It was a brisk, yet beautiful, afternoon for football at Michigan Stadium on the 12th day of October in 2002. The Penn State Nittany Lions came into Ann Arbor ranked 15th in the nation and ready to play the Wolverines in an early Big Ten conference matchup.
However, there was something about this day that will live in infamy for one Wolverine. It’s not about the personal statistics and it’s not about the thrilling overtime victory Michigan had either.
It’s much more than that.
For former Michigan defensive back Zia Combs, it’s a second chance at life.
Mid-way through the first quarter, Michigan punter Adam Finley delivered an excellent, yet routine, pooch punt that took a soft bounce at Michigan’s two-yard line. The redshirt sophomore Combs and his "gunner" teammate, defensive back Ernest Shazor, were streaking to the ball attempting to down it before it crossed the goal line.
What happened next is a cruel twist of fate for Combs. Something he worked so hard to achieve was taken from him in an instant. A heartbreaking and unfortunate accident changed his life forever.
As he took an awkward dive for the ball with his head lowered, he did not see Shazor diving in his direction as well. Shazor’s knee clipped the top of Combs’ helmet and like a rag-doll he crumbled to the turf.
Longsnapper Joe Sgroi went over to pick Combs up from the turf but he crumbled into a heap once again.
The once charismatic player was now lifeless. He was completely paralyzed. Lying vulnerable and helpless in front of a stadium filled with over 100,000 frantic fans that could hear a pin drop in silence.
"It was one of those situations where you’ve been playing ball for so long you felt invincible to a certain degree," said Combs. "It was scary, but at the same time it wasn’t scary. Because I knew that I was alright."
As Combs was leaving the field strapped to a gurney, he managed to muster up some words to Michigan coach Lloyd Carr that would resonate throughout the team for the remainder of the season.
"Tell them to play hard," said Combs to Carr.
"When Coach Carr come over he made me feel comfortable," said Combs. "He gave me a sense of security. You can’t really explain it unless you’ve been through it. When Lloyd gives you a look or says a certain word to you, you believe more."
The route Combs took to the University of Michigan was not an easy one. Growing up in Lexington, he used football as an escape from the violence and drugs that riddled his childhood neighborhood.
"I was a regular inner-city child growing up," Combs said. "I was in a bad neighborhood surrounded by drugs and violence. I had a good family, though. Who showed me the right way."
That family, albeit strong, was torn apart due to a rare condition called Cerebellum Degeneration that took the life Combs’ uncle and mother. The condition is extremely rare and affects the part of the brain that controls muscle coordination and balance. There is no cure and the condition eventually leads to death.
Fortunately for Combs, he had an outlet to escape from the violence and family struggles from the illness. A short moment in time where he could forget who he was and what is going on.
His escape was football.
"Football was my escape," said Combs. "It has shaped me into the man that I am today. I feel like people play sports for different reasons, I did it to get away from all the other things that was going on in my life."
"Some of these kids can go and hug their mom and play with them, I couldn’t do those things."
Combs’ love for football was fueled by his lifelong affinity for the University of Michigan football program. But, in a strange twist of fate, he managed to get in contact with the coaching staff of the Michigan program.
A visit to his school that was never meant for him in the first place.
When area recruiter Jim Hermann went to visit Combs’ school, his intentions were to see his quarterback and defensive end. When Hermann was watching game film, it took only one play for the coach to be interested in Combs.
"The running back fumbled the ball and the defense picked the ball up and started running to the endzone," said Combs. "I hawked the linebacker down."
"I was a receiver at the time, so I was a good 10 to 15 yards behind him but I hunted him down and stopped the team from scoring. That’s what opened Coach Hermann’s eyes to recruiting me."
Immediately Coach Herrmann went to meet Combs. Combs, who admitted to being intimidated by Hermann at first, was invited to Ann Arbor to attend a camp to show the other coaches what he could do.
The day before he was meant to arrive on campus, he suffered another setback and created another obstacle he had to cross.
Two jammed fingers to the point where he couldn’t feel his hand.
During a passing league tournament in Kentucky, Combs suffered the hand injury which couldn’t allow him to catch any passes. He asked his high school coach if he could just run routes at the camp and not catch any footballs. His coach wanted nothing of it and told him he was going to be fine.
As it turns out, Combs was going to be fine.
The very next day, his hand felt as if he never injured it in the first place.
"I did everything they asked me to that the University of Michigan asks in an athlete," said Combs. "I think that’s what, besides my talent, set me apart. Coach Carr ended up offering on the second day of camp."
After receiving his offer, the first thing he did was called his mom. For a inner-city kid where the odds are against him, he had made it.
"I was full of emotions because I know how much I went through," Combs said. "Just sitting there seeing what your parent has gone through."
After being placed on the gurney, the feeling started coming back for Combs. It started with a small sensation in his toes, which was prompted by the doctors pinching, and then it grew to more of a tingling sensation in the rest of his body.
Combs thought he was back. The football player inside decided that going out there for the next game was more important than this overall well being.
"I had a huge smile on my face," said Combs with a laugh. "That moment where I start to regain my feeling. In my head I was already thinking about the next game. It was just second nature."
After numerous tests, scans, and continuous poking and prodding’s by numerous doctors, Combs was released from the hospital in a few days. After returning to practice to see the team for the first time since the accident, he delivered an emotional speech to the team.
However, most importantly to him, he was preparing for a comeback at some point this season.
Unfortunately for Combs, that moment wouldn’t come for him that season. In fact, the moment to strap on a helmet was never going to happen again.
His career was over.
After an emotional discussion with head athletic trainer Paul Schmidt, Combs learned his fate.
"Zia, your career is over with," Combs recalled Schmidt saying to him.
"From there, there were so many emotions going through my body," said Combs. "You worked so hard for something. As a kid you liked it, and now it’s turned into a lifestyle. It was my life."
"When he (Schmidt) had to break the news to me, it was hard to accept," Combs admitted. "I just stormed out of the office. I remember hitting the Gatorade jug with all the ice in it and I went into the locker room and broke down and cried."
Combs had to go through a strange transition from that day forward. He had to adjust to life without football, his fallback when things were tough.
An outlet that was available to him all of his life was taken away from him in a heartbeat.
Transitioning from full-time athlete to full-time student was difficult for Combs. For someone who didn’t place importance on education but instead placed it on athletics, it was a difficult process for him.
"I’m not proud to say this, but at the time football was number one," admitted Combs. "School wasn’t number one, it was number two. I can honestly saying, looking back where I was mentally, if I didn’t have football I probably wouldn’t be in school."
"It was like being born again. I had to change my whole mentality towards life. I had to mature as a young man who had just started becoming a young man. It was like new life and scary."
Combs could’ve easily given up on Michigan and went back to Kentucky to be closer to his ailing mother and family. But, just like the rest of Combs’ story of perseverance, he stayed.
"The thoughts of leaving did run through my head," said Combs. "Not only am I leaving, but what school will allow me to play? I thought about transferring."
It was Combs’ mother who was the driving factor in his decision to stay at Michigan. She told him one simple line that stayed with him throughout his time as a student.
"Son, I just want you to get your degree."
Whenever he was having a bad day or was down on himself, his mother's words picked him back up again.
He owed it to his family to stay. Not only his blood, but also the University of Michigan family he gained during his short time on campus.
"I looked at Coach Carr like a father figure," said Combs. "I felt like whatever Lloyd said, was not wrong."
Just like the great Bo Schembechler said, "Those who stay will be champions."
However, Combs didn’t need football to be a champion. He just needed to live.
One of the biggest lessons Combs took away from the grueling process he had to endure over the years is to not discredit yourself. Believe in yourself and don’t consume yourself with your weaknesses. Eventually those will turn into strengths.
"You have to believe in yourself," said Combs. "Not only believing in the things you know you’re good at, you have to believe that your weaknesses can become your strengths."
When things get hard, life always has its way to remind you that it is beautiful. With a new perspective on life itself, Combs knows that with all the ups and downs he has been through in life that it always stays the same.
"I took away that life is a beautiful thing," said Combs. "That’s what so great about life. You have this plan and you might not necessarily follow the plan all the way through. When life throws curveballs at you, how are you going to react?"
"At the end of the day, life is about whatever your personal goals are in life outside of sports. Having a family, having kids, things like that. Teaching those kids lessons you didn’t necessarily learn at my age."
For Combs, he has everything he needs in life to make it beautiful. A wife he calls a genius, and a son he loves more than anything in this world. Combs wakes up every day with a smile on his face knowing he has those two in his life every waking moment to push him forward.
He doesn’t need to win the Rose Bowl or hoist the Crystal Ball at the end of the season to signify a championship. For Combs, he’s already won with a family of his own.
Having something you love so dearly being taken away from you in a split second is a tough pill to swallow for any human being. But, for Combs, wallowing in self-pity and regret was never in his nature.
From the beginning, he beat the odds.
He rose above the poverty and crime in Lexington to play football for one of the most prestigious Universities in the Midwest. Although his career at the collegiate level was nothing more than a small moment in time, he didn’t allow heartbreak to set him back.
With the career ending neck injury behind him, Combs has a new outlook on life.
Even though he will never play a down of organized football again, he earned something greater from the University of Michigan that letter jackets, postseason and personal awards cannot give to him.
Something that no one, not even a freak accident, can take away from him.