“My name’s Gregg Doyel from the IndyStar. I’d like to write about your son on the Crispus Attucks basketball team, Zac Owens. Can I do that?”
“Kevin Easley’s dad — you know, Kevin Easley, the basketball player at Lawrence North? – told me I need to write this story. He says Zac is a ‘miracle baby.’ He told me to ask you what that means. So I’m asking: Why is Zac a ‘miracle baby?’”
He was born without most of his skull.
“What did you say?”
* * *
The blood wasn’t normal. Not so much of it, not from someone so small. Yolanda Wilkins would buckle her son into the car seat, and by the time she got down the road to Kroger, Zac was covered in blood. Face, bib, legs.
“It was happening all the time,” she says. “I said, ‘This can’t be right.’”
To look at him now, you’d never know. Zac Owens is a 5-11, 162-pound senior point guard at Crispus Attucks, a cerebral and hardnosed player with several scholarship offers. Watch him play, listen to the list of schools recruiting him and you’d never know what he has endured to get here. The only outward proof is the scar that begins just above his left ear and goes all the way across — up the skull, over the crown of the head, down the other side to the right ear.
Seven surgeries since he was 2 have given his skull much of the bone matter it was missing since birth, and allowed doctors to look under the metal plate they put in there to protect his brain while his skull was forming. For 15 years Zac’s skull has been fusing with the metal plate and parts of his mother’s skull — doctors removed a piece from behind her left ear — they put in Zac’s head to promote regeneration.
“Lord,” Yolanda Wilkins tells me, and stops there.
After a difficult pregnancy that led to a C-section delivery, Zac was born Dec. 22,1998 with multiple skull issues. The one that first sent him to the hospital is called craniosynostosis, when the skull sutures fuse together prematurely, changing the growth pattern of the skull.
The doctor who diagnosed his craniosynostosis was Dr. Margo Carrancejie, who just so happened to study at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons under a doctor who specialized in fetal skull issues. Carrancejie, a family doctor in Anderson, had never seen craniosynostosis before Zac Owens’ mom came to her office, wondering why her son was bleeding from the nose every time someone picked him up.
Carrancejie took one look at 2-year-old Zac, at his misshapen head, and sent him to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. Within hours he was having his first surgery, a 27-hour procedure that kept him in the hospital for more than a month while his swollen head healed beneath a white wrap. He looked like a mummy. Yolanda Wilkins removed the mirrors from the room. She didn’t want Zac to see himself.
“The surgeon at Riley called me,” Carrancejie says, “and said, ‘Thank you so much for referring this kid, because he would have died by age 6.’”
Inside the malformed skull caused by craniosynostosis, a child’s growing brain has nowhere to go. But it doesn’t stop growing. Over time the brain squeezes into its borders until it causes seizures that cause brain damage, then death.
Zac Owens is telling me his story during a quiet moment in the Crispus Attucks lunchroom.
“I’m going to play in college,” he says, “and when I make it, I’m going to be able to tell my story to kids.”
You said when, I tell him. Not if.
“When I make it,” he says, repeating himself, “I’m going to tell my story to kids. My story means anything is possible.”
* * *
Yolanda Wilkins remembers the social worker telling her the odds were against Zac making a full recovery. He’d have brain damage, the woman said. Wouldn’t talk right, wouldn’t walk right. The social worker handed Wilkins several brochures for mental institutions.
“OK,” Wilkins remembers telling herself. “I’m taking my son home and I’m going to treat him normal. And we’ll just see about this.”
When things were bad for young Zac Owens, they were awful. His balance wasn’t always right. He’d get out of a car and fall down. He’d take a few steps and start listing to the left. The headaches were horrible. He’d go back to the hospital, where Wilkins says they’d open up his skull and adjust the plate and growing skull matter.
“Like this,” Wilkins tells me, then pantomimes prying apart a coconut with both hands.
Over time his balance improved. His brain was in fact damaged, but not catastrophically. He has learning disabilities that affect the way he sees patterns, even the way he writes, but he takes verbal tests. He does just fine. He has a 3.7 GPA.
Zac has played soccer, coach-pitch baseball, basketball, flag football. Then he played real football.
“It doesn’t stop me,” Zac says of his skull issue. “I played football. That was a big ice breaker for me, because it was hit plenty of times. I played flag football when I was 4, then played (football) all the way to my sophomore year of high school. It doesn’t affect me.”
There have been other setbacks, though.
Owens played for his hometown Anderson High basketball team as a freshman and sophomore, then moved to Indianapolis as a junior and transferred to Crispus Attucks — coached by Anderson native Phil Washington, who had been passed up for the Anderson coaching job. The IHSAA ruled the transfer was athletically motivated and ruled Owens and his good friend and fellow Anderson-to-Attucks transfer, Jamal Harris, ineligible for the 2015-16 season.
Owens will play this season for new Attucks coach Christopher Hawkins — the IHSAA removed Washington from the position in January — but this will be Zac’s first season without a beloved family member: Cousin Ike.
His full name was Ike Jackson, and he oversaw the Ike Jackson Youth Basketball Program in Anderson. Ike was Zac Owens’ third cousin, but he was more like a father figure. When Zac’s report card came in, Ike had to see it. When Zac wanted to start playing basketball, Ike taught him how. And after Zac made the Anderson High varsity as a freshman, Ike told him: My work here is done.
Zac was playing AAU basketball the summer of 2014 when Ike summoned him to into the bleachers before a game and gave him his benediction.
“You’re finally the player I’ve been wanting you to be,” Ike told Zac. “My work here is done.”
Ike was dying. Kidney failure. Zac woke to the news of his death in August 2014. Ike was 61.
Today, Zac Owens wears Ike’s name on his shoes, even the ones he wore as the Crispus Attucks homecoming king this fall. He wears them on the shoes he used to run a 5:32 mile during offseason basketball conditioning, circling back onto the track to urge slower teammates to the finish line.
“He’s so hungry to play,” says Hawkins, the Attucks coach. “So hungry to lead.”
He has big plans, Zac Owens. He’ll go to college — Wabash and Anderson are among the schools he says have offered a scholarship — and graduate and help support his mom, who is on disability with congestive heart failure. He will carry the memory of Ike Jackson, and he will tell his story to kids. It’s a story of life and death, of a strong mother and a fragile child, of basketball and the lengths a kid will go to play it.
“Anything is possible,” Zac Owens says. “That’s my story.”