Van Zant is heart, soul of SOU football

Staring down-field into the eyes of super-sized linebackers would strike fear into most people, but for Southern Oregon University senior running back Shane Van Zant, a run up the gut is the easy part.

Nearly five years ago, Van Zant, at the time a 20-year-old at Shasta Junior College, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Forced to put football on hold, Van Zant met his obstacle head-on and less than a year after his final treatment of chemotherapy to beat the illness, he was back on the field as Shasta's starting tailback.

Van Zant feels lucky to have come through such an experience and still be able to play the sport he loves.

"Things can be taken away from you in a second," he said, "and you're very fortunate to have the opportunity to come back on the field and learn about life and the game again."

Van Zant has gained a new perspective for life and now makes sure to live one day at a time.

"Whether smelling the flowers or looking up in the sky at night, realizing how special life really is, how fortunate people have it," he said. "It's unfortunate that people have to go through something so drastically life-threatening, whether it's a car accident or losing somebody or going through cancer, to actually realize how special life really is."

SOU head football coach Steve Helminiak, who has coached Van Zant the last two seasons, believes the running back is a strong enough person that he has turned a potentially spirit-crushing illness into a positive impact.

"I think he's used it as an inspiration in his life," Helminiak said. "At no point did he ever say there's something that I can't do, because he's been able to survive this. He's come into our program and he's been a heck of a running back for us, a heck of a leader and a great person. He's just a great young man and he's going to be a part of Raider football forever and a guy that I think is going to be a real success in life just because of the things he's had to overcome in his life."

Shane is planning on success for himself. He is set to graduate as an art major in the spring. He then wants to join his father, Bob, as a firefighter and plans to open his own tattoo shop as well.

Van Zant credits his parents in helping him become the athlete, and person, he is today.

"My parents really pushed me and they've always backed me on what I do in life," he said. "Especially sports because it just teaches you so much in life."

Growing up in Carson City, Nev., Van Zant first got into sports at the age of six as a wrestler. He kept up wrestling through high school as well as playing baseball for a number of years. It wasn't until his sophomore year of high school that he strapped on the football pads, but once he did, he never turned back.

"I did track (and) quit baseball my senior year just to get faster for football," he said. "Football is just the greatest sport."

He played his first year as a linebacker. In his junior year he was put in the backfield and produced 1,000-plus rushing yards in each of his first two years at the position. He credits his extensive wrestling experience for the tools necessary to be a successful running back.

"My work ethic and my heart and just being able to push yourself to the limit," he said. "I think that's all you really need when an athlete comes along."

He didn't get any full-ride scholarship offers coming out of high school, so he took his natural abilities to Butte Junior College. He chose Butte because they are known for producing quality running backs and he looked to advance his opportunities.

"I just wanted to be able to work my way up whether it's a D-I, D-II or NAIA level," he said. "Just getting that opportunity to play football after high school, it's a gift for anybody that actually goes beyond because you learn so much in life."

After transferring to Shasta, he came to SOU to be a part of what he says in an up and coming program.

"You never want to end that dream of playing football," he said. "Being able to be a part of a team that's wanting to win and to rebuild a program is just really special."

After being the feature back in last season's offense, high-caliber transfers and a new running back coach has cut Van Zant's carries nearly in half this season. The consummate team player, Van Zant is glad to play his role and help take the Raiders on their ride upward.

"I think the fact that we do have such talent in the backfield, rotating three backs is a smart choice considering our winning percentage," he said. "We're 4-4 right now and we might be 5-4 after Saturday."

With his final game as a Raider coming tomorrow against Dixie State, Van Zant is excited to play one last time with the team he has helped rebuild.

"I look forward to be able to play with the athletes that I've been able to play with and spend time (with) and learn to love and trust these guys on the field and be able to play this last game with them," he said. "It's actually a privilege for my life, for who I am. It's pretty exciting to actually be a part of this program."

is a senior journalism student at Southern Oregon University

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