GOLDEN RE-BOOT: Old Man Von Rosenberg is still alive and kickin’

PHOTO by Chris Parent

Zach Von Rosenberg is wide awake.

It is 3 a.m., just shy of 16 hours before kickoff of the College Football Playoff national championship game on Jan. 13 between LSU and Clemson in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

About a mile away in his hotel room on Canal Street, reality sets in for the Tigers’ 29-year-old punter who spent six years as a minor league baseball pitcher before re-inventing himself as a college football player.

During LSU’s magical 15-0 2019 march to the school’s fourth national championship, Von Rosenberg’s mother Crystal would often marvel how life’s twists and turns led her third son to hop aboard the greatest ride of his athletic career.

“I know you’re in the middle of this and can’t see how great this,” Crystal would tell Zach as the wins mounted, “but one day you’re going to be talking about this when you’re in the nursing home.”

Zach’s response?

“Mommmmm!” he’d say like it was no big deal.

But with kickoff just a sunrise and sunset away from a chance at a national title and a perfect season, Zach could no long ignore his past.

“I thought about every single thing that had happened to me that got me to that moment,” he said.

Like dragging his dad and older brother to a high school batting cage at 11 p.m. for batting and pitching practice in his underwear.

Being pulled out of class at the start of his junior year at Zachary High by the football coach to try out for punter.

Going 42-7 in his high school pitching career as part of four state championship teams, the first at Lake Charles Barbe High and the last three for Zachary as he remains the only back-to-back ever solo winner (2008 and 2009) of the LHSAA’s Mr. Baseball award.

Putting a $1.2 million signing bonus in the bank as a Pittsburgh Pirates draft choice and buying a bumblebee (yellow with black stripes) Camaro that he sold four years later “because it was too loud,” he said.

Being released after an injury-riddled minor league career and having to come to grips with his first haunting athletic failure. And then almost immediately deciding to walk-on for football at LSU where he had once committed to play baseball and actually attended freshman orientation.

Advancing to No. 2 punter on the LSU depth chart just before 2016 preseason practice started after the backup transferred because of legal problems.

Winning the starting job four games into his freshman redshirt year of 2017.

Graduating last December 20 to fulfill the promise he made to his mother that he’d attend college whenever his pro baseball career ended.

After rewinding his life, getting some sleep and tweeting “It’s a strange thing to wake up and immediately realize it’s the biggest day of your life,” Zach went out and had arguably the best game of the season.

He averaged 44.6 yards on seven punts, dropping three inside the Clemson 20, in the LSU’ 42-25 win to capture the school’s fourth national championship.

And then Zach went to Bourbon Street to celebrate where he definitely didn’t have to show proof of age.

“After we won,” he said, I was like `I can’t get enough of this, it’s like living a dream, how did my life get to this point? How is this the climax and not baseball? I’m almost at the end of my athletic career. Man, I can’t believe this train is still going.”

The veteran’s veteran

On Sept. 24 two before LSU’s re-scheduled 2020 season opener, Zach Von Rosenberg turns 30 years old.

He will be older than 15 of the 32 punters who started in the NFL a year ago, older than 13 of LSU’s current football support staff employees, including four analysts and three graduate assistants.

As the holder for LSU placekicks, he’s 10 years and four months older than 18-year old sophomore placekicker Cade York

Most incoming freshmen signees usually think Zach’s a coach until they eventually discover the truth.

That old dude is our punter!

“I’ve accepted the fact I’m literally a decade older than incoming freshmen,” said Zach, whose 44 yards per punt career average in 134 attempts ranks third in LSU history and is almost even with record-holder Brad Wing’s 44.58 average. “I’ve embraced my role as the old man on the team. If guys want to chat and ask me about being old, I’ll fill them in. I try to relate but it’s hard because of the generational aspect and the priorities are so different.”

Zach’s successful career re-invention has made him a cult hero to many 20 or 30-year old somethings hoping it’s never too late to chase athletic glory.

“They contact me,” he said, “and ask `How do you do it? How I get on a team? What do I need to do?’ I say, `Look man, you can believe you actually want it, but there’s a difference in actually wanting it and doing it.’

“I probably discourage people more than I encourage. If you’ve already started a career and if you’ve gone in the military or whatever, coming back is not easy.”

The fact Zach wasn’t hurting financially because of his baseball bonus and because he was single with no family responsibilities mitigated two huge issues older walk-ons face.

Zach has worked hard, but also knows he’s crazy lucky – “If I had to pick a person to win the lottery, Zach would be the one,” said Josh Corman, one of Zach’s two half-brothers – to play on a national championship team after thinking he was done as an athlete in his mid-20s.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t feel a sense of gratitude for LSU allowing me to get out of that dark patch I was in after (minor league) baseball,” Zach said. “I was in a funk. LSU allowed me to love sports again.

“When you’re broken as a man at 24 years old, you just got cut in baseball and you’re able to bounce back and win a national championship at LSU which was the college you intended to attend out of high school on the best football team ever, it helps heal wounds.

“There’s still pain, still hurt, still `what if?’ from my baseball career. But at the end of the day, playing on a national champion football team softens the blow. It allows you to say `Man, all that grinding was worth it. All the tears and the effort and the pain and the injuries and everything you did were worth it.’”

Training ground

As the third of five boys in the middle of older half-brothers Josh and Seth and younger brothers Gabe and Grant, Zach had no choice but become a competitive athlete.

No matter where Randall and Crystal Von Rosenberg lived during Randall’s military career – West Germany, Lawton, Oklahoma, Natchitoches, Lake Charles and Baton Rouge – sports was just outside the door.

“All the boys and girls in the neighborhood came to our house to play,” Crystal said. “It was a constant competition.”

Zach’s kicking career started in elementary school in Lake Charles as a fluke. A neighbor begged the family for two years for Zach play on his young daughter’s soccer team. The Von Rosenberg kids were already in several sports and Randall didn’t see soccer fitting in.

“Then one Saturday morning, our neighbor came to me,” Randall said, “and said his best player had broken his arm. He told me, `I’ve got a uniform for Zach. You don’t have to pay anything. He just has to show up.’

“Zach had never played soccer. But that day in his first game, he scored six goals.”

A few months later before Christmas, his gift wish list was fairly simple.

“Zach said `Mom, all I want is bag of footballs’,” Crystal said. “I said, `How many are we talking about?’ He said, `Uh, I don’t know, maybe about six or eight.’ I said, `What are we doing with those?’

“He started kicking in our yard and just about killed one of my trees. We lived near Barbe High, so then he started going over there. It was just a fun thing for him to do.”

When the Von Rosenbergs moved to Baton Rouge in 2006 and Crystal was a high school nurse who joined her oldest son Josh (from a previous marriage) at Zachary High where he was an assistant coach, head football coach Bob Howell approached her in the first few days of Zach’s junior year.

“He tells me he just lost two kickers,” Crystal said. “I told him, `The baseball coaches are going to kill me, but Zach has a great leg. I’m not bragging. He loves to kick.’

The coach said, `Where is he?’ I said, `He’s in class. English.’”

Howell went straight to find Zach, took him to the football field for a tryout and declared him the starter. He told Zach he just needed him for 30 minutes a day for practice, understanding baseball was his priority.

Zach was two years old when he was swinging a whiffle ball bat and launching whiffle balls and whiffle golf balls off a tee over the roof of the family home.

He knew he had natural baseball talent. His dad and half-brother Josh realized it, too.

“We had a lot of parents who thought I was abusive and drove Zach into baseball, but he drove me,” Randall said. “He’d drag me and Josh out to the yard every day for practice. When he was 10, he taught himself to throw a breaking ball, a palm ball that had a little break to it. The other parents thought that I was a terrible parent trying to ruin Zach’s arm for teaching him to throw a curve.”

Late one night, Crystal went to the grocery store for an item she needed for the next day.

“I’m driving back home about 11 ’o clock” she said, “and I see a light on in the Barbe High batting cage,” Crystal said. “Then, I see what looks like our truck.

“I get out of my car to take a look. Randall and Josh (who coached at Barbe) are there and Zach is in his underwear taking swings. He had taken off his pants because they had no belt and kept sagging.

“I asked, `WHAT are Y’ALL doing?’

“Zach said to me, `Momma, I wanted to come here.’

 Josh eventually became Zach’s primary baseball coach.

“There was a time when Zach was a shortstop on my team, he’d field grounders, make throws to first base and our first baseman would drop them,” Josh said. “So, Zach decided he’d just roll the ball to our first baseman. I know it looked bad, but Zach found a way to get guys out.”

Zach’s work ethic and love of the game paid off. Pro scouts began tracking him early in his high school career, but he committed to LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri to sign with Tigers’ 2009 recruiting class.

It would be the fulfillment of a dream. Zach was a diehard LSU fan who once collected dirt from the Alex Box Stadium pitching mound during one of the Tigers’ College World Series championship years under Skip Bertman.

“He’d been winning pitcher in the state championship game four straight years and we thought he would have a very good college career,” Mainieri said Zach, who remains the only back-to-back ever solo winner (2008 and 2009) of the LHSAA’s Mr. Baseball award.

Zach’s passion and commitment to the Tigers was a big reason why he dropped to the sixth round in the MLB Draft before he was chosen. No team thought they had a chance to sign him, so why waste a draft pick?
But the Pirates did. When they threw a $1.2 million signing bonus at Zach, he couldn’t pass on it. He signed only after he promised his mother he would return to college when his baseball career ended.

Major life lessons in the minors

It’s a frequent question often asked in job interviews.

“Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”

Ten years ago following a brief first taste of pro ball after signing his contract the previous August, 19-year old Zach Von Rosenberg was starting his first full season as a minor league pitcher for the State College Spikes in the Class A New York-Penn League.

He had yet to learn about the 10-hour bus rides to the next locale the following day for a 2 ‘o clock game after finishing a night doubleheader.

Or survive sleeping on budget road hotel mattresses. Or understanding that high school team camaraderie dissipates into self-preservation in the minors.

He quickly discovered all of that.

“You’re riding around the country with guys you just met,” Zach said. “You make friends with a couple of them, but everybody is out for themselves. When you get to pro sports, there’s a lot of selfish guys who don’t give a crap about you. That’s the nature of the game, but it’s hard to concoct a natural team environment.”

There was also the unusual feeling of a signing bonus that suddenly made Zach a millionaire. He always was frugal, because he watched his parents perform a financial balancing act on two middle-income salaries while raising a house full of grocery-eating boys.

“It wasn’t like I came from money, just an average upbringing used to average stuff,” Zach said. “In the beginning, it was very surreal and weird for me having all that (bonus) money.  It’s one of those things where you make that kind of money and you don’t know what to do.”

One day, he went to a mall, spent $150 buying “stuff” and then got upset at himself for being frivolous. So, he called his mom.

“Mom, I’m spending too much money,” he said. “I just spent $150 at the mall.”

“Zach, you spent just $150,” Crystal said. “We spent that every day on y’all when you were kids.”

End of discussion.

A string of ailments kept Zach from advancing past Class A. The most severe was thoracic outlet syndrome, which is shoulder and neck pain and fingers numbness caused by compressed blood vessels or nerves in the space between a collarbone and a first rib (thoracic outlet). It can be caused by a repetitive sports injury.

“I just couldn’t seem to put it all together and stay healthy for a whole year, but that’s pitching,” he said “Anytime you throw a baseball violent like that, it’s just a difficult thing. Some guys can, some guys can’t.”

After six seasons playing for four teams, starting 56 games in 86 appearances and with a record of 15-25 and a 4.52 earned run average, he was released at the end of training camp in April 2015.

He immediately called home with the news and Crystal answered the phone.

“Mom, they’ve cut me,” Zach said.

“Son, you made a promise to me (going back to college), I don’t want to get into a big thing about it,” Crystal said. “You’ve got a new life ahead of you.”

Zach was too upset to respond.

“It’s going to be OK,” Crystal continued.

“Mom, I never really failed at anything,” Zach said.

“This isn’t a failure, son,” Crystal said. “This is a move-on-to-the-next-part-of-your-life.”

Then right before the phone call ended, Zach spoke up.

“I think a guy is going to give me a job in Houston,” Zach said.

“No, he isn’t,” Crystal replied. “You promised your mother you were going to school. I know you love LSU. And we’re right here on the backdoor step of it. I think that’s what you’re going to be doing. You think about it and call me back.”

Zach stewed for a couple of days. Yes, he still had a sizeable portion of his bonus in the bank and also in investments. He had already bought a home in Baton Rouge. There was also a clause in his Pirates’ contract stating they would pay for four years of college.

“Everything was taken away from me, I couldn’t shake the feeling of failing,” Zach said. “It was my first life failure, the first time I felt lower than low. I was so low I didn’t even know how to get back up. That was the breaking point for me.

“I told myself I couldn’t sit around and be miserable. I had the athletic ability to do something else, I just have to get up and do it.”

Finally, Zach called back his mother.

“I think I’m going to walk-on for football at LSU,” Zach said.

“WHAT?” said a disbelieving Crystal.

Goodbye baseball, hello football

It started with Zach’s e-mail on May 12, 2015 to Sam Nader, LSU’s assistant athletic director for football who now has served under 10 coaches. Zach explained how he went to an LSU punting and kicking camp in 2008 and how Les Miles asked him if he would like to punt for LSU. He also detailed how he committed to the LSU baseball recruiting Class of 2009, decided to play pro baseball and now was a 24-year old athlete whose minor league contract had ended.

“I know that I can punt/kick but I feel with my athleticism and 6’5″ 225 lb frame that I can pursue a more ambitious goal of leading the LSU Tigers to a National Title as a Quarterback,” Zach wrote to Nader.  “This task will be an incredible journey but with my relentless work ethic, I know it can be achieved.  If I didn’t think it was possible I would be emailing someone at a smaller university to play ball, however, I want to be an LSU Tiger.

“I missed the opportunity when I was drafted, I don’t want to miss the opportunity now. . .I would love to sit and talk more in person if you feel it necessary and hope to be an asset to your football team in the very near future.”

Zach was a part-time LSU student in the fall of 2015 so that his athletic eligibility clock didn’t start until he enrolled full-time the following January when he joined the football program.

Though he had played some quarterback early in his high school career, he knew he had to find another position once he looked at the LSU playbook.

“I realized how far behind I was with the offense and terminology,” Zach said. “It was a daunting task to play quarterback at LSU, especially sitting out nine years of not playing competitively as a QB and getting thrown in the fire at LSU. It’s kind of crazy.”

Almost as loony was his following decision to play tight end. He gained 40 pounds, weighed 260, and felt he was ready to roll until he had to block defensive ends as big and fast such as future third-round NFL draft choice Arden Key.

“I decided I really didn’t like blocking Arden Key and a couple of other guys,” Zach said.

His next step? Lose 20 pounds and return to his roots as a punter.

“Zach is a find-a-way, make-a-way guy,” Randall said of his son. “A go-to-guy for whatever you need him.”

LSU unexpectedly needed a backup punter behind starter Josh Growden entering the 2016 season. Bailey Raborn, who had been No. 2 on the depth chart, transferred to McNeese State after incurring off-the-field legal trouble two weeks before preseason camp.

Zach moved into Raborn’s spot but was able to redshirt when Growden handled all 57 punts in ’16.

A year later at the start of the 2017 season, Zach was seen almost on equal footing with Growden.

With 10:30 left to play in a 45-10 game two blowout of Chattanooga in the Tiger Stadium home season opener, a former minor league pitcher about two weeks shy of his 27th birthday trotted on the field for his first college punt.

“All I could think about was `I’m about to punt in Tiger Stadium,’” said Zach, who proceeded to boot a 42-yard kick that was fair caught.

Four games later, in an absolute must-win game at No. 21 Florida a week after LSU suffered a stunning 24-21 home loss to Troy, LSU was clinging to a 17-16 lead in Gainesville when Zach was set to punt from the Tigers’ 48 with just more than four minutes left.

“Before I went out there,” Zach recalled, `I said to myself, “I need to end this game. I know (Florida quarterback) Feleipe Franks is not going to drive the ball 95 yards in two minutes.’

” I punted the ball a little too far. But the wind held it up, I got a fortunate bounce and (teammate) Russell Gage is incredibly fast. He was there when the ball hit, bounced straight up and back down into his arms (a 48-yard punt downed at the Florida 4). I knew we won the game then.”

Zach has never had a punt blocked and said he has only been nervous twice in LSU career – his first college punt against Chattanooga and his first attempt in the national championship game having to kick from deep in his end zone with the ball on the LSU 3.

“The last thing I thought to myself before kicking was, `It all comes down to this, this is where it’s happening,’” he said. “After we eventually got some field position around the 30, Clemson didn’t rush a lot of people and its returner (Amari Rodgers) wasn’t taking any risk. Once I knew I could place my punts where I wanted, their returner wasn’t going to catch it. He looked very uncomfortable trying to field them.”

Was Rodgers stressed as Clemson’s defense trying to stop LSU Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Joe Burrow and all his weapons?

“Clemson had no idea what was coming,” Zach said. “We could have beat Clemson a lot worse had they not kept us in a hole in terms of field position at the beginning of the game. I think we could have put 55 points on them. We still scored 42.”

One last ride

A perfect season capped by a comfortable 17-point win over the defending national champions seemed like the perfectly scripted ending to Zach’s college career.

He’d earned a college degree and won national championship rings.

“Many things had to happen for everything to work out the way it did,” Zach said. “It’s the most minute details. What if Joe Burrow isn’t convinced to come to LSU and goes to Cincinnati instead? How different does the story play out? Everything was meant to be. I wouldn’t take anything back that happened in baseball because it made the success in football that much sweeter.”

So why return to school and football for a senior season? Why not move on to the next life phase?

The answer is simple. Because he can. And he can again in 2021 if he wishes because the NCAA Division 1 Council approved a proposal Aug. 19 that grants fall athletes an extra year, no matter if they play a 2020-21 season or not.

It’s something that Zach said he’ll evaluate at the end of the year, depending on whether gets invited to the NFL Combine. But for now, college football’s “senior citizen” is cherishing his senior season that starts in just more than a month.

“I didn’t want to one day say, `Man, I wish I really would have taken that last year that I had a chance to be a fifth-year senior at LSU after being on arguably college team of all-time’,” Zach said. “So many guys end their careers early because they need to get a job or don’t have athletic ability to do certain things. I’ve been fortunate to put on jerseys in multiple sports and play a kid’s game as long as I have. As long as you can put a jersey on, it’s special.

“I wanted to finish what I started because it’s an honor to go five years at LSU. I’ll be able to put on an LSU jersey when I’m 30 years old, and not a lot of people can say that.”

ZACH VON ROSENBERG QUICK TAKES

What was your favorite play from the 2019 season? The 3rd and 17 in the fourth quarter against Texas (when Joe Burrow threw a 61-yard TD pass to Justin Jefferson), but it’s for a funny reason. Right before that play, I’m on the sideline and I tell Derek Pomansky (special assis­tant to Ed Orgeron), `Derek, I’m about to make the biggest punt of my life. The one in the 2017 Florida game was big, but this is about to be the biggest in my life in 2019.’ Three seconds later, Joe throws the TD pass.

Who’s the best trash talker on the team? JaCoby Stevens. He loves to talk trash, but it takes a lot for him to get to that point. He just doesn’t do it immediately. He has to get fired up. But once he gets going, there’s no stopping him. He gets in a zone. It gives him an edge. He’s like `I’m going to do everything I can to make you feel me not just physically, but also mentally.’

So, you beat Joe Burrow in ping pong. How did he react? He does not like to lose. (On the field), Joe didn’t want to beat you, he wanted to embarrass you. He went into every game trying to make you look stupid. He didn’t care if defenses knew our plays, like Georgia (in the SEC championship game) how they knew what we were running, and they didn’t stop us. He wasn’t trying to show off, he wasn’t trying to be flashy, He was going to come in and bury you. He wanted to score 60 points on you. He didn’t care who we were playing. He was just going to be Joe.

We had this thing before games when he’d tell me how many points we were going to run on teams. I swear he was right 14 of 15 times. The only game he was wrong about was Auburn. I remember him telling me we were going to put 60 on Okla­homa. I was like, `C’mon man, 60 points? This is a Final Four game.” Then, we went out and scored 63.

If you could change one NCAA rule on or off the field, what would it be? We had a guy on our team transfer from Arkansas this past season named Preston Stafford, a walk-on placekicker. He had to redshirt because of the transfer rule, but he participated the en­tire season in everything except games. But he was not allowed to receive a (national champion­ship) ring because NCAA doesn’t allow transfers who are redshirt­ing to receive a ring. I thought that was absolutely ridiculous he didn’t get a ring because of how much he participated in the importance of our team. That’s a rule that needs be changed.

Who have been the most influential people in your life and why?

My Dad (Randall) is up there. His life’s goal was to be a good father to us. He’s done every­thing in his power to be that. Then, there’s my oldest brother Josh Corman, who’s one of my two half-brothers from my moth­er’s previous marriage before she married my Dad. Josh gave me his time when I was young because he felt I was special, and I was going to be something.

Do you have any hidden talents? I got injured in baseball in 2013, so while I healed, I learned to play piano watching YouTube. I had some help from some baseball players who were tal­ented musicians and I got pretty damned good at it.

What’s something you don’t know how to do no matter how hard you try? I can’t figure out what I want to do after athletics.

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