Making a difference
The following story was published in the Revolution's "Match Day" program for the June 15 game against Toronto FC
When midfielder Zak Boggs suffered a concussion last June, forcing him to miss the final 17 matches of the MLS regular season and all five SuperLiga matches, few people would assume the 25-year-old would spend his time skipping rope and practicing Taekwondo, or even shooting marbles. Even fewer people would assume that Boggs is an accomplished champion in all of these events, leaving soccer as the only sport in which he doesn’t have a world championship.
An undefeated marble shooting champion when he was in just the fifth grade, Boggs’ competitive nature was a driving force behind his unconventional hobbies. He also explained that growing up in West Virginia carried with it certain traditional pastimes and he owes his cultural upbringing to his knack for knocking around marbles.
“In West Virginia, once you reach the fourth grade in gym class, everyone starts playing marble shooting,” he said. “There’s a national tournament and so [in West Virginia] there’s county championships and then they come together and there’s a state championship and you get a scholarship if you win.
“So there I was, in fourth grade and I had never played and in fifth grade I played a little bit and then I caught the bug and decided to compete and went all the way and won. Didn’t lose a match either, that was pretty wild.”
Despite being a world-class marble shooter by the age of 10, Boggs already had higher aspirations while he was in grade school. Beginning at the age of seven, Boggs was a student of Taekwondo, eventually earning his black belt in the Korean martial art that loosely translates to “the art of foot and fist.”
After earning his black belt in an art that focuses greatly on the power and ability of the practitioner’s legs and feet, Boggs continued to practice Taekwondo competitively across the country, eventually earning a spot on the United States Junior Olympic team. Naturally, Boggs competed at a high level, becoming the Junior Olympic Taekwondo Champion in both fighting and sparring. Shortly after, however, Boggs gave up the martial arts to pursue his interests in soccer.
“Unfortunately, I kind of let that one go to the wayside,” Boggs said. “It’s way too hard on the body to continue doing every day.”
The impressive athletic résumé attached to the Revolution midfielder does not end there, however. Boggs continues to compete on a competitive jump rope team during his time away from Major League Soccer.
“I live in the Mid-Ohio Valley, so there’s a team there,” he said. “Whenever I go home I’ll do it. There’s a team there and I do whatever I can.”
When asked how he started to get into the niche sport of competitive jump roping, Boggs’ intense desire to compete again reared its head.
“My sister [Tori] got into it when she was five and she’s 18 now and she’s like seven-time world champion. She’s unbelievable,” Boggs continued. “And so, obviously I had to try it. So I started jumping and started competing a little bit.”
While it comes as no surprise that Boggs does possess exceptional athletic prowess as a professional soccer player, he has worked hard to hone that athletic ability since he was a young child and, although it is obvious Boggs is gifted in many ways, his work ethic and preparation is second to none.
“I definitely always try my hardest in whatever it is I’m doing,” Boggs said of how he acquired his multiple talents. “If I’m going to do something then I’m going to make sure that I do it the best that I can and execute to the best of my ability. There’s no reason to not give something your best effort.”
In spite of the fact that Boggs is able to boast such distinguished athletic credentials and recently added “starting midfielder” for the Revolution to his growing list of accomplishments, he remains humbled and focused by his experiences, constantly aware of his potential for success and to contribute to the success of others around him.
Already known around New England for his tremendous energy and his reputation for his intense work ethic, Boggs reinforced this opinion of the budding soccer star when giving credit to his upbringing and background support for his athletic gifts while diverting any ideas of selfish natural ability to the sidelines.
“Well, stuff you learn in Taekwondo - the discipline and the work ethic and motivation - that definitely sticks with you,” Boggs said, while explaining that his success is owed to the values he learned as a child.
“The repetition of moves to perfect them and all the times you’re doing stuff and doing stuff and doing stuff to get it right, that definitely sticks with you,” he continued. “And definitely, Taekwondo and being involved in the Boy Scouts were the most influential on my personality and work habits and all those kinds of traits.”
Certainly Boggs must take some credit for the position in which he has now found himself, but if he does he declines to show it, preferring to praise the help he has received from others.
“I try to listen to what others are telling me and what I’m told by my coaches and teammates and take information and go from there,” he said. “I owe a lot to them.”
Perhaps it’s this sense of selflessness that is inherent within the Revolution’s second round pick from the 2010 MLS SuperDraft that drives his immense contributions to the world outside of professional sports. While working towards a major in biomedical sciences at the University of South Florida in Tampa where he was a Rhodes Scholar candidate, Boggs was a constant volunteer at the world renowned Moffitt Cancer Center and the Shriners Children’s Hospital.
After his move to New England to join the Revolution, Boggs wanted to continue his volunteer work and took advantage of Boston’s multiple hospitals and research centers. Coincidentally, Boggs was able to reach out to the hospital during a beautification project that the entire Revolution team took part in last year.
“When I came here, obviously Children’s Hospital Boston is the best in the world, so I volunteered there with the team last year and got some people’s information,” Boggs said about how he became involved with Children’s Hospital. “I actually met a guy who was from West Virginia who worked with the hospital’s Trust, so it was pretty serendipitous to meet him.”
After this chance encounter, Boggs got to work contacting the hospital about volunteering in their cancer research center and putting his science degree to use. Working closely with doctors several times a week in the hospital’s cancer research lab, Boggs contributes to hands-on research in an effort to unlock the mysteries related to the spreading of cancer cells within the body.
“It’s all hands-on, it’s all research at Children’s but when I’ve been to other places, it’s always been patient contact that was more geared towards medical care,” Boggs said. “But I wanted to get some more laboratory-type work and see what it’s like because I have a science background and I wanted to get a chance to be in a lab.
“I help the technicians,” he continued. “There’s a principle research investigator and there are doctors and then there are technicians and they’ve all been great about it. They show me around and how to do everything.”
The lab Boggs volunteers at specializes in the research of what is referred to as tumor angiogenesis, which is an investigation of what causes cancer cells to promote the flow of blood vessels within the cells, effectively facilitating the spread of cancer throughout the body. The greater the blood flow and angiogenesis, the quicker the cancer cells are able to metastasize and transform the tumors from a dormant state to a malignant one. In particular, Boggs helps to discover new ways to prevent this from occurring in patients that have been diagnosed with prostate cancer and breast cancer.
“The research I’ve been involved with is prostate and breast cancer and brain cancer,” Boggs explained. “The brain cancer research is mainly with very young children, like four years old. It’s very sad.”
Boggs was inspired to devote his time to cancer research while he attended an IMG Soccer Academy in Florida and lived with a family whose mother suffered from liver and lung cancer.
“I think, definitely, because of her I wanted to start volunteering more in cancer hospitals and cancer related studies because I saw firsthand how it affected not only her but her family,” Boggs recalled. “She was a mother of two boys and they were a very happy family.”
The woman recently passed away, leaving Boggs ever the more dedicated to his research and time devoted away from the soccer field. Although now gone, the memory of his time spent with the family and the way each family member battled for each other sticks with him to this day.
“Everyone was sad but they try to be strong for her and she tries to be strong for them and it really just put things into perspective,” Boggs said, reflecting on the impact the family had on him.
“You really realize how lucky you are,” he continued. “Here’s a woman who has countless tumors and she still puts on a smile every day. She was amazing.”
This season, Boggs continues to volunteer at Children’s Hospital at least once a week, providing important assistance to research that helps in the battle against cancer. Recently, Boggs visited patients at Children’s Hospital, along with teammates Kevin Alston, Darrius Barnes, Ryan Kinne, Otto Loewy and Stephen McCarthy to decorate beach balls with the children as part of the team’s monthly visits to the hospital.
Similar to his endeavors both on and off the soccer field, Boggs continues to excel and prosper within his volunteer work, as he constantly strives to better the community around him that he has come to call home. While many athletes lend their time and philanthropic fundraising to help promote awareness of a charity or specific cause, Boggs dedicates his free time quietly working behind the scenes on much bigger, life-saving work: finding a cure for cancer.