Zach Higginbotham `13 may now be a “staff nerd” who handles all the team’s performance data and sport science-performance analytics and performance reconditioning on the field with the University of California, Berkeley’s football program as their applied science and reconditioning coordinator, but he was a self-proclaimed “chronic underachiever” in high school.
“I was always a talented kid academically, but I was never driven in that area,” says Higginbotham. “Without people like Peter Fossett, Charles McGivern, Greg Ross, Steve Conner, and a few others, I’m not confident I could have developed to where I am now. I may not have found the NFL career I dreamed of or a Harvard law degree, but a decade later I’m light years ahead of where most are in my profession and am on track to get my PhD. It's a drastic change from the underachieving wannabe jock, who didn't like studying. All of this is because I was encouraged to find my own unique path in life because of CCDS. My experience [at Country Day] is an integral piece of my development.”
Higginbotham was recruited to play football for the University of Cincinnati and committed to playing during his senior year at Country Day. “I didn't come from much so if college wasn't paid for, I probably would have gone to a trade school.” After his freshman year, he transferred to Marshall University due to personal reasons and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology. He then pursued his master’s degree in sport science and performance rehabilitation from Logan University.
He transferred to Country Day his sophomore year after attending Elder High School for one year. Greg Ross was his summer basketball coach before his 8th grade year and tried to convince him to attend Country Day but Higginbotham wanted to attend a school with a bigger athletic program. When they re-connected during Higginbotham’s freshman year, he knew he had to follow Ross’s advice because he “really trusted Greg. I'm happy about my transition to Country Day. My experience [at Country Day] put me on a path to figure out who I was on my own and to learn how to be a thoughtful and creative thinker. It was a foundational piece to being a lifelong learner. If you had told my high-school self that I would be on track to get my Ph.D., I would have laughed in your face. Country Day taught me how to handle the bandwidth and consider all options. I've never been part of anything like it.”
Higginbotham recently fielded prospective jobs with a professional soccer team in the United Arab Emirates, a professional rugby union team in Australia, and even a few NFL opportunities. But he rejected them. As a coach on Cal-Berkeley’s football team, Higginbotham feels like he’s exactly where he is supposed to be…for now.
“Since I finished playing in college, I have been a bit of a rambling man. I believe I'm on state seven now, as coaching can be unforgiving and lacking leads in the classifieds. It's an interesting ordeal having a job that's mostly dependent on 18- to 22-year-old men showing up every day and showing consistency at a very high level. But what I do is really fulfilling because I was one of those kids on the field. To watch someone not be able to walk and then to see them play in the NFL and know that you had a part in that is so rewarding.”
While he believes his work is gratifying, it’s also very taxing. An intensive football schedule means he often cannot make it home for holidays.
“If you're home for Christmas it means you're with a team that probably isn't very good and you're about to be fired or you were fired. My first job out of college was when I worked for a Top 5 team, I was making $8,000 a year, sleeping on a foam mattress on a friend's floor, and working 10-12 hours daily for the first year. It’s a really hard profession starting out; most young coaches end up sleeping in their office, their car, or, in some extreme cases, out of necessity. You have to love it and hold some sense of purpose, or you’ll get burned out quickly.”
He landed at Cal-Berkeley after a coaching staff change at the University of Mississippi, electing for professional stability, but never forgetting that, at the end of the day, he’s working in the entertainment industry. “If your team is not winning you quickly become expendable; it is a bottom-line business. You have to know what you want in your career and in your personal life. I fit well in collegiate and professional football; it's what I know and it’s where I have the highest career trajectory because of it. I know my path and profession is a little different than most in the CCDS community, but I am thankful for the difference and the daily struggle of it."