Riverdale (Fort Myers, Fla.) High School junior lineman Zachary Polsenberg was lovingly referred to by his teammates as the “Gentle Giant.” But when the 6-foot-5, 320-pound roadblock stepped onto the football field he flipped a switch, transforming into a relentless worker with no quit in him.
It’s those qualities and more his family and the Riverdale community will miss.
Polsenberg, 16, died Monday after being taken off life support following a June 29 incident where he collapsed due to heat stroke during an offseason football workout, his father James Polsenberg said.
“He was just an awesome kid,” James Polsenberg said. “He was just the kindest, calmest kid. And he loved Riverdale football.
“This should not happen to anyone’s child.”
A release from the family said Zachary Polsenberg suddenly collapsed during the morning workout and was immediately taken to Golisano Children’s Hospital where he was diagnosed with heatstroke. The family said he suffered internal injuries and fell into a coma.
His core temperature registered 107 degrees for more than an hour.
Polsenberg was transferred to a hospital in Miami on Thursday where he died.
A Lee County School District spokesperson confirmed a student had a medical emergency at the end of football practice on June 29. The National Weather Service listed the high temperature that day at Page Field as 92 degrees.
“Our coaches are trained to act quickly in response to anyone showing signs of distress,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “They rendered aid, called 911 and the student was transported to the hospital.”
“This practice was part of offseason conditioning and took place from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. It was held indoors and outdoors. At these practices, water breaks are given at least every 30 minutes and sooner if needed. Players are also encouraged to stop and hydrate whenever necessary in addition to those breaks.”
Riverdale holds voluntary workouts indoors and outdoors Monday through Thursday during those times in June and July.
Zachary Polsenberg and his teammates participating in workouts were not in football pads, which the Florida High School Athletic Association prohibits until fall camp.
Once fall practice begins July 31, helmets only are worn the first two days followed by three days of helmets and shoulder pads before fully gear is allowed on the sixth day.
From 1995 to 2015, 61 football players died from heat stroke (46 high school, 11 college, two professional, and two organized youth), according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. Ninety percent of recorded heat stroke deaths occurred during practice.
Riverdale principal Scott Cook released a statement Tuesday evening: “At this difficult time, our thoughts, prayers, and love are with Zach’s family. Zach was an amazing young man and the Riverdale family’s hearts are broken. Our immediate focus is to provide any and all support that we can to our students, staff, coaches, and most importantly, Zach’s family. Please continue to keep them all in your thoughts and prayers.”
First-year Riverdale coach James Delgado couldn’t be reached for comment.
James Polsenberg described his son as an avid Buffalo Bills fan with a love of country music and the heavy-metal band Metallica. Beyond his interest in classic cars, Zachary Polsenberg’s focus was obtaining an athletic scholarship with dreams of playing in the NFL.
“Zach cannot be forgotten,” his father said. “He was just too good of a person to be forgotten.”