It's homecoming week for Lions' determined Zenner

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Zach Zenner grew up a Vikings fan.

His father, Paul, recalls him invoking names like Robert Smith, the star running back during the 1990s, when they’d play football in the backyard. And Zach once bought an Adrian Peterson jersey for his younger brother.

On Sunday, Zenner returns home as an NFL running back, but will try to help the Lions beat their division rivals. And many of his relatives and several people from high school are expected to be in the stands.

But don’t expect Zenner, making his first pro homecoming after growing up in the southern Twin Cities suburb of Eagan, to scan the crowd to see his supporters.

“I’ve never been a look-to-the-stands kind of guy,” he said Monday. “I’m very appreciative of anyone that shows up to my games and takes the time and effort. I know some people like in high school they needed to see their parents in the stands to feel like, it’s OK, let’s go. I just wasn’t one of those guys.”

That focus helped Zenner make it to the NFL after playing for South Dakota State, a Football Championship Subdivision team, and stick with the Lions as an undrafted rookie.

Sunday’s game, however, won’t be the first time Zenner and Peterson will share the field.

In 2008 and 2009, Zenner’s last two years at Eagan High, his school won a radio contest with the prize of Peterson being on the field as a guest coach. Few people could’ve imagined Peterson would become one of the six players to rush for at least 2,000 yards in the NFL while Zenner would be the first Division I football player to run for 2,000-plus yards in three straight seasons.

High school hotshot

Zenner was hardly recruited out of high school. He once took an official visit to Minnesota his senior year, and saw it just beat South Dakota State. He never heard from the Gophers again, but received a scholarship offer from the Jackrabbits.

Other FCS teams, though, weren’t interested. Rick Sutton, Eagan’s football coach, said some of the lower-tier teams wanted him to play outside linebacker or safety despite being an offensive dynamo in high school.

As a junior, Sutton said Zenner caught 40-plus passes as a slot receiver. And though he started his senior year as a running back, an injury to Eagan’s quarterback forced him to change positions.

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Following the injury, Sutton said the coaches discussed options on a Sunday night, told Zenner the plan the next day, and Friday, he ran for more than 200 yards.

He threw around 100 passes, but ran for nearly 1,200 yards as quarterback, earning all-metro honors.

“He’s the kind of kid that you just love to see succeed because his work ethic is so great,” Sutton said.

Zenner’s experience at South Dakota State proved to be a worthwhile venture — he not only made it to the NFL, he has the credentials to go to medical school.

“He found the right place for him and got the opportunity and ran with it,” Sutton said.

Overlooked

Being “underrated and overlooked,” as Sutton said, became a theme for Zenner after high school.

Despite being a favorite of draftniks because his exorbitant college production and solid testing at the combine, Zenner was not among the 256 players selected last spring.

Zach Zenner: “I’ve never been a look-to-the-stands kind of guy.”

His father said much of the experience jumping to the NFL has been surreal, and even though Zenner would watch the NFL and pretend to be Vikings stars growing up, the Lions running back rarely discussed playing professionally during college.

“He prepares for what’s in front of him very thoroughly,” Paul Zenner said. “He was never preparing to be in the NFL. He was preparing to play his next opponent and studying to get into med school.”

Zach Zenner continued that approach with the Lions, focusing on each practice leading up to each exhibition. Rookie cornerback Alex Carter described him as a diligent note taker in meetings.

Those exhibitions provided a combination of stress and excitement for Zenner’s family, but he became one of the league’s darlings as the NFL’s rushing leader. When he made the 53-man roster, his dad said his mentality shifted to excitement and relief.

Much like his son, Zenner’s dad said he wanted to know every detail of how he made the team and what he heard from the coaches, but only “after a few fist pumps.”

Family time

After the Lions arrive in Minnesota, Zenner said he plans to meet with his family, but hasn’t made those plans yet. He never thought he’d have a chance to have dinner with his family the night before an NFL game, partly because there was never downtime for such activities before college games — and because he didn’t know whether he would play in the league.

In Week 1, Zenner had two carries for 6 yards and played on the kickoff coverage unit. He’ll likely have a minor role if he’s active Sunday.

“From what coaches talked about, when people’s numbers are called, they’re not going to expect any change in performance and that speaks to me as well,” he said.

“I’m just going to go out and make the most of whatever opportunities I get.”

And for Zenner’s dad, a lifelong Vikings fan, the game will be thrilling for several reasons.

“I can’t really lose,” he said. “Hopefully, the Lions play well, and of course you always wish for Zach to play well. But I just hope for good football.”

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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