Scroll to the bottom of this page to hear John and Linda Garwood talk about their son, Zach, and how they organized a giant community project in his memory.
LEETONIA, Ohio — It’s just dirt.
There was nothing fancy about the open field on the west side of the Crestview schools early in 2007. It was just empty space, with grass and weeds sprouting from the gritty soil. It bordered the school’s soccer field and blended in with the area’s rural setting.
There was nothing special about the field until a warm morning in June when a crew of Columbiana County volunteers rolled in with their tractors and dozers and dirt pans. On that day — June 9 — farmers, construction workers and businessmen started a project that would unify an entire community.
They pushed and leveled and worked the dirt for a solid week. When they were done, they had moved 33,000 yards of dirt and roughed out the beginning of two new soccer fields for the school.
And when they were done, they couldn’t help but smile at the memory of the little boy who inspired so many.
Zach Garwood was born to play soccer. He joined his first team at 6 years old and from then on, he couldn’t get enough.
“I remember when he first started,” said Linda Garwood, Zach’s mom. “He told me he was going to college and then he was going to be a professional soccer player.”
She backed the 6-year-old’s dream with matching enthusiasm. He could be anything he wanted, she told him.
When Zach wasn’t on the field, he was on the farm. His dad, John, was a partner in the family business — High Hope Farms and Potato Packers — until it dissolved late in 2002. Zach loved being outdoors, playing in the barn, riding the four-wheeler.
He belonged to the Country Hands 4-H club and showed rabbits and goats at the county fair. He dreamed of joining the family farm.
On a warm day in April 2001, Linda saw a tiny lump on Zach’s stomach. Not long after, his belly button turned black and blue and Linda thought he might have a hernia or some similar problem, so they scheduled an appointment with the doctor.
But it wasn’t a simple injury. The Garwoods found out Zach had a rare form of cancer — desmoplastic small round blue cell tumor of the abdominal area.
At 11 years old, Zach took the diagnosis in stride. Even when the chemotherapy made him sick, he refused to let his teammates down.
“If he was home and there was practice or a game, he was there,” Linda said. “He never missed.”
Some doctors said Zach was too fragile to play, too sick for such a rough sport.
But Dr. Sarah Friebert, director of pediatric palliative care at Akron Children’s Hospital, told John and Linda there was no reason to stop Zach from doing something he loved, as long as the referees and other coaches knew the situation.
Zach had two ports put in his chest so he could take his medicine at home, and before each game, John and Linda wrapped his chest with gauze. Then, for two 40-minute halves, he was just another player on the field.
“The kids played regular soccer with him and he took it and gave it just like a regular player,” Linda said.
Zach beat the cancer for a while, but eventually his body couldn’t fight the disease any longer. Zach passed away Dec. 9, 2002, one of only 200 people to ever face that kind of cancer at that time.
Five years later, John walked into a Crestview school board meeting with a big idea and a hopeful heart.
He and Linda and their teenage daughter, Leah, had talked about what they could do with the money that was still sitting in Zach’s college fund. The family felt there was no better way to spend it than on something Zach would’ve loved — they wanted to build a new soccer field at the school.
“We thought with everything with Zach, why it would just be fitting if we put Zach’s college fund in there,” John said.
He pitched his idea to the school board and got approval on the spot.
Early the following morning, Columbiana farmer John Gross was reading the newspaper when he spotted the story from the Crestview school board meeting.
He couldn’t get to the phone fast enough.
“It was like an automatic,” Gross said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do this, but let’s do it.'”
As it turned out, Gross wasn’t the only one who wanted to help. The Garwoods held some meetings to gauge interest in the project and there were 30 people at each meeting who wanted to donate equipment or money or labor. With the community pushing them forward, John and Linda planned their ideal design — two new fields: one that would mirror the high school field already there and an adjacent professional-size field.
Then, on June 9, they watched as piles of dirt turned into their dream.
Making it happen
“When they got in that equipment and went out there, I just stood there and cried,” Linda said.
The field was a whirlwind of machinery that moved like synchronized swimmers on that June morning. Some of those sitting in the driver’s seats never knew Zach Garwood, but they knew what the soccer fields would bring their community.
Volunteer Myron Wehr, who farms 2,000 acres in nearby New Waterford, Ohio, chose to help because the fields will provide opportunities to generations of young soccer players. It was like helping every child who will play there.
“I thought, ‘This is something that’s going to benefit a lot of kids for a lot of years to come,'” Wehr said. “I thought I could help the community by doing this.”
The volunteers who knew Zach carried a personal motivation.
“This project, in my mind the whole time we were there, was to honor Zach,” Gross said.
But John Garwood often reminded everyone that it wasn’t just about Zach. He wanted the workers — and the rest of the community — to think about every single person who died too young.
Tim and Sam Yarian, brothers who farm 700 acres in New Waterford, Ohio, agreed it was somewhat humbling to work for such a cause. It’s rare, they said, to see a whole community take on a such a project.
“Definitely things like this don’t happen all the time or every day, by any means,” Tim said.
But in this small town, it’s that kind of camaraderie that makes the area what it is.
“That’s what we like about living in the country,” said volunteer Damon Baird. “You don’t do stuff like that for yourself.”
While the fields brought the community together, the Garwoods admit that at times, the project was somewhat overwhelming.
John remembers one particular day when he stood on the edge of the field, worrying over how much dirt was being moved and where it was being moved to.
Tim Yarian overheard John stewing and walked over. He looked at John and calmly said, “It’s just dirt.”
Those three simple words put the project in perspective and set the tone for the rest of the construction.
The new soccer fields were seeded for the final time Oct. 6 and they were dedicated this summer.
The price tag to build fields would’ve been $500,000, but thanks to the community, all except $30,000 was donated. Private donations and a grant helped cover some of that $30,000, with the rest of that money coming from Zach’s college fund.
A concession stand has been built, a perimeter fence has been installed by the school and bleachers will soon be added to the fields.
The Garwoods are finishing plans to build one more field this summer and field lights are also on the list of possibilities.
They had planned to call the fields the Crestview Soccer Complex, but the school board surprised them by dedicating the fields as the Zachary Garwood Soccer Complex.
For this small northeast Ohio community, the soccer fields represent a two-way street of sorts — a lot of people helped build the fields, and in turn, the fields will help build the community.
It’s finally so much more than dirt.