Zac Brooks and his dad, Malcolm, had the same routine when they walked from the baseball diamond to the car. Brooks, then in seventh grade, would carry the bucket of balls, and Malcolm would be in charge of the bats.
On this particular day, they got to practice a little bit late, and the car was parked farther away than usual.
"He just kept stopping from fatigue," said Brooks, a Seattle Seahawks rookie running back. "He was just getting tired. He was like, ‘Zac, I don’t know what’s going on. I need you to carry the bats, too.’ So I had all the bats and balls and stuff. He was getting out of breath really easily. I helped him all the way to the car, put the bags and stuff in the car."
At the time, Malcolm Brooks didn't think anything of it.
"Just thought I was out of shape," Malcolm said. "But my wife kept telling me that I needed to go to the doctor. Me being a man, thinking I’m made of steel -- I’ve never been sick before in my life, figuring I would just take some over-the-counter medicine for the cough that I had, and I’d be OK. But I started getting worse, and I finally ended up going to the doctor and finding out that they did all kinds of tests."
Malcolm was diagnosed with a disorder called hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and the tests revealed he had scar tissue on his lungs. The family believes the issues were the result of his years working for a pest-control company.
The news was jarring for the entire family. Malcolm had to stop working and now often uses an electric wheelchair to get around. His communication skills are fully intact, but sometimes he needs extra oxygen or finds himself interrupted by a bout of coughing.
Zac is the second-youngest of five children, but at the age of 13 he was called upon to grow up fast, pick up responsibilities around the house, and ensure that his younger brother was making the right choices.
"When that happened with his dad, he didn’t act confused or anything of that nature," his mom, Nerissa, said. "But he just stepped to the plate. Whatever I asked him to do: ‘This is what’s going on.’ We’d talk: ‘This is what I’m gonna need you to do.’ He had to grow up faster than the majority of the kids because of the condition that was going on with us. So he had to grow up faster. He didn’t get the opportunity, the chance to really be a kid because he had to help out around the house with his dad and everything."
There were nights when Nerissa would call from the hospital in tears because things weren't going well with Malcolm. One of Zac's older sisters would try to shield him from the conversation, but he was smart enough to figure out when things looked dire. Nerissa would ask the kids to pray.
Nerissa said Zac was observant. As his dad navigated his way through a new set of obstacles, Zac paid attention to his approach. He remembers specifically one trip to church that embodied his dad's spirit.
"I literally couldn’t walk," Malcolm said. "I stepped out of the van and fell straight to the ground, and actually a couple deacons had to come out and help me. They tried to send me home, but I told ’em I wanted to go to church. I didn’t want it to defeat me. I went into church. And I actually fought through the service and walked around the church during the service."
When Malcolm got home, he fell again. Friends had to help carry him inside and to the couch. The images from that day are forever planted in Zac's mind.
"I just learned how to fight," Zac said. "How not to give up. Because I can remember just like it was yesterday, he was just fresh out of the hospital, and that day it was Sunday, and he still wanted to go to church. He practically crawled into the church.
"And that just showed me and it just inspired me, there’s so much fight. So much will to go and do that. Ever since then, I don’t know how to give up. I don’t know how not to give my all. It’s just a part of me. That moment right there really stood out to me, probably more so than anything else in my life that I’ve ever experienced."
Zac carried the ball 41 times last season at Clemson. The year before, he was in position to have a bigger role but suffered a foot injury. If he had returned for one more season, Brooks likely would have again served as a backup. Since he'd already graduated, he decided to take a shot at his NFL dream.
The Seahawks selected C.J. Prosise in the third round of the 2016 draft and Alex Collins in the fifth. With their final pick in the seventh round (No. 247 overall), they decided to take a flier on Zac Brooks. General manager John Schneider called him a "personal favorite," and the team didn't want to risk losing Zac as an undrafted free agent.
As he competes for a roster spot, Brooks will have his dad on his mind. One of the main reasons he left school was to help contribute financially to Malcolm's treatment.
"He’s always supported me in my decisions because he raised me to know how to make the correct decisions," Zac said. "And he understands that I’m a young man, and there’s going to be times where decisions are going to have to be made, and they’re my decisions to make because it’s my life to live. And he gave me the room and that moment to make a man’s decision. And so I made that decision and he respected that decision and he supports me all the way through it."
Doctors have told Malcolm the best course of action going forward would be to undergo a lung transplant.
"That is the only option, really, as far as what the doctors say," Malcolm said. "Because my lungs are so scarred, they said it’s not reversible.
"I have to lose the right amount of weight. And the problem is my body is retaining fluid, so it’s hard for me to lose the weight with the medicine that they have me on. ...It’s a steroid, really makes you hungry, makes you want to eat. I’ve been doing OK with it, but my weight is just up and down because of the fluid that my body retains."
Zac and his teammates will get on the field Saturday for the start of training camp. Back in South Carolina, his dad will be rooting him on.
"I always had a strong mind and never felt defeated," Malcolm said. "As I do right now, I still believe that I’m going to heal 100 percent. I’ll carry that to my grave believing that. That’s what I have to hang on. That’s my hope."