Michigan’s Zac Stevens stares adversity straight in the eyes.
The senior wrestler approaches life’s hardships in the same way he faces opponents on the mat — he defeats them, walks off and never looks back.
But after practice at the Bahna Wrestling Center on Wednesday, Stevens hit rewind on all his memories and shared his story.
Stevens’s life is one long match on the mat. When he gains an advantage, he rides it out. When his opponent poses a challenge, he wrestles fate until the end. He inherited his strong sense of work ethic from his father, John.
“My dad was always a hard worker,” Stevens said. “I believe I’m a hard worker, (too). … You can’t really replace a father-son bond.”
But when asked to describe his relationship with his mother, Stevens was hesitant and careful in his choice of words:
“She’s not really what you would call a role model.”
Stevens’s mother wasn’t stable enough to raise a family. She struggled with drug and alcohol problems, forcing Stevens to mature quicker than he had planned. Even today, Stevens feels their relationship is backwards.
“She never really took care of me,” he said. “I’m more of her guardian than she is mine.”
Stevens is now a fit, 133-pound senior wrestler, but his journey began as a little boy, before he even took up the sport. At a young age, he started developing a mechanical mindset.
“My grandma, to this day, every time I see her, talks about when I was two years old,” Stevens said. “I would play with the same one toy for hours and hours, trying to figure out how it works.”
That mentality translated into everything he did. There wasn’t a sport that Stevens wouldn’t try, and there was never a project too big or complicated that he couldn’t tackle. Stevens became the second handyman in the house, working side-by-side with his father. After moving from Jacksonville, Fla., where John was stationed in the Navy, Stevens and his family returned to his mother’s hometown in Monroe, Mich.
Because his mother couldn’t work, John had to support the family himself, and was frequently away from home, traveling for his job. So, for most of his early years, Stevens and his three siblings were left to take care of themselves.
“I wouldn’t say we have a really close family,” Stevens said.
But Stevens’ older sister, Casey, came to fill the void left by their mother. He can remember Casey preparing meals, cleaning the house and taking care of them when he was still in his elementary years.
It was at that same time, at age eight, that Stevens first took the mat. Through wrestling, Stevens began learning the meaning of hard work, independence and family. Wrestling began as his escape, but it became his destiny.
Suddenly, Stevens was surrounded by people that supported him. Though Stevens always motivated himself, there were many others that encouraged him along the way. He established a strong relationship with his great aunt, Toni Bean, who watched him develop into the wrestler he is today.
“She always followed me, more than anybody, in wrestling,” Stevens said. “She hardly missed a match.”
After years of excelling on the mat and in the classroom, Stevens was ready to become a Wolverine. His transition into college wrestling was an expedited process. Michigan’s roster had a hole to fill at 133 pounds, so Stevens was thrown into the lineup right away and had to play catch-up. Though his character developed early, his body wasn’t physically up to par.
Michigan coach Joe McFarland took a special interest in Stevens and guided him to become the wrestler he needed to be.
“The team views Zac and Joe in a father-son relationship,” said redshirt freshman Jake Salazar.
But it’s inevitable for fathers and sons to occasionally, or frequently, butt heads. Stevens said it stems from their similarities, but Salazar said it’s almost out of love. Either way, it’s undeniable that McFarland and Stevens share a mutual respect for one another.
Stevens was honored for his discipline and dedication to the team — as a sophomore, he was honored by being named the youngest team captain in program history, something he spoke about with genuine appreciation. But he deserved it, and earned that recognition on his own merit.
Stevens grew as an athlete, student and teammate. With underclassmen coming in each year, he repaid the generosity he received. He took Salazar under his wing and their friendship blossomed. It was his duty to pass on the acceptance he received.
“People have always stepped into my life at the right time,” Stevens said. “I’ve been very lucky.”
Stevens maintains and cherishes every relationship he has, whether family by blood or by bond. He acknowledged his girlfriend, Christina Sbrocchi, and her family for their kindness. When talking about them, Zac spoke as one does about their own family — with sincerity.
Stevens calls Christina’s mother, Ann, a “stay-at-home super mom.”
Over the years, Stevens has faced obstacles, but he always managed to grow from those experiences. It was during his hardest moments that Stevens established some of his strongest traits.
Whatever curveball life may throw next, Stevens will just come out stronger, like every time he comes off the mat.
“I feel that things will fall into place,” Stevens said. “They always have.”