Zac Epplin, a member of the Gibault Hawks state-championship boys soccer team in 2013, lost his battle with bone cancer Wednesday morning at his home.
Epplin, who was from Waterloo, was 19. Gibault coach Matt Reeb learned of Epplin’s death at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday when he received a phone call from Zac’s mother, Bev Epplin.
“He took a turn for the worse the last several weeks,” said Reeb, who remembered Epplin as “an inspiration to everyone.”
“The way he took on cancer, the way he stayed faithful to God and his faith ... (Cancer) could have very easily taken him the opposite way, but he stayed confident and knew what he stood for. He knew God was for him and knew what he believed in,” Reeb said. “He never stopped fighting. He was just a great kid and I loved every second I had a chance to coach him.”
Epplin was undergoing chemotherapy in 2013 when the Hawks made their postseason run that resulted in the Class 1A state championship at The Corn Crib in Normal. Epplin, however, was strong enough to make the trip to state and was introduced with his teammates before each game.
The Hawks defeated Herscher 2-1 in the state-championship game.
“Since freshman year, he was one of the ones that wanted it the most when it came to winning,” said Frank Mantia, a midfielder on the 2013 team. “He was always one of the guys who was out there late, doing extra stuff to make sure he was putting in more work than everyone else.
“I remember one of the first things he said to us when he told us he wasn’t going to be able to play anymore was that he wasn’t going to miss a game. He was going to be there every step of the way to watch us win state and finish what we started.”
Epplin is survived by his father, Doug, mother, Bev, and three younger brothers: Luc, who will be a junior at Gibault, and twins Matthew and Andrew, who will be in fifth grade.
Visitation for Epplin will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at Immaculate Conception Church, 411 Palmer Road in Columbia. The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Immaculate Conception Church.
Amy Meyer, Zac Epplin’s aunt, released the following statement on behalf of the Epplin family:
“The family of Zachary Douglas Epplin would like to thank the entire community for the enormous amount of support since Zac’s cancer diagnosis. The Immaculate Conception Parish family, staff and students at Gibault Catholic High School, staff and students at Immaculate Conception School, Gibault soccer coaches, soccer moms, soccer dads, all of his caregivers at St Louis Children’s Hospital as well as at home, and countless others truly showed their love and support at all times. Zac, Doug and Beverly showed everyone the importance of faith, hope and love, and the entire region seemed to follow their lead.
“Zac fought cancer with the motto, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’ close to his heart. Please continue to pray for others battling this horrible disease.”
Wes Degener, also a senior midfielder on the Hawks’ state-championship team, was Epplin’s roommate at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., for the first semester of their freshman year.
“I struggle to find the right words for what he meant to me. He might have been my best friend,” Degener said. “I would have done anything for him. He was someone I could always go talk to about anything. He wasn’t one to brag about anything. He was just listening. He was a great human being and he fought it as long as he could.”
Epplin, a midfielder as a junior, had been shifted to defender and was preparing for the 2013 season when he noticed a lump in his abdominal area. It wasn’t painful, but it was an alarm bell.
Epplin was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of cancer most often found in children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 20.
If diagnosed early enough, the disease can be effectively treated 50 to 75 percent of the time. Otherwise, the cancer spreads to vital organs in the body.
Epplin’s cancer was in his right side, on the ninth rib. The hope was that several rounds of chemotherapy would be followed by surgery to remove the mass. By the time Gibault won state in November 2013, Epplin’s weight had dropped from 155 pounds to 120 pounds.
The cancer was shrunk and Epplin underwent surgery, but more spots were discovered during the procedure. Despite more chemotherapy, the cancer spread.
Mantia remembers how hard Epplin worked in the preseason in 2013.
“We had a lot of gifted players on our team,” Mantia said. “Zac was right up there with them. But he was one of the ones that recognized that if he wanted to make an impact and help us, he had to be putting in more hours than just practice. He was always in the gym. He didn’t care. He wasn’t doing it so he got glory. He was doing it to give our team a better chance of winning. He was always pushing me to be better. He motivated everybody else.”
Mantia and another friend visited Epplin at his home Tuesday.
“We were talking, but it was tough to talk to him too much recently,” Mantia said. “People can tell you whatever they want, but I don’t think anyone is really ever ready for something like this to happen. When I got the news, it was pretty devastating. But immediately, I was by his family and 10 of his friends who are all close like brothers. We celebrated the time we had with him.”
Reeb and Degener remembered Epplin’s most memorable goal, which came on Oct. 12, 2012. It snapped a 1-1 tie and gave Gibault a 2-1 win over arch-rival Columbia in the regional-championship game at Oerter Park in Columbia.
“He beat Eddie Starr to his short side,” Degener recalled Wednesday. “I went out to (Epplin’s) house today and we were all hanging out with his mom and brothers and we got to talking about that. It was definitely a good moment for him.”
Degener and Mantia were proud of how Epplin battled cancer.
“He definitely did,” Degener said. “He had no desire to just roll over and let it beat him. He was very into it and wanted to beat it. These last couple of weeks and month were rough for him. He didn’t eat as much as he weighed around 100 pounds. He couldn’t hold anything down.”
Mantia said Epplin and his teammates found strength in ESPN anchor Stuart Scott’s battle with cancer, which ended in January when Scott died at 49.
“One of the things that really stuck with us was Stuart Scott when he was talking about his battle with cancer,” Mantia said. “He would say, ‘Dying because of cancer doesn’t mean you lost. You beat cancer by fighting it every day and making the most of what you have every day.’
“So passing away from cancer does not mean (Zac) lost his battle in any way. For us looking at it, he beat cancer. He fought it every day and made the most out of every situation.”
Mantia said Epplin always put other people first, even as Epplin’s physical strength diminished.
“There were plenty of times where I knew personally that he wasn’t feeling up to being around people or wasn’t in the right shape to be around people,” Mantia said. “But he would come out and try to make everyone else happy. Nobody cared what he could give us. We just wanted him to be comfortable, and the only thing he was worried about was all of us having a good time and getting to see him and talk to him and be in a good mood with him.
“To the end, it was all just him being completely selfless and so strong throughout the whole thing. That’s something I don’t know if I would ever be strong enough to do.”
Epplin doesn’t have to fight anymore.
“We know he’s in a better place,” Reeb said. “He’s with our Lord and Savior. He’s no longer suffering. But we will miss him, and all the people who really loved him and cared about him are hurting from not being around him right now.”