After the Middletown High School football team won its first state title last season, a local elementary school-aged boy invited Zach Welch to his birthday party.
“Most parents hire a clown or hire somebody to dress up,” Middletown coach Kevin Lynott said. “But he wanted Zach as the guest to his birthday party.”
The Middletown star — coming off his first Player of the Year season and before his second — signed a football for the boy and played football with him and his friends for a couple hours.
“And then we had cake. That was fun,” Welch said with unadulterated joy. “We all had cake. And presents.”
Welch, generous with his time for the community and praise for his teammates, comes across as the type of person worthy of winning The Gazette's Player of the Year back-to-back years. Not long ago, though, it would have been unthinkable that parents would invite Welch to their child's birthday party.
“I messed up when I was younger,” Welch said. “I did some stupid stuff, got in trouble with the law. I had parents that I've known since I was probably 5 years old — they didn't want me around my friends anymore. They didn't want me around their kids.”
But at Middletown, Welch found a program that fully embraced him. In turn, he fully embraced the program.
Lynott — The Gazette's Coach of the Year — ideally wants a group of tough-minded and physical players focused solely on the present, and for the most part he's received that. Middletown is the perfectly predictable team and Welch is the perfectly predictable star to lead it.
Most Middletown games the last two years followed the same script. Welch ran for a lot of yards and touchdowns, Middletown won and, afterward, Welch deflected all credit to his offensive line. Opponents trying to stop Welch and reporters seeking an interesting quote all knew what was coming, and they were still helpless to shake up the routine.
Even when talking about his play as all-time quarterback at the child's birthday party, Welch struck a familiar selfless tone.
“I was throwing up passes and they were catching them,” Welch said. “I was amazed at what some of the little kids were doing. It was great. It was so much fun. Especially me not being the best passer, it was nice to see them catch the ball.”
Perhaps nothing displayed Welch's in-game attitude more than the moments after he scored one his 33 touchdowns this season. As Welch's teammates patted each other on the back in the end zone, he snuck several yards away to prepare to kick the extra point.
“I just think, 'I've got to be ready to kick,'” Welch said. “I've got to be ready for the next play. I'm not worried about the touchdown. I mean, it's nice. I love when my team comes up celebrates with me, but I just know I have to go be ready to kick an extra point.”
That's because he embraces Lynott's core values of not only focus, but competitiveness.
“He could have had his fourth touchdown and we could have a four touchdown lead, but if he misses that extra point, he is mad. He is mad,” Lynott said.
In many ways, Welch's competitiveness stems from those old issues.
“When I stepped on that football field, it was just a whole new world,” Welch said. “I knew if I could prove myself on this football field, maybe I could prove myself to those parents and maybe the people that care about me.”
With a business-like attitude, he has.
But Welch insists Middletown football's predictability doesn't mean the program is boring. He says outside perception of the program is incorrect, that the team has plenty of fun. The part selflessness, though? That's no misperception.
“After the game is when we're having a good time and having fun with our boys and our brothers,” Welch said, “and just celebrating for our team.”