For as long he can remember, Zach Buckey has dreamed of playing football at Stanford.
Those visions were fostered throughout his childhood, when as a youngster dressed in a Cardinal red sweatshirt and matching beanie, frequent trips to Stanford Stadium became a way of life in the Buckey household.
But that should come as little surprise considering Buckey’s father, Jeff, was an all-conference lineman at Stanford, who went on to play four seasons in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers.
Now a senior defensive lineman at Garces, Zach has a unique opportunity to follow in his father’s rather large footsteps. Just a week after receiving an offer to play for the Cardinal, Buckey made it official, committing to play in Palo Alto.
“It’s really just one of those things where it’s like I can’t believe this is actually happening,” said Buckey, who boasts a 4.6 GPA and plans to major in political science. “Growing up I just always imagined myself as a Stanford football player. And now I’m actually going to wear the same uniform that my dad wore. I’m gonna be playing in a place that I dreamt about playing for years. And it’s really just a dream come true.”
His father has similar aspirations for his oldest son, who will turn 18 in February.
“I was pretty happy, to put it mildly,” said Jeff, whose wife Alissa and he have four boys, including Grant, 15; Quinn, 12; and Pierce, 9. “It definitely was a dream of mine to have one of my kids go there, and to play football, is the icing on the cake. I’m pretty stoked. I’m pretty happy to be able to go back up there next year and see some games, and actually know somebody on the field that I can relate to.”
Playing in the Pac-12, or in college in general, was far from a given when Zach stepped on the Garces campus in 2017. At 6-foot and 150 pounds he was slotted as a defensive back on the Rams’ frosh-soph team, a far cry from his current stature, standing 6-5 and 255 pounds, and thoughts of playing college football were fading fast.
“Honestly, my freshman year, I had no dream of ever playing college football,” Zach said. “I’m like, ‘oh, high school is going to be the end of it for me. I’m 150 pounds and I’m not really good. To be able to play at Stanford you have to be the best of the best. So I just kind of wrote it off. It was a bummer, but it’s just not in the cards.”
Faced with an uncertain football future, Zach turned to his father and his throwing coach Scott Semar for guidance.
“Basically my dad and Scott told me, ‘don’t give up because you’re a freshman and you have three more years,’ ” Buckey said. “And they never stopped believing in me and I’m eternally grateful to them for that because they made me believe that I could do it.”
With the help of his father and Semar, who was Jeff's track and field coach at Bakersfield High when he won back-to-back state titles in the discus, Zach committed toward working toward his dreams.
Zach started waking up at 4:15 in the morning each day and lifting with Semar, who doubles as his throwing coach. In addition to his success on the gridiron, Buckey is also one of the area’s best throwers, with aspirations of winning a state title in the discus.
“Between my freshman to sophomore year I lifted until 6 or 7, then went to school,” said Zach, who bulked up to 180 pounds before his sophomore year where he played defensive end on the JV team. “I was still very undersized for a high school defensive lineman, but it was all I could do. So basically I just started eating right, drinking protein shakes, I watched videos on healthy weight gain, pretty much everything I could do to try to bulk up and get bigger. And it started to pay off eventually.”
In addition to upgrading physically, Zach also showed marked improvement on the field in his first varsity season, a year that he says he really benefited from the tutelage of first-year Rams coach Paul Golla.
“He came in as a first-year coach and came to me and told me he thought I could be a college football defensive end,” Zach said. “He told me I just needed to put in the work that no one else is going to put the work into. I put in that extra work and he’s been so great. He’s helped me so much with technique, and having that college football mindset. Letting me know how college is going to be. He’s been awesome and I’m so thankful he’s my coach.”
The feeling is obviously mutual.
“What’s nice about Zach is he’s extremely goal-oriented,” Golla said. “So when he sets a goal he’s going to do everything that he can to achieve that goal. Which also means, he’s not afraid to come in and ask questions. He’s a guy that comes into the office, wants to watch film, wants to meet with coaches … it’s kind of rare to get a guy that’s willing to do all the things that nobody else sees. And that’s what he does. He’s just really focused on getting what he wants, he deserves it. I don’t know if any kid deserves it more than him.”
In his first varsity season, Zach led Garces with seven sacks, finishing with 24 tackles, including 13 for a loss. Golla believes much of that success is due to his high-energy style and his determination to improve.
“No. 1, when you watch film, you’ll never see him loaf,” Golla said. “It just doesn’t exist. He has a high, high motor. Even when he does make a mistake, it’s like he can make up for it because he’s going so fast. Then they see he’s (a great student), and they put the film on and they see this guy with this tremendous motor and the way he changes direction, he stands out that way.
“He’s a grinder. He’s a guy that’s going to work and then when he’s not satisfied, he works harder. And he’s going to try to figure it out. With him asking questions and watching film, doing stuff on his own, he’s going to figure it out. It’s the same thing in the classroom. If he’s struggling with something in a class, he’s going to figure out how to fix it. He’s just wired that way.”
Zach has also received a few pointers from his father, who knows a few things about keeping defensive linemen in check.
“He’s gone against the best of the best,” said Zach of his father. “I mean he’s gone against guys that are in Canton (Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame) right now, so he’s pretty much seen everything that a defensive lineman can throw at you. We’ll be watching film and says, ‘if I was blocking I would do this and I would pretty much beat you, but what you can do instead is this?’ So there’s a lot of him giving the offensive lineman’s perspective on what I’m doing, and it makes it that much easier to play because I know what the other side is thinking.”
With the recruitment process put to rest, Zach is looking forward to being able to focus on just playing football this season, and continuing to get better.
“I’m just overjoyed that this is over now,” Zach said. “I’ve been very grateful to receive a lot of offers, but the recruiting process is very emotional … a big part of my life was recruiting and now it’s not there anymore. I’m just really grateful that I don’t have to worry about getting calls from coaches or getting film out or filling out questionnaires or anything. Now it’s just I’m going to Stanford, train hard and be ready when you get there.”
Playing in Palo Alto is not a prospect that is lost on Zach's father, who says he's anxiously awaiting seeing his son take the field.
“When he called and told me that Stanford offered him a full ride, I was pretty overcome (with emotion),” Jeff said. “As a parent it’s totally different. When it’s happening to you, it’s like ‘ok’ and you take it in check. I mean obviously it was a great experience when I was there (and being recruited), but to have it happen to your flesh and blood, that you’ve raised from way back, it’s just hard to comprehend. I’m just so thankful and proud that he was able to get the school that he wanted. I look forward to going up and watching him have some success up there.”