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Greg Peters column: 'Thoughts & prayers'

Greg Peters

I love listening to music and especially live music in smaller venues. So does, Jenna, my wife. I think the difference with live music is the musician, the good ones anyway, share their soul. They may comfort or provide discomfort, but either way their music can be a match lighting a flame of feelings. Now, we usually wouldn't leave the kids at home on a Sunday night to go listen to live music in St. Paul, but these tickets were a present from my youngest brother. We owed it to him to go and went to see Nashville-native, Will Hoge, at The Turf Club. He sang a song titled "Thoughts & Prayers," and though the song's a middle finger at the NRA and about fixing legislation (and legislators) to help prevent mass shootings in our country, it resonated with me in a different way. Like I said, a gifted musician can take your mind places it normally doesn't go.

"Thoughts & prayers" is what we say to people when their friends or family members die. It seems impersonal and tired, like white noise from a bad re-run on TV, but really, what else do you say in those situations? I guess I'm in the same boat as most other people. As hard as I try, I don't know how to steer that ship. I dive off the bow and swim away as fast as I can when the subject is death.

Sending "thoughts & prayers" navigates us through the awkward silence or empty space under the dove on most sympathy cards. "Thoughts & prayers" help us maneuver to the next post on Facebook, but what would happen if you didn't just say "thoughts & prayers?" What if you said or listened more? What if you didn't swim away?

I'll tell you what happens; you'll find out River Falls High School senior offensive lineman, Zak Paulson, has a heart that's the strongest muscle in his hulking 260-pound body.

Zak's dad, Hans, took his own life in the spring of 2013. Zak was in seventh grade. Hans was just 44 years old.

"My older brother, Cam, took it really hard," said Zak, "harder than I did. He was older and I feel like he had more to miss. My dad would always give me these massive bear hugs after a game when I was little. I miss the little things like that."

The Paulsons lived a couple blocks away from me, but I haven't spoken with Zak other than "hello" since he was in seventh grade. Sharing a meal with him now, it's easy to see he carries himself well. He has an inviting confident calmness about him. He welcomes you "in" like a gifted musician up on a stage with only his guitar and his voice. There's obvious signs of Zak being 17 when he runs his hands through his "hockey hair," but there's other times it seems like I was having a conversation with someone 17 years my senior. He could tell I didn't want to be inconsiderate and ask him about his dad; I wanted to swim away or at least tread lightly in the water, but he wouldn't let me. He plowed a clear path just like he does on the football field and carried the discussion.

Each Wildcat football player wears a bracelet. It's a personal reminder of why each plays football for River Falls. Zak's bracelet says "Father."

"The true reason I'm playing is to make him (his dad) proud," said Zak, "I know he's watching down. I'll always know that."

Offensive lineman names rarely make the newspaper. The ink is predominately used on running backs and quarterbacks. That's nothing new and Zak not only knows this well, he prefers it that way.

"My favorite thing is just the excitement on Logan's (Graetz, quarterback) face when you see Jared (Creen, wide receiver) streaking down the sidelines," said Zak. "When we score, it (happiness) is just something that's hard to explain. Logan's passion has changed. This is a blowout year for him."

With the Wildcats currently 6-1 and qualifying for the play-offs for the first time since 2008, the entire team is having a "blowout" year, and Wildcat Offensive Line Coach Jason Nesbitt says Zak's passion has also changed.

"His (Zak) interactions with his teammates is night and day from last year," said Nesbitt, "He had all the tools in the toolbox, but he needed to take the next step and he did that. That has to come from within."

Coach Nesbitt calls Zak, "Cheeks," because he's smiling all the time. Zak calls Coach Nesbitt, "Nez Dad."

"I see him as a father figure," said Zak, "He's trying to teach us how to be grown men. He spends so much time out of his day on us. I respect him way more than just a coach. If I needed to talk with someone, he'd definitely be my first choice. He says we're kind of in the same situation."

Nesbitt lost his father when he was 7 years old and lost his stepdad when he was in the 10th grade.

"I have a connection with Paulie (Zak Paulson) growing up without a father," says Nesbitt. "We also both have moms that had some hardships after."

Zak said, "If the guy across from me (on the defensive line) is stopping me, I remember I'm also playing for my mom and making her proud and then they don't stop me anymore. In my opinion, she's the strongest woman I know. I don't know how she does it. She works so hard and so many hours."

There hasn't been too many defensive lineman stopping "Paulie" in 2018.

"For lineman, it's all about winning 5 yards," said Nesbitt, "And with that kid's (Zak) speed and strength, he's going to win 5 yards. He's one of the fastest skaters on the hockey team and he's 260 (pounds)."

"I don't have stats but he's probably leading us in pancake blocks," said Nesbitt.

For those of you not familiar with what a pancake block is, it's when the offensive lineman pushes the defensive lineman with enough force, the defensive guy lands on his back, flat as a pancake.

"We have a bottle of syrup and have a little celebration," says Nesbitt. "We're extremely proud of

those."

When I asked Zak what he would take away from our dinner discussion, he answered just how you'd expect a great offensive lineman would; he was thinking about others before himself, "Hopefully if kids reading this story feel lost, if they feel as hopeless or worthless as I did when I was younger, that they know there's always someone to talk to. There's always someone. You just have to look."

I think the other side also has to ask sometimes instead of just saying "thoughts & prayers." Every musician needs a listener because what good is a great song if nobody hears it?

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