Nearly a year after his son's death from heat stroke, James Polsenberg has just one wish: Never again.
June 29, 2017, started out like any other day for James Polsenberg. James is a truck driver. That day marked the start of yet another delivery across the country. He was to haul aluminum in his 18-wheeler over 2,400 miles from his Palm Coast home to Fontana, California. He made it to Atlanta when he got an unexpected call from his ex-wife, Laurie Giordano.
Their son Zach Polsenberg had collapsed on the field after football practice.
After Zach was taken to the hospital, James said the doctor told him that he didn't need to come to Fort Myers yet because Zach was being treated and that the doctor would know more after test results came back. So, James kept driving. By the next day, James had reached Little Rock, Arkansas, where he got a second call from Laurie. A call no father wants to receive.
“You need to come home,” Laurie told him.
Zach was in a coma, and his organs were failing.
Are you sure? Is this really happening? Is it really that serious?
On the road, alone, with his son clinging to life thousands of miles away, the unanswered questions consumed James’ mind. He could hardly think. He could hardly contain the sadness, the anger. But he had to. He couldn’t let one ounce of it escape on the road.
“You can’t drive an 18-wheeler crying,” James said, “because you’ll kill someone.”
After leaving his truck in Oklahoma City, he boarded a flight to Daytona Beach. The plane ride was unbearable.
“I just tried to focus on him and all the good times we had,” James said. “I didn’t want to let the bad stuff creep in.”
When the plane landed, he met up with his wife, Claudine Polsenberg, and drove 240 miles to Fort Myers, where Zach lived with his mom. But when James stepped into Zach’s room at the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, nothing could prepare him for what he saw.
He saw his child — but he could barely recognize him.
Zach Polsenberg was larger than life.
He stood at 6-foot-5 and weighed 320 pounds — at 16 years old.
While some onlookers referred to him as “The Hulk,” his teammates at Riverdale High School in Lee County lovingly referred to him as the “Gentle Giant.”
Zach was a mammoth along the offensive line for the Raiders. And while he was gentle off the field, he was an “animal” on it.
“He flipped a switch as soon as he got on the field,” James said. “He’d run you over. But he’d go back and pick you up.
“He’d always pick you up.”
Zach was driven — a relentless worker with no quit. He started playing tackle football in eighth grade, and joined the junior varsity team when he reached high school, making several appearances for the Raiders’ varsity team in his freshman and sophomore years.
He took to the Raiders’ summer workouts with the goal of having a break-out junior season.
When Zach set foot on Page Field at 7 a.m. on June 29, the heat index was 92 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. The team was still well away from practicing in pads, which the Florida High School Athletic Association prohibits until fall camp.
Zach’s mother, Laurie Giordano, arrived at the school to pick him up at around 10:30 a.m., like normal. It was then that one of Zach’s teammates approached her. Zach had collapsed on the field as he had made his way to join the final huddle at the end of practice. Laurie rushed onto the field and saw her son, unconscious, next to a puddle of vomit. He was propped up by a couple of teammates, with no shade and only a few wet towels on his neck and under his arms to cool him down.
She learned no one had called 911, so she asked the coach to call.
The ambulance arrived 45 minutes later.
This isn’t my son.
That’s what James Polsenberg remembered thinking when he first saw Zach in his hospital bed two days after his collapse.
He was hooked up to life support, unable to speak, unable to move and severely bloated. James, a large man in his own right, said he couldn’t wrap his hand around his son’s fingers because they had puffed up so much.
On the inside, Zach’s liver and kidneys were failing. When he first arrived at the hospital, Zach's core body temperature had been 107 degrees for over an hour.
Doctors put him on dialysis, which significantly reduced the swelling.
Zach was soon flown to Holtz Children’s Hospital in Miami. The whole time, James weighed the possibility of his son actually dying.
“I was holding out hope,” he said. “The whole time there, it was like a roller coaster.”
One night, in the company of Laurie, Zach sat up, unconscious. On one morning, James whispered into his son’s ear.
“Come on, Bubba. Open your eyes for dad,” James said.
Zach opened his eyes. James still has the video on his phone. Laurie then grabbed Zach’s hand. He twitched. He repeated the process for James.
“That gave me a lot of hope. It excited me,” James said. “I thought there was a really good chance that he’d pull through.”
Forty-five minutes later, Zach’s blood pressure shot through the roof, went back down, shot back up and then leveled.
“I asked the nurse to be straight with me,” James said. “He’s gone, isn’t he?”
Zach was brain-dead.
James Polsenberg and Laurie Giordano had to make a choice no parent should ever be forced to make: They were going to take Zach off of life support.
James, Laurie and Claudine were in the room when the doctors removed Zach’s tubes and turned off the machine.
James played country artist George Strait’s “A Father’s Love” in Zach’s ear. James watched as his boy started to die.
He watched as Zach’s heart beat slowed to a crawl. He watched until it stopped.
On July 10, after 11 days of battling liver and kidney failure, Zach was pronounced dead.
Nearly a year later, every detail of watching his son die is still ingrained in his mind.
“There’s nothing worse, losing a kid,” James said. “Watching him die like that. It’s so hard to describe. You can’t think. You shut down. You try to shut your emotions off because you don’t want to lose your mind. Watching your son die — it’s the last thing you’d want to see.”
But the Polsenbergs have found a way to at least attempt to cope with the pain.
They started preliminaries for a charity while Zach was still in the hospital. They established a 501C3 a week after he died. Zach Polsenberg’s Heat Severity Charity became official on July 24. The goal: to make sure something like this doesn’t happen ever again.
The Polsenbergs have currently hosted two fundraising events, and, at an FHSAA meeting on April 29, pushed for policy changes. Now, coaches need to be educated on heat illness prevention and are required to have a plan of action in case of an emergency. The Polsenbergs are also pushing for schools to have immersion tubs, which can rapidly cool down an over-heated player.
A lineman at Texas A&M suffered a heat stroke at practice in early April, but was likely saved because trainers were able to submerge him in a cold tub.
In addition, James has been helping design a portable tub that could be wheeled onto the field in case of an emergency.
He said Zach would still be alive if a tub would have been available.
“We’re trying to educate,” he said. “We can’t just do what we used to do. We have to make changes so we don’t lose people.”
The Polsenbergs plan to keep fighting for policy change, as well. They’ve contacted the state’s legislators and even sent an email and letter to President Donald Trump.
The experience has been therapeutic for the Polsenbergs. It’s a way to keep Zach close.
“We had to do something to keep Zach’s memory alive and to save other kids — because that’s what he would want us to do,” James said. “If I could help save someone’s life, I’ll have made a difference.”
How long does James plan on running the charity?
“Till I die,” he said. “Till I go see him. Until I walk through those gates and give him a big hug. Because I know he will be there.”
The 'new normal'
Zach Polsenberg loved life. He loved to eat. He was passionate about the Buffalo Bills, his father’s favorite team, a team he dreamed of playing for one day. He loved Marvel. His favorite character was the Hulk. He loved country and heavy metal music. And he loved Jesus Christ with all of his heart.
These are the memories James Polsenberg will hold onto. When the darkness starts to creep in, he’ll think of Zach’s bright smile and “machine-gun-style” laugh. He’ll think of the times the duo would stay up late on the phone for hours on end while James was away on another cross-country drive. He’ll remember the person Zach was and imagine the man he would have become.
“When he was growing inside his mom’s belly, I would say to him, ‘I hope you become a good person one day,’” James said. “And he was.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article falsely stated that Laurie Giordano was the one to call 911, when in fact, she asked the coach to call 911. In addition, the emergency room doctor noted that Zach Polsenberg had heat stroke — not heat exhaustion — and Zach's core temperature was 107 degrees for over an hour in the emergency room — not on the practice field. Also, an earlier version of this story misspelled Laurie Giordano's first name.