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Editorial: 'One Town, One Team' author recalls the hometown story that's 'better than 'Hoosiers''

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It's a story well known to many people in the Perham area, and one well worth remembering.

On Jan. 20, 2011, Zach Gabbard, a 17-year-old basketball star playing for the Perham Yellowjackets collapsed with a cardiac arrest at a game in Glyndon, Minn.

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Fortunately for Zach, two Perham doctors and an expired-licensed nurse by the name of Denise Cuchna 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, Cuchna had 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, 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 goosebumps when it hit her, then she sobbed.

Zach was rushed to the hospital in Fargo and placed in the intensive care unit, 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.

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, 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. His Caring Bridge site was swamped with thousands of messages of encouragement and prayers.

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.

Meanwhile, the Yellowjackets, 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. By the end of the regular season, the Jackets were in the state tournament with a record of 23-1.

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, and inspired them to victory. When he was introduced to the fans before the game, the crowd rose to their feet and game him an emotional standing ovation. The team, "Jacked by Zach," won 57-40.

There is so much to tell. But let me shorten a long story. The Yellowjackets won the next two games 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 - without a wheelchair.

It's a better story than "Hoosiers," and without the fiction.

Inspired by this 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 in a book titled, "One Town, One Team."

Those interested can pick up a copy of the book at the East Otter Tail Focus office in Perham or Lakes Publishing Company in Detroit Lakes. Email mswenson@ eotfocus.com for more information.

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