, was wheeled in to the surprise of his teammates (the coaches knew he was coming) and inspired them to victory. When Zach was introduced to the fans before the game, he was wheeled out (Yellowjacket cap on backwards) and the crowd rose to their feet and game him an emotional standing ovation. The team, "Jacked by Zach," won going away, 57-40. After the game, Zach went back to the hospital. Zach was at the second game also, but too weak to come a third time.

Let me shorten a long story. The Yellowjackets won the next two games (not without huge drama the second game was a double overtime win when the team captain responded to a challenge by the coach, "we need somebody to step up" and get it done) and became state champions with a record of 31-1. Coach Dave Cresap was named State Coach of the Year and National Coach of the Year. Zach Gabbard returned to Perham, still recovering and attended the prom with Kelli -- without a wheelchair. This is a better story than "Hoosiers" and without the fiction.

All this and many more details and heroics have been recorded in a book, "One Town, One Team." Inspired by the story, I conducted 66 interviews of players, coaches, Zach Gabbard himself, Zach's parents, school administrators, counselors, pastors, students, sportswriters, one very involved custodian, student leaders, civic leaders, friends and supporters and put it all together. The book has pictures of Zach, his parents, Coach Cresap, the winning Yellowjacket team, other Perham teams and other coaches and key people. The book would make a perfect Christmas gift for athletes, coaches, students, teachers, counselors, administrators, pastors, parents of teens, sports fans, supporters, people who believe in prayer and you.

And it's cheap. The book is $15 with a Minnesota sales tax of $1.03. The total, if you order it, is $20, including shipping. Order by mail at: EOT Focus, 222 2nd Avenue SE, Perham, MN 56573 or on-line at Or you can pick one up at the East Otter Tail Focus office in Perham or the DL Newspapers office in Detroit Lakes and save the cost of shipping. And here's the bonus: when the movie comes out, you can say you've already read the book.