Eleven years ago, the New York Giants drafted 26-year-old defensive tackle Markus Kuhn. At the age of 22, he moved away from Germany to play football and receive a college education at NC State University. For nearly five seasons, New York Giants fans and teammates marveled at Kuhn’s impressive speed and towering strength. For 11 years, the Pollack family has marveled at Kuhn’s rocket-sized heart.
After getting drafted to the Giants, Kuhn volunteered for Make-A-Wish Foundation’s meet-and-greet rookie’s event. At this event, teenagers and children facing difficult health circumstances sat at separate dinner tables with their families. The rookies hopped from table to table making small talk with each family. Five minutes in, no players stopped by Zack Pollack’s table. His mother began to worry. Maybe they don’t have a player for Zack to schmooze with.
From behind, 6-foot-3, 295-pound Kuhn pulled up a seat next to Pollack’s wheelchair. Observing his No. 80 Victor Cruz jersey, Kuhn started discussing Giants football with the family. Following the introductions, Pollack asked the player, “How do you say ‘Let’s go Giants’ in German?” Kuhn grinned and responded. “Los geht’s Riesen!” Before the event concluded, he told Pollock’s mother, “I want to keep in touch with Zack,” and provided them with his personal email address.
A few weeks later, Pollack attended Camp HASC for the summer. This summer camp services children, teenagers and adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities. At 8 months old, doctors diagnosed Pollack with cerebral palsy, a lifelong neurological disorder that limits one’s voluntary movements. To move around, he requires a helper to push his wheelchair. To eat or drink, he needs 100 % peer assistance. Superstar counselors and staff at Camp HASC, including Ely Ginsberg, Yechiel Kirschner and Josh Graber, have become Pollack’s lifelong friends. Every year, Pollack and hundreds of other campers have the time of their lives at camp HASC. If you’re between the ages of 17 and 24 and don’t have summer plans, sign up for HASC.
Once camp ended, Pollack asked his mom about reaching out to Kuhn. However, Mrs. Pollack could not find the scrap paper that contained his email address. Determined to fulfill her son’s wish, she friended Kuhn on Facebook and messaged him privately. Within 24 hours the athlete accepted the friend request and replied: “Hello. I have been waiting to hear from you guys for a few months. We should meet up.”
Over the next five years, Kuhn and Pollack’s friendship took off. Before each football game, Kuhn called Pollack for pregame chizuk and inspiration. Some weeknights, the athlete joined the Pollack family for supper. On several off days, Kuhn stopped by the house to hang out. During one game against the Tennessee Titans, Kuhn recovered a fumble and scored a defensive touchdown—the only touchdown ever scored by a German NFL player. Moments after celebrating the play, he texted Pollack about it. Most of Kuhn’s immediate family resided back in Germany. In a way, the Pollacks became his American family, and Zack Pollack became his brother.
In spring of 2019, the family planned a July 4th family trip to Barcelona for Larry and Barbara Pollack’s 25th wedding anniversary. Barcelona has a reputation for being the world’s most wheelchair-friendly country. The Pollacks discovered a wheelchair-accessible hotel and booked their vacation. Three months before the trip, Mr. and Mrs. Pollack received a call from Kuhn. “I know you guys won’t be able to come, but I am having a destination wedding in Barcelona this summer on July 4th.” Surprised and excited by the coincidence, Mr. Pollack replied: “That’s wild. We’re going to Barcelona for two weeks, from July 2 until the 16th. We would love to come.”
Upon arriving at Kuhn’s beautiful wedding reception, Mr. and Mrs. Pollack ran into a logistics problem. Rows of several steep and long steps separated guests from the wedding ceremony. They lacked the immense strength required to lift their son’s heavy electric wheelchair down multiple rows of steep steps. After a brief family discussion, the Pollacks agreed to watch the ceremony from a distance.
Observing the family’s logistics issue, Kuhn concocted a plan. A group of former football teammates joined him in lifting Pollack’s wheelchair down the steps and toward the ceremony. Two of these teammates included Sebastian Volmer, a two-time Super Bowl champion offensive tackle for the Patriots, and former Cardinals offensive lineman J.R. Sweezy, who played with Kuhn at NC State.
In 2017, Kuhn retired from the NFL to pursue a career in sports consulting and management. To bolster this career aspiration, he enrolled at Columbia University’s graduate school and earned a master’s degree in sports management. Over the last six years, he has worked for sports broadcasting companies and made several appearances on the NFL Network. In 2022, he founded his own sports management and consulting company, Kuhn Sports Media Group. This past year, he acted as a German correspondent for the NFL and played a key role in bringing NFL teams to Munich. Moving forward, Kuhn hopes to help schedule more NFL games in Germany for 2023.
A few weeks ago, Mrs. Pollack told me about her son’s friendship with Markus Kuhn. After hearing the whole story, I pondered one critical detail. At the Make-A-Wish foundation event, Kuhn could have said farewell to the teen forever. Three months later, the football player could have ignored Mrs. Pollack’s Facebook message. During the NFL season, Kuhn could have focused on football and avoided contacting or visiting Pollack. Plenty of excuses permitted Kuhn to flee this relationship. Yet he answered Mrs. Pollack’s message and decided to go the extra mile for her son.
The decision to befriend Zack Pollack has improved people’s lives. Spending time with Pollack inspires others to appreciate the little things. It takes him three times longer than peers to recite sentences. Several days a week, he undergoes physical, occupational and speech therapy. To get around, Pollack requires 24/7 assistance. This 29-year-old man has countless physical challenges and limitations to complain about. Yet he continues to smile and make others laugh. Continues to have his mother help him put on tefillin every day. Continues to give motivational speeches at schools. People of all ages and faiths observe Pollack’s resilience and become drawn to him.
Hearing about Kuhn and Pollack’s friendship should inspire members of this community to make time for others. If a couple in your area has trouble making friends, invite them over for Shabbat dinner or a Sunday barbecue. If your co-worker needs to vent about their upcoming divorce, offer a listening ear or take this person out for coffee. If your neighbor wants advice about their teenage kids, sit them down for a parenting schmooze. If your buddy is single and lonely, take him out for burgers. Not everyone can start a life-changing charity organization like iShine, Nefesh b’Nefesh, Yachad, HASC, YU Connects, Hatzalah or the Makor College Experience. But everyone can go above and beyond for one person.
To quote the Gemara Sanhedrin: If you help save one person, it’s as if you saved the whole world.
Currently, Zack Pollack works as a motivational speaker. If anyone is interested in having him speak at their school, he can be contacted through his website, www.zackinspires.com or via his manager at 973-472-6586. It will be a gathering you and your community or students will never forget.
Edited by Max Gruber.