Hoisting crates of Pepsi out of a van last February, Zeek Rodney had a stark realization.
He wasn’t where he needed to be.
Rodney played in nine college football games as a true freshman at Wake Forest, then started all 12 games at defensive tackle as a sophomore in 2015. Many were surprised when the school announced he would take a leave of absence from the program in July 2016. A vague press release said Rodney “had some personal issues that he is currently addressing.”
There wasn’t one singular event, “I just wasn’t feeling like myself,” Rodney said. “I was taking everything for granted. I didn’t know if this was what I wanted to do anymore.”
Never miss a local story.
He didn’t play at the level he expected during spring football and said he began to doubt himself. It was an incredible mental rut for a football player that tormented quarterbacks in high school, blasting through blockers like they were piles of dead leaves and setting new quarterback sack records at the Rock Hill school – South Pointe High – that produced Jadeveon Clowney.
“I just wasn’t feeling like myself,” Rodney reiterated Wednesday during a phone interview.
The real world
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson offered Rodney the opportunity to rediscover himself away from football. Rodney took a redshirt year and moved back home with his dad, Anthony, in Rock Hill. He took two online courses through BYU, which kept him involved in school.
The sabbatical was difficult initially. Rodney didn’t work for the first few months and watching the Demon Deacons’ football games on TV throughout the fall was a bitter experience. Clawson’s team finished 7-6 and beat Temple in a bowl game last December, an experience that Rodney hated to miss.
But Wake Forest coaches and players constantly kept in touch with Rodney, keeping him connected to the program.
“They knew I was going through a difficult time, just wanted to make sure my head was still in it,” he said. “They wanted me to return.”
Getting a job proved Rodney’s best offseason decision. He would deliver Pepsi from 6 a.m. until late afternoon, then crank out a Wake Forest-designed workout plan at a local gym. He followed that routine every day. It wasn’t too dissimilar from what his dad has done for years, working all day for U.S. Foods, then doing a janitorial side job several nights a week.
A co-worker at Pepsi talked to Rodney about reading the Bible more often, which Rodney did, gaining more perspective about his situation. Squiring sodas around town grew old pretty quickly, but instead of moping Rodney channeled his energy into strength training and conditioning. By February, he was ready to return to Wake Forest football.
“I’d never had a job before then,” Rodney said. “I had to experience the real world. It made me have more passion for the game and not take it for granted. There’s a lot of people out there working regular jobs that wish they could what student-athletes do. This year made me appreciate all that more.”
A happy ending?
Rodney’s return was timed perfectly for Wake Forest, which lost several defensive line starters in the offseason.
“Now you just want this to have a really happy ending,” Clawson told the Winston-Salem Journal in June. “There’s nothing more we would love than for Zeek Rodney to play two more years here and have a great career and get his degree. And from there – who knows what? Zeek will have a lot of opportunities in a lot of different ways. We’re thrilled he’s back.”
Rodney followed a diet provided by the Demon Deacons’ nutritionist during his year away from the team. He left Winston-Salem weighing 308 pounds but returned two months ago weighing 303. He’s re-learning the defense and relishing the brotherhood and fellowship he gets from his teammates.
“There has not been one day since I stepped back on campus where I caught myself frowning or upset,” Rodney said. “Last summer when I left I was completely different.”
Returning to Wake Forest football has made Rodney feel whole again. Well, mostly whole.
Part of the inner turmoil that led him away from Wake Forest was the tugging feeling that he needed to care for his 16-month old daughter, Ivy, who lives in Rock Hill with her mom, Chmara Clark. During his year hiatus, Rodney and his daughter played outside with cousins or watched TV shows called “Dr. McStuffins” and “Bubble Guppies.”
Two months ago Rodney again left Ivy in Rock Hill.
“He loves his daughter to death. She’s spoiled too,” said Anthony Rodney. “He’s got her rotten, man.”
Leaving Ivy was difficult but it’s become increasingly clear to Zeek Rodney that the yearlong break was a blessing.
He got closer to his faith and adulthood. He developed a full realization of how much support Wake Forest football has given him and how the school can positively change his future. And the reason for doing it all - his daughter - was fully brought into focus.
And speaking of Ivy, she took her first steps back in early April. One more blessing: Rodney was there to see them for himself.