It’s a rarity to have an athlete from any rural community rise to stardom at a professional level. So, when it does happen, people take notice.
There hasn’t been a professional football player with Fillmore County, Minn., roots since a Rushford-Peterson High School prodigy named Steve Heiden was drafted as a tight end to play in the NFL for the San Diego Chargers (1999-2001) and eventually the Cleveland Browns (2002-2009). Heiden is still close to the game, serving as the assistant offensive line coach for the Arizona Cardinals.
Now, there’s a new kid on Fillmore County’s NFL roster, and his name is Zach Olstad.
Hailing from Harmony, Minn., he has a remarkable story.
Fillmore Central High School
The son of Heath and Melanie Olstad, Zach is the youngest of three children.
While growing up in the rural farming community of Harmony, Zach worked on the family farm, painted houses with his father and Tris Tollefson, and worked at the Harmony Transit bus garage for Mark and Donna Scheevel.
On the football field from 2008 to 2011, Fillmore Central Football Head Coach Chris Mensink helped Zach build a foundation as a fullback on offense and as a linebacker on defense.
According to Coach Mensink, “Zach went through a growth spurt his junior and senior years. He was about 145 pounds as a sophomore, 165 pounds as a junior, and his senior season was listed at 196 pounds. Zach was a player that took advantage of every opportunity and repetition he was given in practice. I think what set him apart from the competition was his work ethic and desire to prepare. He prepared in the weight room, on the field, and in film study. He put a lot of time in to preparing his body and his mind to compete. I think that is what makes a great player. People do not see the time and what goes in to preparation for competition.”
Winona State University
Upon graduation in the spring of 2012, Olstad was off and running at WSU.
At WSU, Zach made a name for himself with the help of Warrior Football Head Coach Tom Sawyer.
In 2012, he red-shirted. In 2013, he had a breakout season playing as a hybrid fullback/tight end. In 2014, 2016, and 2017, he was posting respectable yardage and touchdown statistics for the good of the WSU program. In 2015, he had to work on recovering from a season-hindering injury.
From the first year he stepped on the football field at WSU to his senior year, he transitioned from a 205-pound young man into a 245-pound battering ram. He gained some height, too.
While playing for the WSU Warriors, Olstad wore the number of his favorite NFL player, Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Mike Alstott. From 1996 to 2007, Alstott (#40) was known for rumbling, bumbling, and tumbling his way into the end zone 58 times.
ESPN Sportscaster Chris Berman used to say, “You’re in good hands with Alstott” as he dismantled defenses. Watching Zach at WSU, Berman could have easily said “You’re in good hands with Olstad!”
And, during his time at WSU, he received the distinction of NSIC All-Academic (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017).
At the end of his collegiate career, he was recognized with 2018 NSIC Honorable Mention and 2018 NSIC Myles Brand All-Academic Distinction Award.
He majored in physical education, health education, adaptive physical education, and coaching.
Winona State University would not be the end of Olstad’s football career. He had greater aspirations to play at the professional level.
Olstad explained, “In early January (2018), I began training at ETS in Oakdale, Minn., with Ryan Englebert and Trevor Glomski. We had a pro day group that trained four days a week in the cities. It was a leap of faith moving away from home to strictly train with little to no money. But I knew if I was going to try to get an opportunity in the NFL, I wasn’t going to do it halfway and I was willing to sacrifice. Training went well, and I got much faster and much stronger. Pro day went well.”
He connected with the Institute For Athletes, the same agency that represents Minnesota Vikings Adam Thielen. IFA President Blake Baratz and his team worked diligently to help Olstad get a shot in the NFL. At first, it sounded like he may get a call from the Bears, the Saints, or the Jets. Instead, it was the Buffalo Bills who invited Olstad to a rookie mini-camp.
The rookie mini-camp was three intense days, and Olstad competed with 30 other outstanding players for one shot on the Buffalo Bills roster. After three days of meetings, lifting, and executing numerous plays, the Bills coach gathered all of the rookies and told them that a scout would approach those who would be sticking around. Sure enough, Olstad was approached.
It was an unbelievably humbling moment for Olstad when he realized he was going to have a real shot in the NFL, “After the scout approached me and said to go see the trainers, I sat with the head trainer who went to school at Northern State — the same conference as Winona State University -— and he kept saying, ‘I’m so happy for you.’ I didn’t really get it. I was like what’s happening and what are we doing. He said we are taking you to see the team doctor, because they are going to sign you. I didn’t believe him. I knew that’s why the scout came up to me in the first place, but it just didn’t hit me.”
Olstad’s dream was starting to become a reality.
He had signed a contract with the Buffalo Bills, playing second string fullback behind 2015 Pro Bowler Patrick DiMarco – an eight-year veteran in the league.
Everything was happening so fast, and now NFL training camp was just around the corner in late July of 2018.
Fillmore Central Youth
Football Camp 2018
And, despite Zach’s busy schedule, with training camp starting on July 24, 2018, he made time to attend the Fillmore Central Youth Football Camp in Harmony, Minn., on Monday, July 23, 2018.
These young football players were getting a chance to hear some inspirational words from Coach Mensink and one of his former players, Zach Olstad.
After Mensink recognized a few older members of the Fillmore Central High School football team, he presented a shirt to Zach Olstad, and this is how the back of the shirt read:
“The Mission of Falcon Football is to enthusiastically work and relentlessly pursue the goal of becoming the best we can be as a person, a student, a player, and a teammate for the sake of our Falcon Football Family.”
All participants of the youth football camp received the same type of shirt with that same message from the coordinators of the Fillmore Central program.
When Zach spoke, the players listened. Standing in his new Bills gear, Olstad kept his message focused on three talking points: 1) Players need to be coachable, 2) They need to be a great teammate, and 3) They need to find a work ethic that works for them.
Olstad wanted these young athletes to realize that if they want to do something great, they need to be dedicated. “Throughout my career, even though I found balance with school, family, and friends, I would think about and study the game of football almost every waking moment of my life.”
Zach is a great role model for these impressionable young athletes for a variety of reasons.
First off, he’s not a gamer. Many professional athletes talk about playing video games when they are not on the field. In other media interviews, Olstad has been asked if he played PS4 or Xbox.
His response, “I’m my biggest critic. To put it lightly, I would have a problem with myself sitting down for more than an hour playing something that isn’t really real. Also, I’m impatient and when I have played video games with friends, I would always get upset because I’m extremely competitive. Ha! Ha! I also most likely never got into video games because I grew up without cable TV and Internet. My parents didn’t get Internet until I was well into college and they still don’t have cable. Growing up, it was always get outside and play sports or find something on the farm to work on.”
Next, in his interviews with the media, when asked about his role models, he has always referenced his family.
“I’m a family man. That will never change. Levi (Zach’s brother) has been my best friend forever and has always been there for me, he also models the type of person I want to be. To say it without writing a book, people think I work hard and always commend me on my work ethic. If you think I work hard you should see my brother’s and parents’ work ethic. That’s who I try to model.”
After Zach spoke to the Falcon youth football camp participants that Monday night, Coach Mensink hoped that “the kids took away that anything is possible and if you have a dream, go chase it. It is going to take work and sacrifice if you really want it, but it will be worth it in the end. Kids today sometimes are afraid to fail. That is where growth happens. Zach has overcome injury and made tremendous sacrifices to get where he is. I hope all kids understand that, it may not be easy but it will be worth it. Put yourself out there, work hard and never let fear of failing stop you. A growth mindset. Zach also stressed being coachable and hard work (especially when nobody is looking). Those qualities will serve kids well in whatever path they choose. Athletics are a great platform to teach kids about life. Zach had a great message for the kids.”
Back to the Bills
The fullback position is one of the toughest positions on the field. They are like battering rams that block for the glory hounds, the running backs. A fullback doesn’t rack up a whole bunch of yards and touchdowns, so most football fans never hear any statistics about fullbacks.
Fortunately, Zach Olstad, at five-foot-eleven-inches tall and 245 pounds, is built like a superhero. Just throw a cape on him. And, while he can take the punishment of the game, he is still human.
Four days after the Carolina Panthers game, he suffered a high ankle sprain that the doctors said would take four to eight weeks to heal. “Every day, since I came home from Buffalo, I have been focused and traveling to different doctors to heal. Chiropractors, occupational therapists, myofacial unwinding, Masgutova Method technique specialists, muscular flossing, deep tissue massage, and contrast baths are a few things I have been doing to get my ankle to 100% as soon as possible. I have been through a lot of adversity in my career and every athlete has. I approach it head on and don’t feel sorry for myself.”
Olstad has battled other injuries to his shoulder and feet, so he knows about making a comeback.