Little League to College Champion - Word&Way

Little League to College Champion

Zach Hall
Zach Hall

Zach Hall played defense for the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks in 2019. That year the team were Ohio Valley Conference champions for the first time since 2010. (Southeast Missouri State University)

(WW) – Zach Hall finished his award-winning college football career haunted by an elementary school memory. Playing in the Optimist League in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, Hall fumbled a handoff as he was trying to cross the goal line when he was in the fourth grade. His team lost.

“I still think about it to this day,” said Hall, an inside linebacker who finished his senior year in 2019 at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau after achieving the epitome of goals of national defensive players.

In 2018, Hall won the Buck Buchanan Award given to the most outstanding defensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision. With a school-record 168 tackles, including 67 solos, Hall was the first in SEMO history to win the coveted award. He led the FCS in total tackles. He was also the Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year and named to eight All-America teams.

“It was a big honor for me. I am not someone who is used to winning awards. I never thought I would be in that position. That was the first real award that I won. It means a lot to me. While I was playing I didn’t think about it much but now that I finished my college career, it was a big accomplishment. It was a blessing,” he said. “I had to work really hard to get there. It took a lot of extra film study, believing in the people around me so I could play my game, a lot of patience.

“It was a big season. I stayed the course and it was worth it. I always believed in myself and made it happen,” added Hall, whose only Division I offer came from SEMO. “To be the first, it’s a big deal for the university and program. I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Hall winning the award helped solidify SEMO as a national program, said head coach Tom Matukewicz.

“You can’t be a national program without national players,” Matukewicz added. “He is the most productive player I’ve coached. He makes game-changing plays. What makes him good is his instincts. He can process very quickly and react and get his body to react. He was the best player on the team. When your best player is the hardest worker and best culture builder, it’s easy to coach.”

Hall played in the Spiral Tropical Bowl for elite Football Bowl Subdivision and FCS seniors in January in Daytona Beach, Florida. There were 28 NFL teams represented.

“I made the most of it,” said Hall, who is now training in Nashville to prepare for April’s NFL Draft as he also prepares to graduate in May. “I have always wanted to graduate college. Being able to make it this far is a blessing right at the end of the tunnel. I’ve come too far to stop now.”

Focus & faith

During his journey, Hall’s faith has been vital. It has kept him focused and grounded. “It doesn’t let me get too high or too low and helps me put things into perspective and prioritize things in my day-to-day life,” he said. “I want people to see that I am a Christian by the way I act. I am always going to give my best in any situation no matter how big or small, doing everything the right way.”

During his college sophomore year his faith became stronger as he started going to FCA led by Mike Litzelfelner, who became a spiritual mentor.

“I started to gain an interest in Christ, going to church, getting into the word. In college I couldn’t do it all by myself. I needed another way to live my life. It wasn’t going the way I wanted it. I needed something else,” Hall said.

“FCA helped me create a relationship with Christ,” added Hall, who wore an FCA wristband during games to remind him of why he plays and “what I need to be, how I need to act, know who I need to play for.”

“I had always been curious about Christ. I didn’t have an outlet for it. My sophomore year in college the football season was good but I didn’t have anything outside of football. I was focused on football. It was my life. I would live for football and other things in this world and not for Christ,” Hall said.

“God came to me. He met me where I was. He accepted me no matter what situation I was in. If you want to build that relationship with him it is a two-way street. You have to put in the time,” he added.

Praying before every game, Hall felt free because he did not have to worry about how well he performed. He left the results “all to Christ” and focused on playing for his family and teammates.

Becoming a spiritual leader for the team, Hall led by example. Matukewicz said that Hall is trying to live like Jesus would want him to.

“He doesn’t talk about it, he lives it. People see his faith by his actions,” Matukewicz explained. “He was the same person, the same humble guy I recruited. His humble spirit is built with his faith and trying to live like [God]. His maturity puts football in its place. It is important but not the most important thing.”

Hall is proactive in his faith by not just saying that he is a Christian but by praying, reading the Bible, and doing devotionals. He also wants people to see Christ in his life by the way he treats people, showing them love, whether a teammate is excelling in football or not and regardless of their status. He wants to follow the Golden Rule.

“I believe in treating people nice. Accept them for who they are. More than just teammates, I want to be brothers with them,” said Hall.

As Hall prays, he reflects on how he can become a better Christian. Spending time with believers who have the same goal and mindset that he does is essential in his spiritual growth. His favorite verse, Philippians 3:14, reflects that growth: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

“My faith was challenged most when I became a Christian and started to build a relationship with him. I hold myself to a certain standard. It’s something you don’t always meet but it is important how you bounce back and learn from that,” Hall said.

“I know this life isn’t all about myself. It’s the people around me and the kind of impact I can have on them and help them through life. I want people to remember me as a good person, a good teammate, someone who cared about the community and the university.”

“I have learned it is not all about the game. The game is a blessing itself. There is so much more I can do outside of football that can affect others and the community,” he added. “I want to be someone who makes a difference, whether on a big scale or small, to help change people’s lives spiritually. I want to be a role model. I have had a lot of role models in my life who have molded me into who I am today.”

His mother, Amy Kaelin, a nurse in Louisville, has been his biggest role model. “She taught me what hard work was. She consistently made something out of nothing. When there was a doubt she made sure it happened. I have always been amazed by that, by her work ethic and how she treats others,” he said.

Part of a winning team

SEMO wide receiver Zach Smith, a redshirt senior who also played with Hall at Louisville Male High School has been there for much of the winning. As seniors at Male, Hall and Smith won the 2015 6A state championship.

“A connected team is a dedicated team, not only developing relationships on the field but off. It is always having that mindset that you are going to win no matter who the opponent is. We had a lot of confidence. We took practice seriously,” said Smith, who was the star of the offense at Male while Hall was the star of the defense.

Smith has known Hall since they were 7. They competed against each other in little league football championship games. Smith was known for his quickness and speed and Hall for being a hard-hitting linebacker. One time after a game they shook hands and their “relationship took off from there” said Smith.

Both All-State as seniors, Smith received offers from University of Tennessee at Martin, Murray State, Southern Illinois. With Hall’s one from SEMO they said, “We won a championship in high school, why not try to win another in college.”

Smith has seen Hall’s game evolve.

“His knowledge of the game, the preparation he puts into Saturday, watching film every day, knowing what the other team was going to do before they did it, his instincts with the ball, his ball skills are good for a linebacker, always being in the right place at the right time,” said Smith. “He is not a big talker, example can go a long way. I saw him transform into a vocal leader on the sideline his senior year and on the field. Whatever he said people listened to. If he notices a flaw in your life, he is going to let you know about it. He will shoot straight with you whether you like his response or not.”

They are on the same page about wins and losses.

“I hate losing more than I like winning, ”said Smith.

Their freshman and sophomore years the Redhawks finished 3-8. But then they made it to the FCS playoffs in 2018 and 2019. In 2019 they the Redhawks were Ohio Valley Conference champions, which the team had not accomplished since 2010.

One of their best high school experiences together was before their senior season at a 7-on-7 tournament played in Hoover, Alabama, the biggest in the nation. As teams were being introduced, Male’s name was left out.

“That whole weekend we used it as a motivation. We knew going in that nobody could beat us and we had to go out and prove it,” said Smith.

Hall got several game-winning interceptions and Smith came up big on deep balls and go-pass routes. The Bulldogs played Hoover, renowned among national programs, for the championship and won. “It put our school on the nationwide watch list,” said Smith. Male finished ranked 9th in the nation by USA Today.

Even as their time as teammates end, their bond remains.

“I love the dude,” said Smith. “He has been my boy since seven-years-old. I know our relationship is only going to get stronger since he knows the Lord.”