Zach Hughes stood backstage with nine other high school athletes, their faces plastered in Times Square on a live video stream. His limbs tingled, filled with anxious energy as he waited for the announcement of the winners of the prestigious Wendy’s® High School Heisman® Award, which highlights exceptional high school seniors and their achievements in the classroom, on the field and in the community. When his own name filtered through the speakers, Zach was filled with shock and happiness.
For 22 years, Wendy’s, in partnership with the Heisman Memorial Trophy®, has recognized outstanding students and rewarded their achievements and commitment to academics, athletics and community on a national level. Only one male and one female athlete are chosen each year. After 5 months of carefully analyzing nominations, recommendations and videos, judges inducted Zach into the elite group of exemplary athletes.
That celebratory moment on December 11, 2015 was the culmination of years of effort and leadership in athletics, scholastics and servitude. Zach would tell you he learned to lead during his summers at Kanakuk Kamps.
Zach began as a Kamper at Kanakuk when he was 9 years old, and it instantly felt like home. “I know whenever I’m at Kanakuk, I’m really being poured into, and I’m growing and being challenged,” he said. But at Kanakuk in the summer of 2011, Zach’s faith became transformational.
“It wasn’t the amazing people at Kanakuk, though they are amazing, that changed me and made me devote my life to Christ. It was the Word of God.” Something clicked in Zach when he started reading his Bible. Excitement filled his daily devotions. “I had been around Scripture a lot, but all of a sudden it was like everything I read was written for me.” With his new passion for Biblical truth, his focus and affections shifted from sports, people and his future to making Jesus first in everything he did.
Kanakuk transitioned from a place to simply be fed spiritually to an opportunity to lead and pour into the lives of younger Kampers. Kanakuk’s “I’m Third” mantra and way of servant leadership prepared Zach to be a mentor to guys on his school’s football, track and basketball teams.
Because of the discipleship he experienced at Kanakuk, Zach chose to get involved in Fellowship of Christian Athletes. FCA became an opportunity for him to lead outside of sports and to share what he’s been learning in a group setting.
“I wouldn’t have sought such a concrete opportunity to study and teach the Bible, and to disciple young guys if it hadn’t been for Kamp.”
With Zach’s faith, the Wendy’s® High School Heisman® Award process led to him questioning, “How do I use this platform for the glory of God?” At the end of his acceptance speech for the award, Zach thanked Christ.
With sports, there are always challenges, but Zach recognizes life’s struggles—whether they are personal or physical—as opportunities to be a positive influence. Leading in words and actions is key to Zach.
“Vocal leadership is rarely about scolding and yelling at people,” Zach said. “It’s always about encouraging and inspiring. If we were working hard at K-Seven’s volunteer program and someone asked what time it was, the response was always 429.” The numbers reference Ephesians 4:29, Hughes explained, as he recited it from memory. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
As senior captain of his football team, Zach’s fellow teammates look to him to exemplify encouragement, discernment and integrity. Zach saw the need for leadership in tough times and said, “I’m ready to be a leader and love people well.” Words from his late grandfather, and the principles he learned at Kanakuk led him to believe that, “In times of crisis people respond in one of two ways. They freeze up or respond and look out for the needs of others. If you look at Christ’s example, the ultimate leader, he was selfless. “That is the kind of intense self-sacrifice that we should strive for as leaders.”
Bethany Hamilton’s incredible story is one of tragic loss with an even greater come-back. Although she lost her arm in 2003 to a shark attack, Bethany didn’t give up on her dreams, and she’s continued to pursue professional surfing ever since. Although she faced terrible tragedy, she jumped back into the water—fearless.