Zach Damenti has so many friends, way more than he did before he became a Lakes football player, that not even he can count them all.
He easily tallies, however, the number of stickers on his Lakes helmet. There are 24 that he picked up this season. If he earned one for every person he impacted at Lakes, every human he inspired, every player who felt the crunch of one of his bone-crushing hits, he would need a box to stash his stickers.
"He was the most dedicated kid on the team, no question," Eagles senior running back/defensive back Ethan Greenfield says of his teammate. "He loved the sport, loved everyone on the team, was always intense and always wanted to play."
Football afforded Zach Damenti an opportunity to be just another kid.
A 5-foot-7, 160-pound backup linebacker for a Lakes team that won nine games and earned a second-round playoff berth in Class 5A, Zach was diagnosed with high-functioning autism/Asperger's syndrome when he was 4. Football changed his life. So it was appropriate that, given the opportunity to be a part of a winning culture at Lakes, he changed the lives of football boys and men.
The sport propelled his son both socially and academically, Jim Damenti says.
"He's so driven to continually push himself," says Zach's mom, Andrea. "He's very determined and passionate about the game."
Along the way, people couldn't help but accept the hardworking, charismatic kid who before high school counted few friends outside of youth football.
"I'm with the big buddies with deeper voices now," Zach says with a grin, "from high-pitched sixth-graders to low-voice seniors."
When his son was 8, in October of 2008, Jim Damenti, a huge New York Giants fan from the East Coast, took him to a football game at Giants Stadium. Zach remembers sitting in the south end zone, in the cold, with his dad and uncle, watching the Giants play the Seattle Seahawks.
Zach remembers the Giants winning 44-6.
Google it. Zach is exact.
"I was just enjoying the game," Zach says. "I was really young at the time."
It was Zach's first time watching an NFL game in person.
"From that moment on," Jim Damenti says, "he fell in love with watching football."
Eventually, after watching his younger brother, Wes, play youth football, Zach put a helmet on.
"He took it off," Jim Damenti says. "He said no."
That changed. TCYFL president Geoff Meyer and Antioch Vikings president Mark Haufe helped make Zach's football-playing experience positive. After four years of TCYFL ball, "Zach Attack," a nickname given to him in youth football, was thriving on and off the field. He was ready for high school ball.
Greenfield met Damenti the summer before freshman year at Lakes' weightlifting camp. By the next year, teammates were offering to drive Zach home from practice and inviting him to lunch with other teammates.
"Zach was such a lovable kid right from the get-go," Greenfield says. "Talking with him was always a fun time. He never really seemed down. He was always upbeat and positive. It was just super easy to see him for what he was and not for what he was labeled or what his disability was. He was just another guy on the team and we loved being around him all the time."
"It's all genuine," Lakes head coach Jordan Eder says of his players' acceptance of Damenti. "No one's doing it to look like they're doing the right thing."
In his first conversation with Eder, who replaced longtime head coach Luke Mertens late last spring, Jim Damenti made it clear he wanted no special favors for his oldest son. Eder assured him Zach would be treated like every other player and would have to earn what he got.
That wouldn't be a problem for Zach, who just wanted to be on the field and in the weight room.
"I love how you get to tackle people and make contact," Zach says of what makes football special to him. "I just love winning and being a part of the team."
Zach's passion never wavered. Football fueled him.
"I don't have to get him up at 5 in the morning Monday, Wednesday and Friday (for team weightlifting at the school)," Jim Damenti says. "I just have to get him there."
A season to remember
Zach saw action in about half of the Eagles' games this season. In a Week-4 win at Grayslake Central, he got snaps in the second half and on one play made a fourth-down tackle in the backfield with a pad-popping hit.
"We were like, 'Oh my gosh, that was Zach,' " Greenfield says. "He got off the field and we all got around him and celebrated with him. It was a pretty amazing moment."
What would you expect from an amazing kid? Damenti welcomed every football challenge in his Lakes career. He earned his big hit against Grayslake Central, his team-captain status for the Eagles' Week-2 game against Highland Park, his two-dozen sticker helmets.
"The kid hits," Eder says. "He can hit as well as anybody. He's so passionate about the game. He flies around and he hits. He's fearless."
Add intelligent. Owner of a 3.7 GPA, Zach knows his numbers and stats so well (note the Giants-Seahawks score from 2008) that a Lakes assistant coach once joked that he needed him on his speed dial on his fantasy football draft night. Damenti easily rattles off Greenfield's stats of 11 carries for 237 yards and 5 touchdowns (4 rushing) against Wauconda in Week 4.
Google it. Zach is exact.
How do you not enjoy the company of a refuse-to-quit teammate who enjoys the brotherhood that football provides and just wants to hang with his buddies?
"You just love being around him," Eder says. "He enjoys everything about the process, whether it's the conditioning, the lifting, the practices. He's never complaining. I loved having him out there."
When Lakes' season ended at Lemont last Saturday night, Jim Damenti gave a hug to both defensive coordinator Jason Ellerman and Eder and thanked them for what they did for Zach. Ellerman and Eder gave it right back. They thanked Damenti for the opportunity to coach his special son.
"It's so much more than the football," Jim Damenti says. "It's what football does for my son's confidence, what it does for him socially. ... I couldn't be more proud of what he has accomplished. It's that school. It's the teammates. It's the coaches. It's all that culture at Lakes."
It's all Zach Attack.
"I worked hard and practiced hard," Zach says. "I did enough to be one of the JV players who got some playing time on Friday nights."
It added up to so much more.
•Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeAguilar64