Theater Mass Shooting Survivor Zack Golditch Finding Life's Bigger Than Football

Tully Corcoran@@tullycorcoranSpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 15, 2016

CSU Athletics/Tommy Joe Waido

The intersections of fate and chance are full of mystery. Even the most rational and least superstitious person will, after a brush with death, come out the other side with a new perspective on life and its purpose.

Was it fate that brought Zack Golditch to Aurora, Colorado, where he grew up? Was it fate that synchronized the mental descent of James Holmes with the production and theatrical release of The Dark Knight Rises? Was it all part of the plan, or was it a coin flip that put Golditch, a star high school football player at Gateway High, in Theater 8 instead of Theater 9 on an infamous night at the Century Aurora 16 Multiplex Theater at the Town Center at Aurora mall? And what about the path of the bullet that shot out of Holmes' gun, ripped through a wall and tore through Golditch's neck, just to this side of his jugular, just to that side of his spinal cord?

"It's in my mind every single day," Golditch said.

There were 82 victims of Holmes' rampage. There were the 70 he injured and the 12 he murdered. He was given 12 life sentences for the counts of first-degree murder plus an additional 3,318 years for the counts of attempted murder. What did it mean that Golditch was one of the 70, and his schoolmate, former Gateway baseball player Alexander Boik, was one of the 12?

What to make of that? How does someone so young make sense of that? How, four years later, has that changed a person like Golditch, now in his junior season as an offensive lineman with Colorado State?

"It was something that was put onto me," Golditch said. "I didn't ask for it. I didn't expect it. It wasn't what I was working to be defined as. ...That's been a struggle."

Four years ago, Golditch was working to be defined as a football player, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Since he started playing at age nine, football was his only hobby. When it came time to write a book report, Zack read something about football. Research paper? Football. Make an art project? Zack created a self-sculpture made of wire that read, "I'm wired for football."

It got to the point teachers had a talk with Christine Golditch about her son's singular interest. They said: "He's got to read about something other than football. We want him to have a wider range of knowledge."

Zack Golditch, a junior at Colorado State, is part of an offensive line that surrendered 13 sacks in 12 games this season.
Zack Golditch, a junior at Colorado State, is part of an offensive line that surrendered 13 sacks in 12 games this season.CSU Athletics/Tommy Joe Waido

Mom wasn't so sure there was a problem.

"I said, 'Knowledge?' Why don't you ask him about football? He'll blow you out of the water,'" Christine said.

But his grades were good enough all the same, and in the Denver area, eighth graders and their parents have choices about which public high schools they want to attend. By then, Golditch was so big and so good that a few of the high school football coaches came whistling by to see if he might want to join the football team at their prestigious schools.

Then the kid chose Gateway, which was anything but a football powerhouse.

Situated in a less affluent neighborhood than its rivals, Gateway was a program that could really use a player like Zack Golditch. Its pockets weren't as deep, its tradition wasn't as rich, and its players weren't as committed as those at some other nearby schools. One of the problems then-Gateway head coach Justin Hoffman was having in the summer of 2012 was attendance at weightlifting sessions. Kids were missing sessions and coming up with creative excuses for doing so. Hoffman was trying to clean it up, but culture changes take time.

The team had a weightlifting session scheduled for 6 a.m., July 21, 2012. Everyone was expected to be there.

Six hours earlier, though, just before midnight, Golditch was at the movies. The new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, had a midnight showing on multiple screens. Golditch had a ticket for Theater 8. In the front row of Theater 9 next door sat a troubled young man named James Holmes, who left his seat 18 minutes into the movie and propped open an emergency exit door with a tablecloth holder.

Holmes changed clothes in his white Hyundai Tiburon and 10 minutes later entered the Century 16 theater through the propped-open exit door. He carried a 12-gauge shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle and a .40-caliber pistol. He was dressed in body armor.

He threw a couple of tear gas canisters into the crowd. Some in the audience later said they thought it was a prank. Then Holmes began firing, first toward the ceiling. In Theater 8 next door, Golditch thought what he heard was fireworks.

He turned his head up and to the right to see what was going on. As he did, one of Holmes' shots went straight through his neck and out the other side. Two others in Theater 8 were also hit.

At 12:35 a.m., Christine's phone rang. It was Zack.

"Mom, I've been shot," he said. "I'm still at the theater. I'm OK."

That was not entirely true. Zack didn't know how much blood he had lost, and paramedics, feeling he was on the verge of passing out anyway, didn't want to tell him. So they lied to him about his condition.

Christine thought it was a lie of a different kind.

"I jumped out of bed saying, 'What? This is not funny. This is not funny. Don't play no dirty joke on me right now,'" she said. "He goes, 'No, mom, this is not a joke.'"

It was hours before Christine and Stewart Golditch could see their youngest son in the emergency room. Meanwhile, Golditch exchanged some messages with Hoffman, who assured him it was OK if he missed weights that morning.

But at 6 a.m., the door to the weight room at Gateway High School swung open, and there stood Zack Golditch with two open wounds, his neck wrapped in gauze, ready for his turn on the squat rack.

"There are no more excuses," he said.

His teammates were in shock. Hoffman was in shock.

"It's one of those things I'll never forget," Hoffman said.

By the time of the shooting, Golditch, then a senior, had transformed himself and his school. Gateway had reached the state playoffs the previous three years, and Golditch had gone from the big kid who was always afraid of hurting people to a savage competitor.

To hear Hoffman tell it, it all happened in a single moment at a Colorado state track meet where Golditch was throwing discus, just two months before the shooting.

Hoffman had long thought there was something inside Golditch that he himself wasn't aware of and had never previously accessed. Now it was the end of the kid's junior year, and Hoffman was starting to wonder if he was ever going to see it.

"There was a point in his career where we really wondered if he had aspirations," said Hoffman, who now coaches at nearby Rangeview High School. "It was like he was missing something."

Golditch put up a couple of good-not-great throws to start the meet, which prompted Hoffman to pull him aside for a confrontational conversation that boiled down to "If not now, when?"

"You've got to throw your best throw right now," Hoffman said. "And he did."

Golditch's next throw sailed 167'11". It won him the state championship by nearly four feet. And everybody that made fun of him for going to Gateway had to eat it.

"It's like a monster [had] awoken," Hoffman said. "Then the shooting happens."

In one-on-one conversation, Golditch has a soft manner that contradicts his massive 6'5", 295-pound body and competitive intensity. Between being the victim of a notorious crime and being a Division I athlete, he has a lot of experience being interviewed and written about.

Golditch has started 24 of his last 25 games for Colorado State, and the Rams have won at least seven games each year of his college career.
Golditch has started 24 of his last 25 games for Colorado State, and the Rams have won at least seven games each year of his college career.Photo: Austin Humphreys/The Coloradoan via USA TODAY Sports

Publicly, he has spoken a lot about the shooting. Privately, he'll sometimes avoid it if he can.

"People will be like, 'Hey, I heard this from so-and-so; is that true?" he said. "Sometimes I'll deny it. I'll be like, 'No, that was somebody else from my school.' It kinda depends on who they are and how interested they are about me."

This is a common sentiment among those who have been victims of tragedies or have survived potentially fatal illnesses. They often express a renewed appreciation for life and for everyone's concern, and a renewed desire to help others, but also often a desire not to be defined by a single event they never would have chosen.

"It sticks in people's minds," Golditch said. "To a lot of people who don't know me, that's all they know of me."

That was the case when Golditch arrived at Colorado State in the summer of 2013. The coaching staff had informed some of the other players that a survivor of the Aurora massacre would be joining the program in the fall, so by the time he arrived, he was already that guy.

Golditch didn't mind talking about it, but only if it was going to be a real conversation.

"It's hard for other people to move past it," he said.

Some of his Gateway teammates and classmates had a harder time with the shooting than Golditch did. Gateway brought in counselors to help students process their emotions, and it had to change the way it handled things like fire drills and alarms.

Golditch says that while he does not want to be defined by the Aurora shooting, he also has found a purpose in helping others after the incident.
Golditch says that while he does not want to be defined by the Aurora shooting, he also has found a purpose in helping others after the incident.Photo courtesy of Colorado State Athletics

"We were pretty fragile," Hoffman said. "We had a couple players in practice who, as soon as sirens would go off or an ambulance, fire truck, everything else like that, all of a sudden they'd go into their own PTSD-type of thing."

Golditch's biggest wounds were of the flesh. Psychologically, his biggest challenges were on the practice fields and classrooms at Colorado State in Fort Collins, Colorado. He was the first person in his family to go to college and soon found that if he was going to make it through, he was going to have to work harder than he ever had before. First semester, his grades weren't great, and he began having doubts about whether he was good enough to play football at that level.

He was no longer the biggest or the strongest, and his athletic career was no longer about awakening some internal beast; it was about finding a way to outperform more gifted competitors.

"It was rough," he said. "The very first day of workouts, I was so sore, I was beat. I was so tired. I had never gone through anything like that in my entire life. I called my high school coach and was like, 'Hey, I don't know if this is for me.'"

Golditch now is a redshirt junior at CSU, where he has started 24 of the last 25 games on the Rams offensive line. Colorado State has won at least seven games every year Golditch has been there, and it will play Idaho in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Dec. 22. Turns out he can play at that level.

Goldie @Zack_Golditch60

You never know how something as small as a smile can impact someone. Thank you UChealth and Children's! #GoRams https://t.co/L2XiFFenzP

"My high school coach really instilled something in me," he said. "You can't complain about what you can't control. So when I come across a situation on the field I can't control, I'm not complaining about it, looking for an excuse. It's kind of hard to say, but I feel like I'm willing to do that much more to get the edge. It's like, 'You're good, but I'm going to be that much better.'"

The shooting also instilled something in Golditch: a desire to open himself up to those who need his perspective. Before this season, he was named to the watch list for the Wuerffel Trophy, which recognizes college football players for their off-field service.

People open up to him, he finds, and while at CSU, Golditch has been involved with a number of service events including at the burn unit of a local hospital, the Boys & Girls Club and Respite Care as well as coaching at several youth football camps.

"I just want to help," he said.

Golditch didn't know that about himself before the shooting. He didn't know he liked talking to people, hearing their stories, helping them help themselves.

Though he intends to take his football career as far as he can, when Golditch talks about the future, he doesn't talk about playing in the NFL.

A kid wired for football found some new circuitry. He wants to work with people, maybe as a counselor in his old school district.

"I think I realized that I'm good at talking to other people, especially the ones that want to talk to me," he said. "Just seeing the impact a simple conversation can have on somebody, it feels really, really good."


Tully Corcoran has been working in professional journalism since 2003, covering everything from high school soccer to the NFL to the Final Four. He lives in Houston.


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