Zach Carruth was born a fighter. He survived childhood cancer and defied the doctors who told him he could never be an athlete. He survived one of the most demanding Class A football programs and won several awards throughout his time in high school. He survived the rigorous recruiting process to play collegiate football and the added stress that came with last-minute changes on Signing Day. Four years later, he has survived college football and has a ring to show for it. Now, as he looks to the future with graduation just around the corner in the spring, he’s prepared for whatever else life throws his way.
The son of Cherry and Kevin Carruth, his story begins in the Savannah area. He was born and raised there until the Carruth Family moved to Swainsboro in 2007 when he was 8-years-old. At age 11, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. The tumor attached to a bone in his foot required eight surgeries to correct, and he had to learn to walk again. Physicians told Carruth his compromised bones would never be fit for sports, let alone the physical demands of a contact sport like football. In their words, playing football anyway in his condition would be like playing on crackers, and those crackers would eventually crumble to bits. Not to be sidelined, though, Carruth didn’t take no for an answer. He worked hard to prove those doctors wrong, and he did that time and time again as an award-winning Emanuel County Institute Bulldog.
Throughout his years on ECI’s offensive line, he learned a tremendous amount about life and football alike from his coaches, namely head coach Chris Kearson. Carruth was an integral part of the program, joining a group of fellow Class of 2017 graduates who made the Final Four three years in a row and never lost a home game. As a freshman, Carruth won Most Improved. As a junior, he was named to the first all-state team for Class A. He repeated that honor as a senior, in addition to winning the Bill Bonds Award and being the first-ever Emanuel County student-athlete selected to play in the OD All-American Bowl in Atlanta, an honor he still holds today.
As his high school days drew nearer to ending, Carruth, like other athletes, began to wonder what his college days would look like. Although many things were unclear at the time, he knew definitively he wanted to pursue playing football at the next level. A force to be reckoned with on the gridiron, Carruth enlisted the help of his ECI coaches and his mother, who eventually brought in a private recruiting assistance company, to help catch coaches’ eyes. Recruiting can be a strenuous process for even the best athletes at the biggest schools, but it is tenfold harder for students at smaller schools. All in all, Carruth played well enough and his support team worked hard enough to garner the interest of about six different universities: Reinhardt University in Waleska, St. Olaff in Minnesota, Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, Hope College in Michigan, The Citadel, and the University of Western Michigan.
“The recruiting process was a lot. It was pretty lengthy, too. We started visiting schools my sophomore year. It had its ups and downs, but I can see God’s hand in where I ended up. My eyes were set on Reinhardt. I was set to sign with Reinhardt on National Signing Day, but the contract fell through because of paperwork issues,” Carruth said. “Reinhardt pulled the morning of. I was pretty upset, but Southeastern heard the news and called my mom within 10 minutes. I knew that was where I was supposed to go, so I signed with them.”
Not to be mistaken that he chose Southeastern as a “second resort,” Carruth recalled a special moment on his visit to the campus in Lakeland. The “mascot” for childhood cancer awareness is the butterfly. On his visit campus was covered in butterflies. Another instance open for divine interpretation? The line coach at Reinhardt who heavily recruited Zach, Quentin Moses, was upset that a clerical mishap prevented the star from becoming an Eagle. Moses was looking forward to coaching Carruth, and despite him going to another school, he kept in touch with the player who had signed to be a Flame. Moses tragically died in a house fire just a week after Signing Day.
That all unfolded in February 2017. Months rolled on, Carruth graduated from ECI, and finally, he moved to Lakeland in July of that year. As committed as he was to the process and the future, he had no way to know what to expect of collegiate athletics—or college itself for that matter.
“Going from high school to college, there’s no adjustment period. You’re thrown right in and you have to learn as you go. It was incredibly difficult, but I had people around me to keep me on track at all times. That helped as well, but I think the biggest thing I had in my back pocket was the experience of being a cancer survivor and the motivation I could draw from that. Doctor after doctor told me I’d never play football. At the college level, every athlete, myself included, thinks about quitting at some point, but the motivation not to quit was just on another level for me. In my mind, if I could beat cancer, I could overcome the struggles I was facing as a student-athlete.”
The support circle Carruth created included his teammates, coaches both past and present, and, of course, family. His mom called every day to check in with him. His dad kept him motivated, and his sister, who lived just a 20-minute drive away, visited frequently. His parents only missed one home game in four years. Coach Kearson, who was a huge influence on him in high school, kept in touch and made sure the former Bulldog was being his best. Southeastern coaches Drew Engels and Skylar Mayo were significant to Carruth’s success in their own ways. Carruth credits Engels for cultivating a brotherhood amongst the team, which, in turn, helped the Fire win and keep winning. Mayo, on the other hand, could relate to Carruth in more ways than one and made sure the Swainsboro native knew it; Mayo played for Southeastern himself and could easily converse about all things football. However, the connection between the two ran much deeper than that. Mayo had cancer during his football career at SEU. He, too, was a survivor, and Carruth says the significance of having someone like Mayo, in addition to everyone else, speaks for itself.
Another important person during his college days was former ECI teacher Dorene Holmes. Carruth’s mother said, “Dorene had a huge impact. She considers Zach one of her own children; she was like a second mother to him in high school. When he struggled in high school math and science a little, she taught him how to study. Dorene was always there for him. There was nothing he couldn’t talk to her about. That translated into college in that she helped him with whatever math needs he had at Southeastern, too. She really prepared Zach for college, and she stayed with him, supported him, from afar.”
Even with a solid circle around him, college proved to be difficult. He immediately realized he needed some goals to keep him grounded. Southeastern is a private Christian school, and he wanted to grow his faith. He also knew he wanted to leave Southeastern a smarter man, one with a degree as well as more football knowledge to hopefully become a coach one day. On the athletic front, he and his team set their eyes on winning the Sun Division. Looking back, Carruth feels like he gave all of himself and is proud of the things he accomplished in Lakeland over the course of four years.
“I can honestly say I grew closer to God while I was there, much to the credit of our motto, ‘Unshakable Faith and Unbreakable Brotherhood.’ I learned so much, like time management, how to take criticism, and how to learn from your mistakes. I majored in exercise science. It’s one of the harder majors you can pick because there’s a lot of science involved, but I’m set to graduate with my bachelor’s this spring,” he recalled. “Every team I was on here wanted to win a conference title, which we did my freshman and sophomore years, but we also learned what we wanted our program standard to be. We set that standard high, and we knew that to achieve everything we wanted to, we had to start with one goal, accomplish it, and move to the next.”
The amount of work it took to actualize the program Carruth and his teammates aspired to create was tremendous. For four years, Carruth weathered the grind, waking up at 5 a.m. for weights most weekdays. He then had practice for an hour and a half, followed by a full slate of classes. He also had individual and team meetings throughout the week. Saturdays were game day, and the only off day he had was Sunday.
In addition to a demanding schedule and the never-ending workload of academics, Carruth, like every other athlete today, had a wrench thrown into his sense of normalcy when the pandemic hit. The learning experience quickly changed from in-person to virtual in some cases, and coaches had to rely on Zoom for meetings. Face masks were required everywhere, even in the weight room. The atmosphere of the Flames’ Victory Field changed as well in that there were only 100 to 200 fans in the stadium for home games and it looked similar in other stadiums on the road, although overall admission increased as the season went on. Still, a huge part of athletics and a team’s success is the ante that comes from the crowd. It wouldn’t be a hard sale that the Fire didn’t make the playoffs against Keiser in the biggest game of the year, losing by 3 points, because of COVID’s effects.
Nonetheless, Carruth couldn’t be happier with his time at Southeastern. Now that it’s coming to a close, he’s excited for whatever lies ahead. “To anyone going into college, especially college athletics... I say know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s not something you can be dedicated to one week and not the next. It’s a 365-day job. When you sign that contract, you own yourself but the school owns part of you. It’s not like high school. What was hard in high school will be 10 times harder in college,” he commented. Looking down at his conference title ring from his sophomore year, he continued, “I’ll If you do end up making it all the way, it’s one of the proudest things of your life, and it will stick with you forever.”
In the future, Carruth hopes to land a coaching job and pass on his wealth of knowledge. An ideal situation, he says, would see him back at home donning ECI attire under the lights of Rountree Stadium in Twin City.
Quick facts about Carruth
As a member of the Fire football team, Carruth played offensive line, fullback, and tight end.
Carruth wore #67 as a freshman and a sophomore. His junior year, he got to wear #67 as well as #44. As soon as #44 became available in full upon the graduation of a senior, Carruth switched to it immediately. The emotional tie to #44 came from his late friend, Mikey Walker, an ECI Bulldog himself who lost his life in a car accident. Walker took Carruth under his wing, showed him the ropes, and kept him on track. Carruth wore #44 as an homage to Walker, and wearing that jersey wasn’t a responsibility he took lightly. The Fire lineman recalled every day Walker’s way of looking after everyone. Donning #44, Carruth felt that was his responsibility as well on the college level—to keep up Walker’s benevolence.
About the Fire’s future, Carruth “doesn’t see them stopping any time soon.” SEU hasn’t had a losing season since its program started, and the school recently hired an entirely new coaching staff. The future of Fire football looks promising.