ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Zach Zenner sat in the Detroit Lions running backs room six days a week, notebook out ready to take notes and learn. He’d be in there for hours, working to both memorize and understand the information he was being given.
Then he’d go to the whiteboards that surround the walls of the room and, using a color-coded system to break down different topics, lay everything out. This, though, had nothing to do with football. It had everything to do with what will come after.
Zenner spent 10 weeks in that room this offseason preparing for the Medical College Admission Test, more commonly known as the MCAT — the second time in his life he would have to take the comprehensive exam that could define his future. During his reviews, physics would be on the white board in one color. Psychology another color. He purchased a prep course, created his own plan between football training workouts in Novi, Michigan, and set out his strategy.
This led up to his exam date of March 29 and the results that came when he checked online a few weeks later — a score of 518, placing him in the 96th percentile of everyone who took the exam that day. He couldn’t, though, celebrate quite like he wanted to.
“Very excited,” Zenner said. “But my son was napping, so a quiet excited. Like, ‘Yes.’”
For perspective, US News & World Report said the median MCAT score of students who went to medical school at Harvard, Northwestern and Stanford were all 519. The Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins were 520.
In other words, Zenner, 27, put himself in a position to go to one of the top medical schools in the nation if he wants to.
He knew last year he would have to retake the MCAT because most schools — including the Sanford School of Medicine, where he was accepted out of college at South Dakota State — require a score that is no less than three or four years old.
Zenner’s new score has left him with options. What Zenner had done every year prior to this one was resubmit his application to Sanford and then defer admission. For him to do that again, the school told him he would have to take the MCAT by February. He didn’t feel comfortable with that timeline because of the NFL season, so Sanford told him he would have to reapply.
He’s going to do that, but he has a few more options now. He said he’s going to look at schools in his home state of Minnesota and surrounding states — including Iowa, Wisconsin and, yes, both Dakotas — along with keeping Sanford in mind. He’s a strong applicant for multiple reasons. Besides his MCAT score, he also is a published author from a study he worked on at Henry Ford Hospital.
He still would like to attend Sanford, but it is no longer a guarantee. He has spent offseasons working on medical research studying Batten’s Disease at the facility.
“I’d like to (go back to Sanford) and the last time we talked they said I’m the type of applicant they are looking for,” Zenner said. “Just the timing of things didn’t work out for their admissions committee. I said, ‘OK.’”
When he’ll start the application process again is somewhat in question, because Zenner isn’t done playing yet. He re-signed with Detroit this offseason after playing well toward the end of last season, appearing in eight games and rushing for 265 yards with three touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
He said in the past he would like to play as long as possible and start his medical career after football. And for those who wonder why he’d do that after an NFL career, well, he has an explanation for you.
“I have two children. My 15-month-old, my wife says, eats like a first-grader,” Zenner said. “We’re going to need to keep working or do something. For what I feel like I need to do to provide for my family, if my career were to end today, I’m 27.
“I mean, that’s like at least 25 years of I need something to do. I have a lot of interests, but I also need an income.”