In the days after his brother died, Zack Dobson barely moved. All his life, Zack had been the rambunctious one, climbing to the top of his mother's furniture as a toddler and turning the plot of land beside their home into a neighborhood football field as a boy. And for most of his life, he had moved with his little brother, Zaevion, right by his side. They'd shared clothes and a room and a bed and a bond. When they were young, people often mistook them for twins.
"If I'm there … he's not far," Zack says. "It's Zack and Zaevion always."
They were together that night in December 2015. They were together at a basketball game at Fulton, their high school in Knoxville, Tennessee. They were together when they returned home to check in with their mother, Zenobia. They were together later on when they went to hang out with some neighbors on the porch of a home in the Lonsdale housing development. They were together when strangers approached a little too slowly. And Zack thought they were still together when he took off running.
But when he heard more gunfire ring out, Zack Dobson couldn't find Zaevion. And when Zack returned to the porch, Zaevion's body was there, but Zack knew that his brother was gone. Zaevion had died shielding three teenage girls in the random shooting. Zack was alone.
Zaevion's heroism became a national story. Reporters converged on Knoxville, and in Washington, President Barack Obama compared Zae to his own children. Now, in a Bleacher Report documentary for B/REAL, Zack details the triumphs that have emerged from tragedy. He has become a college football player and a father and an inspiration to his teammates, his community and people across the world. Even NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony—who first heard about the Dobsons' story in 2016 at the ESPY Awards, where the family received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in Zae's memory—was so moved that he decided to visit Tennessee in September to speak with the Blue Raiders football team and to encourage Zack personally.
Watch Zack's full story—and stay tuned for the moment he meets Melo:
Before Zae became a symbol of America's struggle with gun violence and Zack a symbol for the power of perseverance, a more intimate story had to unfold. One brother had to learn to live without another. "It was everywhere," Zack says. "It was everywhere. And I would say I didn't really get to grieve how I really wanted to … It was just so much … the media and just how everything got. It was just—I really didn't get the time to really grieve."
For the first few weeks, Zack mostly stayed in his room. His brother's belongings were strewn about every surface, and the memories they'd shared filled the air. Sometimes, he would just lie on his mattress and stare at his brother's bed. Christmas and the new year came and went with little celebration. He watched his mother go to church but didn't attend. And when school started back up, he stayed behind.
"We were at a breaking point," Zenobia says. "But that support and the love that we had for each other—we just grabbed each other a little tighter...and held on. He didn't give up, even though he wanted to. And he was at the point of his life where he could have. He could have got revenge. He could have been bitter. But he wanted to rep his brother in a different way."
In early January 2016, Zack received a visit at home from his coach, Rob Black. And Black convinced Zack to come back to school, to come back to the football team when the spring semester started. But Zack had one condition: He was going to switch to his brother's number. So as a senior, Zack wore No. 24, piling up 982 receiving yards, 128 rushing yards and 454 yards on kick and punt returns. He ran that number into the end zone 12 times, and each time he counted "2" and "4" with his fingers and pointed to the sky.
At 5'8" and 170 pounds, he doesn't fit the mold of a typical college wide receiver, but Zack nonetheless earned an offer from Middle Tennessee State in nearby Murfreesboro. He took a grayshirt last season to adjust to college life—he was the first member of his family ever to receive a college scholarship—and considered taking a redshirt this season but found his way onto the field in October and then into the end zone in MTSU's last two games.
"He's got a great attitude," MTSU coach Rick Stockstill says. "He comes to practice every day to work and get better. And if he'll keep doing that, then he's got a chance to contribute more and more as this season progresses."
Before each game, Zack bows his head and thinks about everything that's happened in his 20 years. He remembers his brother, Zaevion William Dobson, and the game that they shared together. He thinks about his family and friends and coaches who encouraged him to keep living. He thinks about his mother, who is faithfully in the stands for every game, even when she knows he won't play. And finally, he thinks about his young son, born just this year. Zack named him Zion William Dobson.
David Gardner is a staff writer for B/R Mag.