Not just ‘Zach Zenner’s brother’

By HANNAH NIEMAN Sports Editor

Every South Dakota State football fan knows Zach Zenner.

The three-time All-American running back spent his college career rewriting SDSU record books, before making his way to the NFL where he currently plays for the Detroit Lions.

So, when SDSU football recruited Zach’s younger brother, Sam, two years ago, the idea of having another Zenner on campus gave Jackrabbit fans something to be excited about. But the initial excitement, along with Sam’s love for football, quickly faded during his first year in Brookings.

Sam is creating a name for himself, separate from his brother’s legacy.

“As I got recruited by SDSU, I thought ‘that’s where I have to go, this is what I love,’ or at least I thought that’s what I loved,” Sam said. “In high school, I didn’t know who I was. A lot of people gave me a lot of attention for football and it felt good at the time. As time went on, it kind of became who I was and festered in my heart a little bit. I became a football player.”

After a knee injury kept him on the sidelines during his freshman season, Sam began to question whether or not football was really for him. It wasn’t until he took a leap of faith during the summer, before his sophomore season, that Sam realized his heart was no longer invested in football.

“I had accepted Jesus Christ for who he truly is and started to figure out who I really was,” Sam said. “As the summer went on, I started to take a step back and realize I don’t really enjoy playing football, ‘why am I even here?’”

During fall camp of the 2016 football season, Sam quit the football team. Though the Eagan, Minnesota native only ran one year of track in high school, he decided to join the SDSU track team. 

“I like to do a lot of different things with my time — participate in my church, make videos, hunt, fish — and to do any other sport would require a lot of my time,” Sam said. “Track is something where you get there, put in your work and you get out, and it leaves me so much time to do all the other things I love to do.”

Injuries limited his competition time, but Sam found success during his first indoor season this year, breaking the school record in the 60-meter dash in his first ever meet as a “track rabbit.”

“It’s been fun to watch him deal with a little bit of adversity by winning some meets but not necessarily running the way he wanted to,” said associate head track coach Eric Hanenberger. “He’s done a really good job of doing the little things to improve and learning to become consistent on the track and that’s how you have a lot of success at this level.” 

Although to many he will always be known as “Zach Zenner’s little brother,” Sam said. He will never regret playing football and that he is grateful for the path that led him to SDSU.

“People will sometimes tell me, ‘you have big shoes to fill,’ but it doesn’t affect my mind at all,” Sam said. “As I’ve grown in my relationship with God I’ve learned that you can’t compare yourself to other people. I’m loved just the same.”

As for the coaching staff, Hanenberger said having a talented athlete like Sam who has maturely handled the stressor of growing up with his name has been a “breath of fresh air.” 

“I think for every younger brother who has had older siblings that have been successful, they’re already kind of in their sibling’s shadow … But I think he’s comfortable being his own person,” Hanenberger said. “It’s tough to find a better person out there. We have a lot of great kids on the team, but Sam’s the type of kid you get once every ten years or once in your career.”

Though it was difficult for Sam to walk away from football, he couldn’t be happier with his decision.

 “Thanks be to God for everything,” Sam said. “I’m so blessed with where I’m at now.”