Sachem's a friendly place. In the halls at Sachem North or East there are seldom problems between students and generally everyone respects each other. It's rare that a student commands more than the average level of respect though. Whenever someone is scheduled to graduate and join the military, there's always an added urgency to wish them well or feel obligated to be proud of their future, which for some time will be spent protecting American liberties.
When Keith Zeier was at Sachem - it was just one high school then - people knew who he was. Maybe it was because of his freakish athletic ability since his junior high days, or the aura of soccer brilliance that preceded him. There was just something patriotically affectionate about his presence by the time he was scheduled to graduate, that when he walked into a room everyone noticed.
I wrote a profile about Zeier for Newsday's Hi-Five when we were both seniors. It focused on his absence from the soccer team and how Frank Schmidt's group would recover after Zeier suffered a massive concussion in a pre-season non-league game on the road against East Islip.
"Those games are usually not that intense," Schmidt said. "But it was rough. That turned out to be one of the most frightening experiences I've ever had as a coach. We didn't even see it take place."
"That was a strange situation," recalled Pete Montalbano, Schmidt's assistant. "He got hit in the head. We don't know if it was an intentional hit, or if it was an accident."
What happened next shouldn't shock you if you've caught the drift on Zeier. He kept running through after the play. He didn't stop. He didn't go down or raise his arms in angst. He rolled with the punches.
Immediately after the game Zeier came off the field, walking towards a row of trees instead of shaking hands with the other team. It wasn't a lack of sportsmanship as much as it was him lingering in a dazed state.
"Someone said he was over by the trees throwing up," Schmidt said. "Then someone told me they think he was hit."
Zeier remembers the incident happening, but can't recall anything else after. What transpired next was a scary moment for just about everyone wearing Black & Gold that day. Zeier went on the team bus and faded in and out. Schmidt and Montalbano spotted a police car shortly after the bus began traveling back to Lake Ronkonkoma. They called for an ambulance and took him to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital.
"He was not aware of what was going on," Schmidt recalled. "When he was finally evaluated, he didn't know where he was."
"It was surreal," Montalbano said. "I thought, 'is this a movie, is this happening?'"
Denise Zeier, Keith's mom, left in Keith's SUV – her car was being fixed at the shop – and drove home as if nothing was wrong. Like the others, she didn't see the quick play as it happened. Mike Wulforst, North's athletic trainer, approached her vehicle when she was waiting at the school for the bus to arrive and broke the news that her son, already committed to joining the United States Marines, was rushed to the hospital with a head injury.
He suffered a brain injury and was in bad shape for the rest of the fall of 2003.
"It was difficult watching him go through it," Denise said. "He was afraid of his own dog. He didn't know how he used to dress, what clothes. He could read. He could type, but he lost more of his personality then. He didn't know who his friends were and had trouble remembering names and when you looked at him the light wasn't on."
My article on Zeier ran Oct. 9, 2003 and the next time I saw him, in our sports marketing class that we shared, he approached me, as if he knew me all along, and thanked me for the story. He was a conscientious leader then and remains one today.
That March he shipped off to boot camp, but before he could fulfill his destiny of being an American soldier, he needed the proper medical clearance, which he ultimately received.
Soccer was always at the root of Zeier's core. If he didn't join the Marines, he most likely would have accepted the $100,000 contract the AJAX Holland junior team offered him, but in July 2003 he changed his mind and went the other route.
"I was 16 when I got the offer," said Zeier, who ran like a thoroughbred on the field. "Most play for the junior teams and then switch up to pro. It was always the sport I loved. I played ice hockey, football, but once it came down to getting older in high school I just focused on soccer. I went all over the country playing. It was my love and passion."
"He'd go out for hours, shoot on the fence to learn how to shoot left-footed," Denise added. "He knew it was important to be able to shoot with his left feet. Whenever he could he'd have a soccer ball with him. Soccer was his favorite, but he just loved sports. He got into surfing, sky diving, motorcycling riding, base-jumping. You name it."
It seems like Zeier's soccer career lasted a split second, but it took up the bulk of his childhood, as did anything physical or athletic. He was a specimen in high school, a dominant beast no matter the task.
"He was always a physical stud," said Schmidt. "He was a real conditioned athlete and was the type of kid that I wasn't surprised what he did after high school. What's more is that the kids always looked up to him. He wasn't a vocal leader. He was all action, which made it great to coach him."
The scouting report would read: great footwork, amazing quickness on the outside, extreme control with a balanced gait and unnatural speed that keeps you grasping when watching. Unfortunately, Sachem never saw him reach his true potential that senior season because of the injury. Schmidt originally heard of Zeier through Montalbano, who teaches at Seneca Middle School, where Zeier attended. His son John also played select soccer with him in the Long Island Junior Soccer League. Montalbano said his personality today mimics what it was when he was still growing.
"He was always a determined young man," he said. "Always striving for perfection. I think that he really has portrayed himself in the way he lives his life. I saw him grow from that middle school young man into an American hero and still evolving over the years."
His fitness level, even as a seventh grader, was unreal. He broke and still holds Seneca's and Tamarac Elementary School's mile record with a time of 5:02.
"No one has ever achieved such a number," Montalbano said. "The kid has no lungs, he could run, run, run. That becomes a real asset to a team and to a player. On top of that, he had this tremendous skill level and he had it very early. It's very unnatural to play with just feet. It's different for American kids. His fitness level was off the charts."
Which is why he was completely ready to battle Marines boot camp, graduate early from Sachem and sidestep a head injury. When you're that strong, it carries over to mental fortitude and in Zeier's case it worked.
He was always interested in guns as a child and had the typical Ghost Busters slime gun, which he crawled around the house with and shot at imaginary bad guys from the bushes. His maternal grandfather was in the military, so that helped in his decision-making, but when his best friend's father died in the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, his thought process was altered for good.
John Crisci, a Lieutenant in the FDNY's Haz-Mat Company No. 1, was about to head home after his shift ended, but saw the havoc reeking over Manhattan's skyline that morning. He joined his fellow firefighters and passed away, sacrificing his life for the good of the people suffering in those towers.
Mike, John's son and a Sachem grad as well, is Zeier's best friend. The boys spent hours of time with John, going to sporting events, messing around the house. Since Zeier's own father wasn't in the picture, John filled that void. Then he was gone.
"I was always over their house," Zeier said. "He was a father to me. They didn't find his body for almost a month. It was rough and that's when I made up my mind. It gave me a lot of drive and I got through it. I knew I wasn't going to quit or fail. I knew what I was getting myself into."
At first his mother refused to sign the paperwork.
"I felt like I was signing his death certificate," she said. "It was hard to cope with. He was going to go in anyway. He would have been 18 in April of 2003. It was only a matter of him going in two months early. I knew he was doing it anyway."
"He wanted to do more than just play a game his entire life and as that progressed he wanted to be something bigger than himself," Mike Crisci said. "In the military he could do that."
Check out the next installment of this series tomorrow morning on Sachem Patch.