Note: Below is a recent feature story I wrote on New Hampshire’s Chris Zarkoskie, who was named the winner of CAA Football’s inaugural Chuck Boone Leadership Award this season and is one of the most amazing student-athletes I’ve met in the profession. Zarkoskie was presented with the award at the team’s annual football banquet on Sunday. This story is an account of my time at the banquet and Zarkoskie’s sensational story. A special shout-out to my coworker Bobby Broyles for his work on the video.
Every team professes to have a family culture about its program. In fact, this always seems to be among the first selling points a coach employs when recruiting and the first recollection of a former player reminiscing about his college years.
But there’s something different about this dynamic in Durham. Sitting among the several hundred attendees at the University of New Hampshire’s annual football banquet on Sunday, this sense of family was starkly present. With the exception of a few players having reportedly nodded off in the back of the room, the nearly four-hour ceremony – yes, four hours – was an overwhelming hit with its guests, who ranged from coaches, administrators and donors to players and their parents and siblings.
The day’s speeches were filled with enjoyable memories and endearing jokes, culminating in bearlike hugs and moving even an outsider like myself. The emotion filling the room was palpable and all but a few of the graduating seniors sitting at the front of the room failed to shed a tear; I can only imagine the state of the parents behind us. Few guests rushed from the room at event’s end, with parents and coaches working the room to capitalize on a rare opportunity to catch up with one another away from the field, while the returning players hastened forward to congratulate the program’s departing players – many of them obvious mentors.
The affair was much akin to a family reunion. And as we can all attest to when it comes to our respective families, there are always one or two favorites. This year, senior Chris Zarkoskie was clearly a prized son. In fact, he may be one of the most prized graduates produced by a storied program that boasts such esteemed alumni as Corey Graham, Jerry Azumah and 14-year head coach Sean McDonnell himself.
As several coaches and players remarked on Sunday, Zarkoskie – or “Zark” as he’s commonly referred to – embodies the very definition of student-athlete. The largely unrecruited offensive lineman would eventually become a three-year starter and earn a place on CAA Football’s All-Conference team as a senior, seemingly making his the oft-told story of the prototypical underdog and the coach who took a chance on him.
But anyone who’s met Zarkoskie knows that he is anything but typical. Yes, he came into his own in Durham, but while playing a largely unheralded position on a perennial powerhouse program that has consistently produced big-name players like the guy sitting just four seats down from him in 2011 Buck Buchanan Award Winner and UNH all-time tackle leader Matt Evans.
The greatest chapter in Zarkoskie’s early story is one that is often overlooked in sport because it goes beyond the playing field. Playing on the offensive line, which lacks so much of the game’s glam, has served him well given his natural tendency to stray from the limelight. Thankfully others have stepped forward to share his story for him.
As part of the nomination process for CAA Football’s inaugural Chuck Boone Leadership Award, each of the conference’s 11 member schools put forward a nominee and submitted three letters of recommendation on his behalf. In preparing the profile materials for our athletic directors, who were charged with choosing the winner, I had a chance to read through each candidate’s letters. I admit I was particularly moved by what I read about Zarkoskie, who McDonnell called “probably the best leader and captain that I have ever had here in my coaching career” and athletic director Marty Scarano said represents “all that is good about our business of intercollegiate athletics.” Team sports psychologist coach Tim Churchard added, “I have not met or observed a more complete and respected student-athlete than Chris in my more than forty years of teaching and coaching.”
Scarano’s fellow athletic directors must have concurred as Zarkoskie came away as the clear winner of the award named for Chuck Boone – dual-sport collegiate athlete and long-time coach turned University of Richmond athletic director and Executive Director of the Yankee Conference – and presented to the league player who embodies the highest standards of leadership, integrity, teamwork and sportsmanship in his academic and athletic achievements.
A team’s leaders must embody each of these characteristics in order to help guide their program to success on the playing field. There were countless examples of this kind in his recommendation letters and in Sunday’s remarks about Zarkoskie, who served as one of the Wildcats’ four captains last fall.
There have been many great leaders in sports over the years, all conveying leadership’s many forms. In describing what attributes a leader must possess, Zarkoskie notes, “As a leader, you need to know when to lead and when to let others lead. You can’t always be the one who’s speaking, and there are times when you have to take a backseat. That’s just as important as speaking up.”
And as the old adage goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” This is an especially key point of emphasis for Zarkoskie, who adds, “It’s not just about what you say. Leading by example is a very important quality, too. You’ve got to put the work in each and every day; even when you think no one is watching. There’s always someone watching and your actions speak very loudly. People see your hard work, recognize it and try to emulate it.”
Zarkoskie says that this past year he and his fellow captains tried to take what they had learned from the leaders before them – the likes of and Dino Vasso (’10) and Brian McNally (’11) – and utilize a similar style of leadership to guide the team in the right way, which involves hard work, respect for all and a “team over me” mentality.
He says that much of the brotherhood that has come to define the program is rooted in the latter, explaining, “We always talk about holding the shield for the person next to you. We all have ups and downs. If you’re up and someone else is struggling and down, then you’ve got to hold the shield for that guy. This is a team sport and everybody must act as one unit and one heartbeat. The quality of a true leader, then, would be bringing all of those guys together and leading them in one direction for one common goal.”
But as we see far too often in sports nowadays, a player’s leadership on the field does not necessarily translate to his life off of it. Thus, it’s rare that we come across a player like Zarkoskie who extends his same brand of proven leadership and immense character into his everyday life.
This is where Zarkoskie’s story truly begins to unfold. In addition to captaining the football team and capping his academic career with upwards of a 3.5 cumulative GPA and Academic All-District honors, perhaps his strongest record of leadership has been demonstrated in the community. His devotion to community service began back in New Jersey, where as a high schooler at Seton Hall Prep he spent his Spring Breaks volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and still today delivers the Eucharist to patients at a local rehabilitation center when he visits home.
The experience that has most profoundly impacted Zarkoskie, however, has been his time as a Pease Greeter at Pease Air Force Base in nearby Portsmouth, N.H. He first got involved with the organization as a member of Athletes InterVarsity, a group of Christian student-athletes on campus, and eventually expanded the student presence among the Pease Greeters by getting his teammates involved.
As Pease Greeters, the group strives to give the troops a proper welcome or sendoff and to thank them for their service to their country. They greet troops and spend time with them upon their return home from overseas, while also spending time with departing troops and wishing them a quick and safe return home.
Inspired by his time with the troops and a friend’s father who provides vocational counseling to veterans, Zarkoskie now aspires to one day work as a clinical psychologist at a veterans center or hospital. After graduating in December, he currently works with mental health patients and soon plans to return to school to pursue a doctorate in psychology.
Talking with 23-year-old Zarkoskie, who’s far more driven than your typical twenty-something and wiser than most people my parents’ age, one gets the sense that he was just born this way. He exudes character, class and selflessness, leading Chuck Boone – on hand to help present the inaugural award – to laud him as one of the most phenomenal young men he’s ever had the privilege to meet.
Predictably, Zarkoskie quickly deflected any such praise, attributing it and his numerous awards to the people who’ve been so present and supportive in his life – his parents, a high school teacher turned coach and his coaches and fellow teammates these last four and a half years.
While Zarkoskie is indeed a product of his environment, the people in his life are also a product of his presence in their lives. This prized son of the tight-knit New Hampshire family will now take the many things he’s learned in Durham and carry them into a professional career that should prove incredibly consequential for our nation’s veterans who return home in great need of gifted individuals like him.