During a regular season game for the Boardman High School boys’ basketball game a few months back, the Spartans prepared as usual, both coaches and players going through their normal ritual.
A familiar face to the Youngstown State University eyes graced the sidelines as one of the assistant coaches. Looking at the roster, the pieces came together. It was Tom Zetts.
An algebra 2 and geometry teacher for the last five years at the place he graduated from, Zetts does everything he can to give back to his alma mater and stay busy.
He always knew he wanted to become a teacher some day. He can even trace his desire back to fourth and fifth grade at St. Charles in Boardman.
“I just had a series of great teachers,” Zetts said. “They had a lot of personalities. As I got to high school, I had just four outstanding math teachers that not only prepped me for college, but, again, their personalities, their life styles — all of those things were very admirable. It just reinforced the idea of becoming a teacher, so that’s what I did.”
When he knew his playing days were over after a brief stint with the Mahoning Valley Thunder — the former arena football team in Youngstown — and a minor coaching job at Duquesne University, Zetts got the call that has led him to where he is today.
It was the football in between his teaching dreams that will last with YSU fans and personnel for a long time, memories that many may not realize when they see him coaching, umpiring or refereeing a game nowadays. Just a few miles down from Boardman High on Glenwood Avenue with a right turn on Mahoning Avenue separates Zetts’ collegiate life with his current.
Throughout his playing days, Zetts wore No. 24, which is somewhat rare for a quarterback to sprt. Normally, numbers 1-19 are what people see most often. Zetts’ father and uncles wore No. 24 throughout their careers.
“I saw a picture of a quarterback he [my dad] played against and wore No. 79,” Zetts said. “It was sort of a different era of football. My Uncle Gary was a quarterback. My dad played quarterback his senior season. My dad ended up a defensive lineman, but that was just their number, and it was my number no matter what position I wanted to play.”
Always looked upon as his hero, Zetts wore No. 24 mainly because of his father. There is more meaning behind this logic, though.
“I didn’t even know it when I started wearing it, but that was my grandmother’s birthday,” Zetts said. “My dad and uncles all played at Struthers. My dad played at Ohio University, and my uncle played at Ohio State University. Another uncle was recruited by Lee Corso. It’s a long line of football, and they all wore No. 24 because that was their mother’s birthday.”
While playing at Boardman, Zetts always practiced with his father when he wasn’t working with his team, normally at least four times a week. Zetts was, obviously, the quarterback while his father ran routes.
After every practice, the two always ended with a go-route they called “beat St. Ignatius.” The Spartans played the school out of Cleveland every year. Zetts’ most memorable high school game came against St. Ignatius during his senior season.
It was only the second game of the year, but that didn’t matter to Zetts who had to face a star-studded roster that featured Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer.
“They had a stud cast of players, and we ended up taking them down,” Zetts said. “We threw a touchdown pass with like two and a half minutes to go and then forced a fumble to end it. It was like all the hard work paid off right in that moment.”
It wouldn’t be the final time that hard work paid off. He still had a college career ahead of him.
Scrambling from the pocket, zipping passes, running for six points, any moment Zetts delivered to YSU could be as memorable as they come. It doesn’t even have to be on the field.
Zetts is the 2007-08 YSU Male Athlete of the Year and broke numerous school records that stood until Kurt Hess came to town. Zetts still owns a few of those, including games played, but it’s not something he’ll ever brag about.
“I was raised with the idea that things were meant to be known and people do find out about that stuff, so I’m not going to go out of my way for people to know that,” Zetts said. “As far as the Male Athlete of the Year, it’s another thing I kind of hang my hat on.”
Throughout the countless hours giving it his all and the memories created, one sticks out over the others, a game most fans probably still remember.
It was Thanksgiving weekend on Nov. 25, 2006, during the FCS playoffs. The fourth-seeded Penguins battled sixth-seeded James Madison University in the Ice Castle, playing in front of a sold-out crowd.
YSU trailed, 31-20, with 14:52 remaining in the contest after the Dukes scored 14 straight points. Zetts then threw a six-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Peterson, cutting the deficit to 31-28, with just more than eight minutes remaining.
Later on, with 4:41 left, the Penguins’ defense stuffed James Madison on fourth and inches. YSU took over and later scored on Marcus Mason’s one-yard touchdown run 3:29 later.
Another defensive stop gave YSU possession with three seconds remaining, sealing a 35-31 victory. It was the Penguins’ first playoff victory since 1999.
“That game being on ESPN 2, getting out to a lead then falling behind and then having to come back in the fourth quarter, shutting them out, being in front of a home crowd during Thanksgiving weekend that happened to be 65 degrees in a packed place, that was the coolest night of playing,” Zetts said.
YSU then defeated Illinois State University, 28-21, the following week before losing at Appalachian State University on Dec. 9, 2006. To this date, that was the last time YSU made the playoffs.
After 2007 concluded, Zetts ended his career with 654 completions, 1,094 attempts, 7,643 yards, 51 touchdowns and a 59.8 completion percentage. He was also a three-time First-Team Academic All-Gateway selection and a three-time FCS Academic All-Star. YSU went 26-10 during its two Gateway Conference championships in 2005 and 2006.
Zetts still keeps in tact what YSU is doing, saying he attended six games last year and either watched or listened to the others. One man he enjoyed watching was Hess, the quarterback who broke most of his records.
“If you could pick a guy to replace you, it would be him; there’s no doubt about that,” Zetts said. “There wasn’t a person that I ever heard say a bad word about him because they all say he’s a great leader, he’s a character kid and works hard. It’s all the things that you want to hear for a guy that’s not only breaking your records, but is also taking your spot.”
Life after football
The spring of 2008 was crazy for Zetts. He ran track for YSU, which he said not many know about, while also student teaching. When that ended, he went to Italy for a few months to play football.
Zetts’ last chance at football glory came with two brief stints in a Thunder uniform that didn’t amount to much.
“It was a great opportunity, and I love competition,” Zetts said. “I try to seek competition wherever I can find it. But looking back, it was sort of the last hoorah. The Arena League was not for me. It was either go bigger than that or get out.”
Shortly after, while at Duquesne, Zetts left for an opening at Boardman, an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. It wasn’t mainly because he graduated from Boardman, but more of the fact that it was an “outstanding school in the math department.”
“It’s a place where a lot of teachers want to be, and, for me, that’s the bigger aspect of it,” Zetts said. “It’s not only a place where I can teach, but it’s also a place that I can give back to. I volunteer for things no matter what it would be so that I can give back to my alma mater.”
So, here Zetts resides, a place all too familiar with him, teaching the minds of the generation to follow. Whether or not he knows it, Zetts also taught how special it is to be a part of something great, something that may never come again.
When walking past YSU’s locker room in Stambaugh Stadium, a few steps down to the right, Zetts’ picture grazes the brick wall with “2007-08 Male Athlete of the Year” written underneath. Those memories will not be forgotten any time soon.