Maquoketa native Zach Bellendier always wanted to be a teacher and a coach.
He arrived on the campus of St. Ambrose University expecting to be the Fighting Bees’ quarterback of the future, but before Bellendier even threw his first pass he was injured in a swimming accident and never played football again.
He spent the next year not only learning the skills needed to be a teacher, but being taught how to perform daily functions all over again.
In his mind, he had two choices: Succeed or give up.
“Giving up has never really been something that I have ever known as far as being a football player, being an athlete, as being a student, or as being part of a family,” Bellendier said. “You set a goal in your mind and you push for it, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
A week ago Saturday, Bellendier completed his goal of graduating from St. Ambrose with a degree in physical education.
On July 5, 2008, Bellendier and some friends were enjoying a holiday weekend on a sandbar in the Mississippi River north of Bellevue.
The then-18-year-old Bellendier had just finished a high school career that included breaking records once held by NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels. He dove down a slide, as he had watched his friends do all day long, hitting his head on the sandy bottom. He laid in nearly a foot of water, unable to move anything below his neck.
Three men pulled the quarterback from the water. Medical personnel arrived quickly by boat, placing Bellendier on a flatboard stretcher. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Dubuque before being airlifted to Iowa City.
He had a pair of surgeries over the next three days in which damage to his fourth vertebra was repaired. When Ambrose football coach Mike Magistrelli went to visit his injured player, he was shocked by what he found.
“His positive spirit caught me,” Magistrelli said. “He was disappointed, but he was the one cheering everyone else up in the room. Boy, what a great kid.”
Bellendier had only one request from his mother during rehab. He did not want any photos taken during that time. His body already was injured. He didn’t want any reminders of when he felt like a weakling.
Bellendier spent almost a year rehabilitating, relearning everything from sitting and standing to dressing himself, all while learning the complexities that come with teaching.
During this time Bellendier did his rehabilitation at Valley Fair, a part of Genesis West, and was transported to school, where he lived on campus in a first-floor dorm room.
“Ambrose is just so great with dealing with students with disabilities,” Bellendier said.
He still attended classes.
As he progressed, he made his way to football practice.
“It was the most important thing ever,” Bellendier said. “Freshman year I really didn’t get to do a lot with the football team. I was in a wheelchair. They acknowledged I was part of the team, I got to be an honorary captain for one of the games.
“Going into my sophomore year was how I met all my friends that I have now that play football. It meant the most to me. I built friendships. I felt I owed something to them because they kept me on scholarship. I really thank them that they allowed me to do that.”
Magistrelli said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I wanted to support him in any way possible,” Magistrelli said. “To take something like football away, different guys will have different reactions to that. I was very happy he chose to be a part of things, especially more and more as he went with his rehab. Mentally, the kid was never shaken.”
Golf has become his competitive outlet, playing with friends and Ambrose football players Jake Hemmen and Mitch Overstreet after spending summer mornings mowing at TPC Deere Run.
During his sophomore year, Bellendier also had knee surgery, helping to repair damage done by years of playing catcher in the baseball season. He still has some physical limitations, but they are few and not noticeable to the casual observer.
“I can’t use a lot of my shoulder,” Bellendier said. “I can’t really shoot a basketball, but I can still throw the football a little bit. Running for long periods of time gets kind of tough.”
Education and graduation
Bellendier said his rehab and his education went hand in hand. At first, the faculty at St. Ambrose was concerned about his ability to perform the tasks necessary to become a PE teacher. But after a discussion with Dr. Ragene Gwin and the late Dr. Michael Orfitelli, it was agreed that the program could be adapted to fit his needs.
“That’s the goal. Teaching and coaching is what I want to do,” Bellendier said. “Working with the students and players is what I like doing.”
Bellendier did his student teaching this fall in the Bettendorf school district. He spent part of that time alongside Joe Girsch, defensive backs coach of the Bulldogs and son of Ambrose defensive coordinator Jeff Girsch.
He doesn’t have a job lined up yet, but was hopeful something would come up soon. Staying in the Quad-Cities is his preference, but like most college graduates, would consider whatever opportunities come his way.
“It’s just that relief to walk across that stage and flip that tassel,” Bellendier said. “Now the real world starts, but seeing the look on my family’s faces, because my parents did so much for me, it was a great feeling.”