Wednesday, Jan. 20 marks the 10-year anniversary of Perham’s Zach Gabbard’s collapse on the basketball court in Glyndon and the Yellowjackets inspired run to a state championship.
A defibrillator was used on court to revive Gabbard by Denise Cuchna, one of the first responders, who happened to be at the game. She performed CPR before using the AED in responding to his cardiac arrest.
That season of basketball and Gabbard’s near-death experience and subsequent recovery are stories that come up every year around this time in Perham and will go down in history as the most incredible Yellowjackets sports season of all time.
“It’s been brought up every year about this time,” Perham head boys basketball coach Dave Cresap said. “It was a historic event. Zach and I were just in touch in the last week. I don’t think it’s ever going to be forgotten. It’s something that really sticks out to many basketball fans.”
Most of the memories of that season are logged in the brains of the players, coaches, fans and media members who saw Perham win 20 of the next 21 games including the final 19 in a row leading to a victory over Rochester Lourdes at Target Center for the Class AA title.
“It was a crazy thing,” said Cresap. “There must have been an intervention of some sort there. We were a good team but I didn’t think we were that good at the time. We had a lot on our side and a lot of support from around the state and it helped gel all the way to the top.”
One person who has limited memory of any of it is Gabbard. In fact, anything that happened in his life prior to that fateful day in Glyndon is gone.
“I don’t recall anything and have no recollection of anything prior to 2011,” said Gabbard. “I am still, I don’t think, at 100 percent yet. I still have a lot of memory issues. That’s the biggest part is the memory.”
There’s a sense of irony in his lack of memories from the state title run when thoughts of his recovery and every update that came during the season spurned the Jackets to victory after victory and created so many positive memories for everyone else involved.
One instance that does stick was his temporary release from the hospital in Minneapolis to join his team on court for the announcing of the lineups at the opening game of the state tournament at Williams Arena on March 23, 2011.
“The bigger moments of my life I can remember a little bit but if it was small I don’t recall any of it,” he said.
Gabbard and his rescuers from the Glyndon game were honored at a halftime ceremony of the Class AA state semifinals a day later. Prior to the game, Gabbard surprised his team in the locker room.
Gabbard and the first responders received a standing ovation from the Target Center crowd.
The biggest came during pre-game introductions. He surprised everyone when he stood up out of his wheelchair to walk down and give his teammates high-fives.
As the final seconds of the game ticked down, Gabbard sat behind the Perham bench, taking it all in. He said during a press conference earlier in the night that he wished he could be playing, but was still pumped to finally make it to state.
Unfortunately, he was unable to attend the state championship game a day later. He wanted to go but his doctors stated he was simply too weak and not healthy enough to attend.
Gabbard was moved to a transitional rehab unit at Perham hospital after the state tournament and continued his recovery and quest to get back on the court for his senior season.
Nearly a year after his collapse, Gabbard returned to the basketball floor playing in the last 1 minute, 36 seconds of an 81-23 win over Park Rapids Area. He scored his first points in another ironic sense helping Perham to a win over Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton in the next game.
He was never the player he was prior to the cardiac event and more bewildering is that he does not recall how good of a player he was, which has left lasting questions.
“Being an athlete you think what could have been?” said Gabbard. “I don’t have any recollection of how good I was at basketball I guess, but I’ve heard from fans that I was pretty good. What could I have been and where would I be now?”
Gabbard credits his mother Meridee and sister Courtney and her family for getting him back on his feet and being by his side throughout his recovery.
Basketball was the least of his troubles. School was an obstacle from his final year at Perham to college.
“School was really tough right after high school,” he said. “I was relearning everything to anything. When I went to college right off the bat I didn’t have any ambition to go to class. It just wasn’t going for me.”
Another issue was having been in the spotlight for so long, media requests became a hindrance. Gabbard just wanted to try to get back to a sense of normalcy.
“It was overwhelming at first,” he said. “Every other time I would be home I would get a call from some random newspaper.”
Gabbard’s family guarded him from much of that pressure. Each day provided enough of a challenge without being intruded upon.
“It was more I was lucky to be alive and the doctors told my parents that it’s going to be a long road,” said Gabbard.
There was still plenty of attention in the months following the season.
Former Detroit Lakes Tribune columnist Lynn Hummel was inspired to chronicle the season in book form “One Town, One Team” and Perham assistant basketball coach Brent Hanson created a documentary “For Three” of the season that was released at Comet Theater in Perham and is still available on YouTube.
“I’ve watched it a few times,” Gabbard said. “Initially, it was tough to watch. You’d come up to the January 20th game and you always knew what was going to happen.”
Zach's mother Meridee also published a book about the ordeal titled "You're Never Promised Another Day."
While the past decade has been burdensome at times, Gabbard is in a great mental state and in good physical condition.
“I feel as best as I can right now,” he said.
His recovery has granted him a perspective to not take things for granted.
“I’m happy to be alive,” he said. “You’re never promised another day. I just kind of live today like it’s my last almost.”
Gabbard is currently a paraprofessional working in the Moorhead school district. He gets back to Perham occasionally, mostly in the summers. He is still recognized there.
“They treat me like a normal person but occasionally I’ll run into an older person who’s been at the games and they always want to know what’s going on.”
Basketball is still in his veins. While his new hobby is disc golf, he still gets back on the court occasionally.
“I will and I know I won’t miss if I do,” he said “I’m still a pretty good shot.”
The road to get to the present, including school, home ownership and a full-time job has not been easy. Getting back on the court was not easy either, but Gabbard does still ponder the idea of joining a coaching staff in the future in Moorhead.
He has the experience and perspective that would certainly be valuable to a group of young kids beginning their own basketball journeys.
“I would just tell them to go hard as much as possible because you never know what could happen and what could be,” Gabbard said. “So don’t give up, just keep going.”
Today marks the 10-year Anniversary of a moment in our Yellowjacket community that will never be forgotten. On this day, 10 years ago, PHS student, Zach Gabbard collapsed while playing basketball for the Yellowjackets in Glyndon.— Perham Public Schools (@PerhamHigh) January 20, 2021