Taylor Zappia still looks a lot like he did when he was a senior at Massena High School four years ago. That is if you only look at him from the neck up.
Zappia has the same face, but he has put on 35 pounds of muscle since he arrived at the St. Lawrence University campus in the fall of 2009 to begin his career on the Saints football team.
The hard work has paid off for the senior linebacker, who enters his final campaign as one of the team’s captains.
Zappia and the rest of the Saints start their season at 7 p.m. Saturday with a nonconference game at Utica College that will be televised live by Time Warner Sports.
“I think (captain) means a lot more to me than if I went to any other school growing up here,” Zappia said. “This area has just surrounded my life. St. Lawrence has always been close to me. I went to football, hockey, any kind of sports event. I came with my friends when I could. Growing up and actually playing on one of these sporting teams is not only meaningful to me, but to my parents and friends and family members. When I found out I was captain of the football team it was a huge honor, not only to me, but also my parents and relatives and former coaches.”
Those who played a part in Zappia’s life growing up are not shocked to see him do well at SLU.
“Knowing Taylor, I’m not surprised where he is,” Massena High School football coach Anthony Diagostino said. “He had that work ethic when he was playing for us. I knew he had the drive to be able to (succeed). It’s great to see. He’s such a great person and the young man that he’s grown to be, it’s just amazing. I’m proud to say that I coached him.”
It has not been an easy path at SLU for Zappia, who came in to find he was being moved to a cornerback spot.
Zappia never played in a game as a freshman, moved back to linebacker as a sophomore when new coach Mark Raymond arrived, but finished that year with only three tackles. Last year he worked his way into more of a regular position and finished with 22 tackles.
“He’s come a long way,” Raymond said. “He’s a tough, aggressive guy, who is very reliable. He’ll perform well. He’s got a great work ethic. He was voted a captain, so he has great respect from his teammates. He’s a tough kid, a great kid to coach.”
Zappia realized as a freshman he had a long way to go, especially because he is not gifted with great speed.
“I had to work on my footwork and mostly my mechanics,” Zappia said. “People who don’t have speed really have to work on mechanics, and that’s what I worked on.”
Zappia felt more at home once he got back to a linebacker position, and although he’s only 5-foot-9, he has ways to take overcome whatever skills he may not have been blessed with.
“He’s very strong physically,” Raymond said. “I call him a fast-twitch guy, because he’s so explosive. To be able to play at that size you have to be powerful. He knows the schemes very well and he knows where to be. His aggressiveness is probably one of his strongest attributes.”
During the times when he was not playing as much Zappia tried to absorb as much as he could from the players in key roles. One of his mentors was linebacker Ben Cryts, who ended his career in the 2010 season.
“When (Cryts) spoke, everyone listened,” Zappia said. “That’s what I want to be like to the younger guys, a guy most people can approach and look up too.”
SLU has had mixed success since Zappia arrived on campus. The team won the Liberty League title and made the NCAA Division III Tournament in his sophomore season, but fell to 3-6 last year.
“We’re a young team,” Zappia said. “I haven’t seen a freshman class like this. There’s a lot of skill. We’re working hard. This freshman class doesn’t have that deer-in-the-headlights look that most freshmen classes do. They are focused. We’re going to outwork all of our opponents and I think it starts in practice and I see hard work all around the field.”