Dec. 27, 2012
by Chris Weinman
The question is not whether you will remember Zac Stacy. The question is simply how you will choose to look back on an illustrious career that has been as impressive off the field as it has been on it. The school's all-time leading rusher, Stacy has helped lead the Commodores to back-to-back postseason berths for the first time in the program's 123-year history this season. But it may be his accomplishments away from the gridiron that are truly the most remarkable.
A native of Centreville, Alabama, Stacy got his start in football at the age of 7, playing in a local instructional league. Stacy's mother, Barbara, recalls her son's first game.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Barbara said. "The first time he ever played, on the very first handoff from scrimmage, he scored a touchdown."
Zac was a three-sport athlete through his junior year of high school, when he decided to put baseball aside in favor of concentrating on football. That season he was named a 4A Mr. Football finalist in the state of Alabama after scoring 35 touchdowns for Bibb County. Zac still played basketball that winter to stay in shape, but come February he was signing a National Letter of Intent to play football for the Commodores. He would make an immediate impact in Nashville that fall.
"I worked really hard to get the playbook down with the coaching staff and was able to contribute a lot as a freshman," Stacy said. "I even got a start in the first game of my college career, and that was probably one of my biggest moments of my life."
Stacy exploded onto the scene with 20-carry, 133-yard performance in a season-opening rout of Western Carolina. Proving that game not a fluke, he gained 103 all-purpose yards the following week at LSU. But those numbers would be hard to come by on a team that won a total of four games in the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
Seven-hundred forty-two days elapsed before Stacy would rush for over 100 yards again, this time helping the 2011 Commodores move to 3-0 with a 169-yard day against Ole Miss. Stacy credits Head Coach James Franklin's staff with improving his understanding of all aspects of the running back position.
"I definitely feel like my first couple years here I was playing just off talent," Stacy said. "I didn't really have an exact knowledge of the game. That's one thing Coach Franklin and his staff have taught me these last two years. They've helped me become a better student of the game, learning fronts and coverages and the different little things. I'm playing a lot smarter, and that allows you to play a lot faster as well."
In the past two seasons, Stacy has had a number of noteworthy performances under Franklin's tutelage. His 198-yard day against Army midway through last season ranks third all-time among single-game Commodore rushing totals. Three weeks later, Stacy capped a 135-yard, three-touchdown day against Kentucky by dragging the entire Wildcat defense more than 10 yards to get into the South end zone of Dudley Field.
Stacy helped secure only the fifth bowl berth in Vanderbilt history by ending the 2011 regular season with 184 yards and three touchdowns at Wake Forest as he captured the Commodores' single-season rushing record. In the 2011 AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Stacy scored his 14th rushing touchdown of the year to tie another Commodore record.
While Stacy's final season in black and gold has had its ups and downs, the highs have greatly outweighed the lows and Stacy has shown great maturity as a senior leader on the squad. Never was that more evident than at the end of Vanderbilt's 19-15 victory at Missouri.
With the Commodores in their four-minute offense looking to run time out on the Tigers, Stacy took a third-and-9 handoff--his career-high 29th carry of the day--around the left side of the offensive line. A hearty stiff-arm gave him room down the sideline, but Stacy wisely slid down in-bounds after picking up a first down to allow Vanderbilt to kneel on the ball and kill the remainder of the clock.
Two weeks later, Stacy would become the Commodores' all-time rushing champion. A 27-yard dash in the fourth-quarter of a 17-13 victory over Auburn moved Stacy ahead of Frank Mordica's previous school record of 2,632 rushing yards (1976-79). Stacy has a chance to run for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and become the Commodores' first 3,000-yard rusher (Editor's note: Stacy accomplished both feats with a 180-yard performance at Wake Forest which included a school-record 90-yard touchdown run).
But simply concentrating on Stacy's on-field highlights would tell only a small part of his story. When discussing which accomplishments he takes the most pride in, Stacy humbly avoids his gridiron accolades in favor of focusing on other aspects of his life.
"Being able to graduate from Vanderbilt is definitely a big accomplishment for me," Stacy said. "My mom always took pride in academics. She's a school-first, ball-second type, so I've had that mentality all throughout my career."
Stacy is on pace to graduate this month, earning his degree from Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education and Human Development in just three and a half years. In a recent conversation, Stacy's mother stressed the importance of a strong finish to his academic career even as the Commodores prepare for their postseason opponent.
"I told him, `When the season is over, I know you all are going to a bowl game, but first you've got the grades bowl,'" Barbara Stacy said. "The goal is to get that degree. And he could not get a better education in the United States. It's just awesome. Sometimes I just have to pinch myself."
Stacy is taking a total of 18 hours during his final semester in order to finish six months early and use the spring to prepare for the NFL draft. He doesn't mind the extra course load, however. A large portion of those credit hours involve Stacy's student-teaching responsibilities at John B. Whitsitt Elementary School. Stacy is studying special education at Vanderbilt, and spends a couple days each week with second, third and fourth graders in the resource room at Whitsitt with Dr. Joanne Woods. She noticed early on that Stacy had a knack for reaching the children in her classroom.
"It's been obvious to me from the first couple of weeks with Zac that he has a great gift with relating to children," Woods said. "He's very kind and nurturing with the younger ones. And with the older ones, he can be firm and yet still be nurturing. He has expectations, and he works with them to let them know that he expects them to behave as well as to perform their tasks to the best of their abilities."
Special education is more than an undergraduate major for Stacy, it's a passion. His 16-year-old brother, Justin, has Down syndrome, and is a major inspiration in Stacy's life. Barbara and Justin can be seen at most of Vanderbilt's football games, and Zac loves seeing his younger sibling after each game--win or lose.
"He'll always give me that big brotherly hug," Stacy said. "And I just can't help but smile. It's always good to have him at games. He's pretty much the reason why I do the things I do out there on Saturdays."
Stacy acknowledges that he did not always understand his brother's disability, but a special education class he took during his freshman year with Dr. Kimberly Paulsen turned him toward his current course of study.
"I just fell in love with it," Stacy said. "We talked about [Justin's] disability in that class. And I knew I wanted to do something with that--not only to learn about his disability, but also to be able to help accommodate other kids as well."
Outside of his normal routine at Whitsitt, which often includes breakfast duty at 7:45 a.m., Stacy recently spent a day with Dr. Woods in IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings--which coordinate parents and teachers to promote a learning plan geared specifically toward each child.
The skills and knowledge Stacy has gained through his work and schooling are directly relevant to the care of his brother back in Alabama. When Stacy returns home to Centreville, he tries to visit Justin's high school class.
"He'll go over to the school to the resource room and visit with Justin's class and the kids," Barbara Stacy said. "He just has a special bond with children. He just has a big heart when it comes to kids, especially those with disabilities."
Stacy's mentor at Peabody, Dr. Paulsen has noticed that his teaching style marries that empathy for children with a discipline likely instilled over 15 years of organized athletics.
"He runs the classroom kind of like a football camp," said Paulsen, an associate professor of the practice in the department of special education. "He's very direct in his approach with them. He praises them all of the time, encourages them all of the time. He takes time to listen to what they're saying and the issues that they might have out of school. He talks to them a lot about how to be a good person and being respectful, and they just really listen to him."
When Zac Stacy steps off the collegiate playing field for the final time after Vanderbilt's bowl game this winter, he will have left quite a legacy--both in the Commodore football record books and in the hearts and minds of the children he has worked with. For his part, Stacy hopes that the lasting memory his peers have of him steers less toward the X's and O's, and more toward the lives he has helped.
"I want the people around me saying I was a great person not only on the field but off the field as well," Stacy said. "I would say my biggest accomplishment was being elected a captain on this team. My coaches putting their trust in me, and my teammates looking up to me, that's what is most important."