Detroit — With the grind of the NFL season complete, Detroit Lions running back Zach Zenner is ready to jump right back into training. And while he’s certain to keep his body in peak physical condition during his time away from the team, it’s his mind he’ll be flexing the next four months as he exchanges shoulder pads for a lab coat.
For the second consecutive offseason, Zenner will be working on a medical research project as a student volunteer. It’s all part of his post-football plans to pursue a career in medicine.
“It’s important to hop back into it, not only for the career aspect of it, building the resume, but also mentally for the brain,” Zenner said. “It’s a totally different mental exercise than preparing for the defense.”
Zenner, who teammates affectionately call “Doc,” graduated from South Dakota State with a degree in biology. He’s been accepted to the Sanford School of Medicine at South Dakota, but deferred enrollment in that program while playing football.
After suffering a season-ending injury as a rookie in 2015, Zenner got connected with the vice president of research at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. That led to a placement in the laboratory of Dr. William Beierwaltes, who was conducting research on the relation between a high-salt, high-fructose diet and hypertension.
Work from that study is set to be published in the coming months, an important accomplishment for Zenner.
“The idea is to just be involved in the health care field, and any publication in that sense helps a lot, no matter what you want to do,” Zenner said.
Beierwaltes retired in October, but his work is continuing to be explored by colleague Dr. Noreen Rossi, a nephrologist at Wayne State and the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center.
Rossi is entering the second stage of a four-year study on the impact of a high-salt, high-fructose diet, focusing on the hormonal changes tied to the kidneys and nervous system. Another working hypothesis is individuals with these dietary factors also have a measurably worse reaction to stress, furthering their risk for strokes, heart attacks and kidney failure.
Starting this month, Zenner will work full time with Rossi’s team, performing a variety of duties.
“What Zach is going to be doing is he’s going to be looking at changes in blood pressure, the effects of stress,” Ross said. “He’s also going to look at, with an ultrasound, images of the heart, the blood vessels and the kidney after this diet and situations where the diet is normal, without the high fructose and salt.
“We’re going to look at the arteries to the kidney, the arteries to the brain, the aorta and the heart itself.”
Rossi doesn’t seem phased by Zenner’s day job. An athlete in the lab is something she’s used to seeing. Her mentor, Dr. Robert Schrier, is in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and was a three-time All-Conference player at DePauw.
And as for Zenner’s unique path, Rossi has witnessed a number of students at Wayne State pursue medicine after a lengthy stint in another field. She highlights two — a 10-year engineer for one of the big three automakers and another who practiced law for 15 years.
And while these research projects don’t officially count toward Zenner’s degree — between school, rotations, residency and fellowship, he’s looking at another 8-12 years — they keep his mind sharp and, as Rossi puts it, should only augment his abilities.
“It shows a lot about the scientific process — you have a problem, how are you approaching that problem, what were your results, how are you communicating those results to people,” Zenner said. “That’s translatable to a lot of the health care professions.”
At his current rate, given his late-season emergence in the Lions’ backfield, it may be several more years before Zenner’s football career is over. Already an established special teams contributor, he had his two best rushing performances at the end of the season, gaining 136 yards on 32 carries.
Not surprisingly, Rossi worries about Zenner’s brain. She knows he had a concussion last season and believes multiple head injuries could impact a potential career in medicine. Otherwise, she sees translatable elements between the two wildly different professions.
“The discipline he has to exert for football training will serve him well in medicine, when he’s ready to practice it,” Rossi said. “He is such a disciplined young man, very thoughtful and mature.”