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For The Love of The Game

Yellowjacket Zach Gabbard and his mom celebrate the team's semifinal win in the state tournament while fans and teammates from the community remind everybody who they were playing in honor of. Photo illustration by Paul Gregersen

This isn't a story about the Polar League.

But in a round about way it is.

This isn't a story about a school in North Eastern Minnesota.

But very well could be.

This is a story about the power and ability of high school athletics to bring a small town together, heal and accomplish a dream come true.

This is a story about all that is right about sports and being a member of a team whether on the court or in the bleachers.

A story about determination, compassion and what it means to live life collectively as one.

A love story.

Not a traditional love story where two people marry for 50 years, work hard, go to church and raise their kids as best they can. It goes beyond that but is absolutely, no questions asked, a byproduct of the traditional love story.

It's the story of a community's collective love of a game and each other.

Perham is a small town of 2,400 people in West Central Minnesota. Like Silver Bay, Carlton or Esko. Floodwood, McGregor or areas in Cook County, it is rural, tight-knit and made up of kind, generous and hardworking people.

In January, their Yellowjackets varsity basketball team was playing a game an hour down the road against Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton.

Prior to the game, an off duty nurse was walking through the commons of the school when she noticed a gold dollar on the floor. She picked it up and placed it in her pocket for safekeeping.

Later during the game, junior Zach Gabbard suddenly collapsed unconsciously to the floor as a result of cardiac arrest.

Death was on his doorstep.

From the stands that same nurse rushed to his aid on the court. Using an automatic external defibrillator, she saved his life.

Symbolic considering those in the stands would join those on the court to finish the rest of the season in honor of Gabbard, while helping him; his family and each other heal. Move forward together as a community.

After the game, the nurse returned home and found the dollar in her pocket. She took a closer look and realized it wasn't a gold dollar at all. It was a guardian angel coin.

Gabbard spent the next two months in the hospital while the people of his hometown rallied together with love to raise thousands of dollars to help him and his family with the sale of black shirts that read, "One Clap for Zach" on the front and the number three on the back in yellow.

On the court, his team played every game as if it was their last in salute of their teammate who was almost lost. They finished the regular season with only one defeat, while their leading scorer lay in a hospital bed.

The Yellowjackets went on to win the section 8AA championship to play Virginia in the quarterfinals of the Minnesota State High School League Basketball Tournament at the University of Minnesota. Virginia dealt the Polar Leagues' own Moose Lake/Willow River Rebels a tough loss in the section 7AA finals in Duluth to reach the tournament to face the Yellowjackets.

Thousands upon thousands of Yellowjackets fans made the trip to the Twin Cities wearing their "One Clap for Zach" shirts and holding up three fingers in the air in honor of their hero's jersey number every chance they had.

After the Yellowjackets ran through the tunnel of Williams Arena to take the court, prior to the game, a special guest followed to the surprise of Yellowjackets on the court and in the stands.

Zach Gabbard in a wheel chair.

His first time on a basketball court and out of a hospital room since the January 20.

Gabbard received a standing ovation from both Virginia and Perham fans. Hugs, tears and high-fives from his teammates.

Their team and community was finally intact.

Gabbard, who weighed 40 pounds less than he did in January, watched the Yellowjackets beat Virginia easily in the quarterfinals and Rochester-Lourdes in a double overtime, semifinal, thriller from a wheel chair behind the bench. During the second game, he walked for the first time since his heart attack when his name was called during player introductions.

Fans on both sides of Target Center went wild.

Ultimately, Gabbard was forced to watch his team win their first state championship in school history from his hospital room because his blood pressure was low prior to the game. When the game was over, his blood pressure was back to normal.

When Gabbord's name was announced to receive his blue championship medal, his team received it together, holding their number threes in the air as hometown fans did the same in the stands.

"This is a very special moment for everyone," said Perham head coach Dave Cresap. "Not only for myself or for my coaching staff or for my team. It was a special moment for Zach and our community."

This is a story about faith, fellowship and Hoop Dreams.

It's the story of Endless Love found in small communities with big hearts across Minnesota.

It's the story of a Moose Lake/Willow River football coach who has built a class-act program on and off the field. Leading by example through listening not yelling. Understanding that shaping good people is just as important as molding good athletes and that community involvement and section titles go hand in hand.

It's the story of a Cromwell Cardinals team who knew they could bring the hardware home from the Metrodome even though the rest of the state said they had no chance.

It's the story of a group of Barnum girls who won a state championship by staying disciplined, aggressive and patient on the court even though their hearts were aching for a friend who lost one of his own the day before. Young women who were representatives of a community that knew it was more important to give their friend a hug as a team immediately after a state tournament win at Williams Arena, than it was to retreat to the locker room thinking only of themselves and the next game.

It's the story of what we are all capable of as loving friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters, coaches and athletes.

Sometimes it's a fairytale and other times it's far from it. In sports, Cinderella stories are few and far between

It may not be the type of love story penned by Taylor Swift but definitely exemplifies hometown, caring and country values.

It's the mark we set our sights on and shoot for, with hopes of "going the distance" at the bulls-eye. Our Target Field of Dreams but not a Bull Durham, Rocky, Major League cliché. It definitely doesn't exemplify the behavior of Wild Thing, Charlie Harper or Charlie Sheen. "Winning" in a different way. Not always having the most points on the scoreboard in the end. Not having "tiger blood" but true, genuine heart.

In this story we don't always get to Choose Our Own Adventures but are always responsible for our collective attitudes and actions in the face of adversity.

It's not a fake plastic narrative invented by Milton Bradley. But a tangible LIFE story that coincidentally centers on a game.

This story is nonfiction.

A love story.

An autobiography to be proud of.


Paul Gregersen is a freelance photojournalist and professional photographer from Moose Lake, Minn. This piece was originally published in the Polar League Quarterly and publications that cover high school athletics in Northeastern Minnesota.