Sports Journalism Blog

By Andrew Thomison | @Andrew_Thomison

Sports Capital Journalism Program

INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan’s Zak Zinter is the kind of person who picks up his teammates. He was a unanimous team captain for the 2023 season whose leadership throughout his time with the Wolverines captured the admiration of his coaches and peers.

When Zinter suffered a broken tibia and fibula during Michigan’s victory over Ohio State, a game that would lead to an historic postseason run, it was Zinter’s teammates, especially his fellow offensive lineman, who would be there to pick him up this time around.

As a result of the injury, Zinter missed the entirety of the College Football Playoffs. The versatile offensive lineman said that while he would not participate in workouts at the National Football League Scouting Combine, his recovery process is going much smoother and faster than he had expected.

“I’ve been saying best worst-case scenario,” Zinter said. “Just broke the tib and fib and no ligaments in the ankle or the knee. So, recovery is quick and better than I thought. I’m moving around well and have pretty much been cleared for everything.”

It was through Zinter’s unforeseen hardship that allowed him to reflect on the game of football and the steps he needed to take to get healthy.

“I think it made me fall in love with the game again,” Zinter said. “Take that step back, you know? I’ve been playing forever, and the feeling I got not being able to play really just showed me how much I loved it, and how much I do love playing this game.

“It kind of brought that spark back to me,” Zinter continued. “I wanted to get back out there, pushing me to rehab this leg and get it back in fighting shape.”

As Michigan’s historic season went on, Zinter had to learn how to take his on-field leadership and translate that to other important aspects of the playoffs for his teammates.

“I still wanted to be a part of the team and be with the team,” Zinter said. “Still in the meetings, still watching film. Even though I wasn’t on the field, I wanted to impact the team in a way, whether that was watching film or watching them when they’re out there.”

“Karsen (Barnhart) went into right guard and had played there before,” Zinter continued. “Just talking with him. He’d come off the field, ‘Hey, what’d you see there?’ Just little things like that, almost turned into some sort of GA kind of role in a sense. Just trying to be able to help the team in any way I could when I wasn’t out there.”

While he was able to help him teammates off the field, the brotherhood that they displayed along the offensive line during the Michigan’s championship season stood out to Zinter in a major way.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get a culture like that again,” Zinter said. “We truly were a brotherhood, and I think we tested that last year when four, five, six of us were debating on whether we were gonna go to the NFL. We all came back to try and win a national championship, and we did that.

“I don’t think that’s ever happened before, and it may not happen again because a lot of guys have that mindset they want to do what’s best for them,” Zinter continued. “But in that case, we want to do what’s best for the team and the guys in that building.”

Barnhart candidly spoke about Zinter as a person and what has stood out most during their time together at Michigan.

“Zinter’s one hell of a leader,” Barnhart said. “He’s somebody that everybody should look up to and want to chase. His athleticism, the way he is as a person, his character, the way he carries himself, he’s something else. I love Zinter to death, and he was a great part of our culture last year and what we did last year.”

With Zinter being such a key, vocal voice for the fellow offensive lineman, it was tough for his teammates to see him get hurt in the manner that he did. Barnhart described the process of having to navigate the College Football Playoffs without having Zinter on the field.

“Losing a guy like that, it’s tough to see,” Barnhart said. “But it’s the next man up mentality, and everything we did we wanted to do for him and that room, and that’s what we did.”

Despite going through a major injury, Zinter’s leadership never truly wavered, even as he wasn’t able to compete.

“After the injury, he’s on the field with us and he’s still going to every game,” Barnhart said. “I remember the Iowa game. He had just had the surgery and it’s hard for him to walk, but he’s still there fighting with us, and that’s something we also got to see from him. He cares for us, and we care for him. That’s why we wanted to do it for him.”