One of the great recruiting stories of the 2004 class for Stanford Football wrapped up a little late, but Cardinalmaniacs™ around the globe rejoiced when prep All-American OL/DL Jeff Zuttah cleared the Cardinal admissions process in late April. Zuttah was a nationally acclaimed recruit who originally signed with Michigan in the 2003 class and matriculated early to Ann Arbor that spring. But the Wolverines would not clear him for any practices after evaluating his sickle cell condition. The New Jersey native was hungry to play Division I college football and was given his release for a transfer. After contacting Stanford and learning that he could put himself in a position to transfer to The Farm given a strong first two semesters of academic performance at UM, Zuttah tackled the books with the same ferocity he attacked opponents at the Hun School. He told The Bootleg that Stanford was far and away his #1 school choice, and it was a no-brainer to commit once accepted.
The Cardinal came into this year needing help on both the offensive and defensive lines, and it was a toss up as to whether Dave Tipton or Steve Morton would win the tug of war for this exceptional athlete. The staff opted to place him on the OL, and Zuttah came out to campus early to join his teammates during the summer for unofficial workouts. The transfer student-athlete had some moments of struggle with his conditioning as they conducted line drills and intense conditioning with strength coach Ron Forbes. But Zuttah, who had not been allowed to partake in any semblance of a college workout at Michigan, improved as the weeks passed. His challenge come August looked to be more about regaining his footwork and timing as an offensive lineman - he had not put on pads since the fall of 2002, and looked as rusty as you would imagine.
Based on need and his athleticism, Zuttah found himself running second team on the offensive line at right tackle. Come September, he found his way into ballgames as part of the PAT protection unit for San Jose State and BYU. The transfer freshman also saw late-game action in those first two contests at right tackle.
They key issue surrounding the 20-year old transfer athlete has been all about the management of his condition. There is no question that certain stresses on his body could uniquely damage him in a variety of fashions, ranging from pain to infections to kidney or even eye complications. One critical factor is his hydration level, and to that end he is careful both on and off the field with what he drinks. Unlike so many college-age males, Zuttah does not touch a drop of alcohol. He also stays away from any caffeinated beverages or foods. When he is lifting, running, or practicing on the field, the sickle cell disease (type SC, not the type SS which is medically designated "sickle cell anemia") sufferer has to police himself and his body's reaction to stresses.
The Tuesday following the BYU game, as Stanford started their bye week before the highly anticipated tilt with #1 USC, Zuttah was conducting some strength and conditioning. The freshman's body rebelled against a particularly difficult lift called the V-squat. The episode of acute and persistent pains sent him to the hospital, where he remained for several days of treatment.
"I thought as long as I stay hydrated, I'd be fine," Zuttah describes. "But when that [episode] happened, it was weird. I was doing everything right and I felt great up to that point."
"My spleen become infarcted," he continues. "That means the main artery supplying blood to the spleen became clogged by sickled cells, and the tissue, due to a lack of oxygen, started dying off."
That sounds ugly, and Zuttah says it felt every bit as bad as you might think.
"It's not like any pain you have ever had - trust me," he offers. "I was on a variety of IV pain medicine and still could feel some of it. It hurt every now and then for the next two and a half weeks after I left the hospital."
Following that frightening episode, Zuttah sat down with Stanford training and medical staff to explore the viability of his managing his condition while performing at the athletic level required for Stanford Football. It was a risk/reward analysis, and in the end, Zuttah and his family decided with doctors to hang up his cleats.
"I got all the necessary information from the doctors," the ailing athlete explains. "They told me about perceived future risks and things of that nature. I got second and third opinions; all doctors seemed to be on the same page... What happened to my spleen could have happened to my hips or my eyes."
"It'll be tough on Saturdays," he admits. "But it's the right thing to do. I busted my ass to make this work, but it's busting my ass day in and day out that puts me in trouble."
When Jeff Zuttah first approached Stanford about transferring to play football on The Farm, there was full disclosure of his sickle cell condition. He sent medical records for Stanford medical personnel to evaluate, and the decision was made that he could likely be a healthy and successful athlete there. The location was germane, as many climates around the country elevate the risk of strenuous physical activities for Zuttah. Heat and humidity in particular are problematic, so the mild and relatively dry climate of the Peninsula seemed ideal. But the Cardinal coaching staff knew they were taking some amount of risk in bringing Zuttah into the program. They rolled the dice, and lost.
However, it is not totally fair to call any party a "loser" in this story. Zuttah found his way to Stanford and will have the opportunity to graduate college with a degree from one of the world's elite universities. Stanford Football and the team were positively affected by the infusion of this intense and driven athlete, on the field, in the weight room and in the locker room. Zuttah will remain involved with the team in some yet-to-be-determined capacity. The details of that relationship will be ironed out, but it only makes sense to keep him engaged with the team. Zuttah is a smart kid with great intensity who can benefit the program. On his end, he would be remiss if he did not continue to serve the program that will continue paying his bills at Stanford.
At this time, the official status is that Jeff Zuttah is out for the year. These things can take unexpected twists and turns, but all signs point to this as a permanent injury status. Assuming that is indeed pursued by Stanford and approved by the proper regulatory officials at the end of the year, Zuttah would become a non-counter. That means that while Stanford would still financially carry him, he would not count against the 85 scholarship limit. I would expect these matters to be resolved at the end of the year. As there are any surprises or updates, we will bring them to you.
For now, we wish all the best to this outstanding young man. He pushed himself to, and beyond, his limits for Stanford Football. He has made a tough decision but unquestionably the right decision for his health and his future.
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