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Cameron Smith

Tumor and brain shunt can't keep Maryland teen off football field

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

Each week, Centennial (Md.) High School football player Zach Lederer puts on his pads and helmet just like thousands of other players across the country, hoping to get in his team's game.

But that's where the comparisons end, because every week Lederer is putting his life at risk when he takes the field. According to The Washington Post, the Centennial 17-year-old may be the only active high school football player competing with a brain tumor, a condition which led to brain surgery and the implantation of a shunt that runs from the back of his head all the way to his abdomen.

"I didn't want to live in a bubble and worry about every little thing that may happen to my head," Lederer told The Washington Post. "I wanted to live life to the fullest."

In fact, Lederer was never expected to play football at all, but his recovery and the fact that his tumor continues to shrink encouraged his neurologist, Ben Carson, to clear him to play during his senior year.

"I'm not 100 percent on board with the decision, but I'm not completely against it either," Christine Lederer, Zach's mother, told The Washington Post. "If he gets through the season uninjured, I'll say it was a great decision. But right now, that's a little hard to judge."

Lederer's journey to the football field has been an arduous but steady one. The high school senior underwent surgery at age 11 after doctors discovered a tumor in his brain, and at one point warned his parents that their only son was at serious risk of death. Then, after an initial surgery and a medically induced coma that cost Lederer all his motor skills, Carson -- a brain surgeon with a worldwide reputation -- took a look at Lederer's tumor and thought there was a chance to improve his condition by implanting a shunt.

After surgery that included the implantation of the shunt and removal of part of Lederer's skull, Carson's theory has slowly come to pass. Over the course of seven years, Lederer's tumor has shrunk from the size of a walnut to a single centimeter across. In turn, that improvement inspired Carson to clear Lederer for all contact sports, including football. Here's how the doctor described the conditions surrounding Lederer's tumor to The Post:

"His was an extremely unusual situation. Extraordinarily unusual," Carson said. "In fact, I've never had quite that same scenario in the 25 or 30 years that I've been practicing." ...

"I've been practicing neurosurgery for almost three decades now, and I've yet to see an athletic injury to a shunt," Carson said. "It's something you warn against and talk about, but I've never actually seen it. ... Hopefully Zach won't be the first."

Despite years of forced exile from any activities that would endanger his brain, Lederer always considered himself a jock -- he identified himself as a soccer, basketball and baseball nut -- and served as the Centennial program's student manager last year, charting every play in team practices and games. In fact, Ledererer has harbored a devotion to football since the early days of his recovery from brain surgery, when his family struck up a relationship with Ravens tight end Todd Heap.

Now that he's on the field, Lederer is using that past experience to speed up his learning curve. Listed as a backup running back and defensive back, his teammates make it clear that they feel Lederer is capable of playing whatever role he's needed in. Though he has yet to get in a game, Lederer is ready to play whenever he's called upon.

"For someone who's never played, he's done a great job picking things up," Centennial senior safety Edwin Heck told The Post. "He's just another guy, honestly."

He's just another guy who has gone through more than just about anyone else, and he's helping inspire others by tackling his fear of head trauma with tackle football.

"I guess one of the main reasons I'm doing this is to inspire people to reach their full potential," Lederer said. "By managing, I was contributing to the football team, but I figure I can contribute to the whole community if I play football because now I'm inspiring more [people] as opposed to just sitting on the sideline. So, I guess to just affect more lives and inspire people is the real reason I did it."

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