PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Pacific Lutheran University‘s latest star recruit doesn't tower over players. 11-year old Zach Heckinger plays the game about three-and-a-half feet from the floor, but on Thursday, he became the teams inspirational giant.
"Everybody has their role on this team, and I think his is to inspire us," said shooting guard Trey Garey.
"It puts perspective on everything," said Chad Murray, PLU's men basketball coach.
Heckinger, who is born with Spina Bifida, is challenged by paralysis below both of his knees and uses a wheelchair to play his favorite sport.
He learned that speed and agility come from endless hard work using everything he has.
"I like playing defense," said Heckinger, who has already practiced with the team.
He found a role in the locker room at inspiring and reminding the players the ultimate tool to overcome challenges is enthusiasm, mixed with toughness.
"We couldn't be more thrilled to have been part of this team," said Coach Murray.
Heckinger signed the same letter of intent every other player signs, and he was given team gear, including a signed jersey, a locker room name placard, a t-shirt and a PLU "Lutes" cap.
"I'm looking forward to the games," said Heckinger, who will also attend practices and team events for the next two years.
PLU and Zach were brought together by Team IMPACT, a national nonprofit connecting children facing serious or chronic illnesses with college athletic teams.
According to the organization, it has matched more than 1800 children with more than 600 universities across 48 states.
"I think he brings this energy," said Garey. "He came to our practice and he started a conversation and asking us questions. He's already part of this," he said.
"Just seeing them talk to him like that is huge, it's just awesome," said Zach‘s mother Korie.
"They're going to be giving back to him so much more than they realize," she said. "There are a lot of people who choose to steer away from him, just because he's in the chair."
"We ask our guys to fight through adversity every single day," said Murray.
"Obviously he's dealing with something a lot bigger than what we are."
Zach, who attends middle school in Kent, plays in a wheelchair basketball league in Tacoma. He'll take his first spot on the PLU bench when they open their season in Seattle on November 5.
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