Indiana shooting hits close to home for TFC’s Eriq Zavaleta

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Toronto FC defender Eriq Zavaleta, left. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

TORONTO – Eriq Zavaleta has never met Jason Seaman, but the TFC defender considers the teacher from Noblesville West Middle School in his native Indiana a hero.

Seaman, 29, made headlines last month when he lunged at an armed student who entered his middle school classroom and started firing. Seaman and a 13-year-old female student were both shot, but the seventh-grade science teacher ended up tackling the shooter before more people were hit. Amazingly, there were no fatalities thanks to Seaman’s heroics.

Zavaleta grew up in Westfield, a stone’s throw away from Noblesville. His step brothers currently attend high school in Noblesville near where the shooting took place. Shortly after the incident, Zavaleta had a Toronto FC jersey signed by every member of the team and he sent it to Seaman.

“I wanted to do whatever I could to support the community, to support a hero in our community. It was my way of saying thank you to someone who heroically saved a number of lives. … I played against Westfield in soccer and basketball [in high school], and knew plenty of people who went there and currently go there,” Zavaleta told Sportsnet.

Even though several weeks have passed since the shooting, Zavaleta continues to be troubled by what took place in Noblesville.

“You see these things happen all the time, and you grieve for the people who are going through it, but you feel as though this is never going to hit so close to home. While it didn’t happen to me, it did happen to my community. It was a situation that hit very close to home,” Zavaleta said.

According to CNN.com, there have been 23 school shootings in the United States this year where someone has either been hurt or killed. Zavaleta fears that Americans could become desensitized if more school shootings take place.

“How do we prevent them for happening? I don’t have the answers, but I think these questions need to be continued to be asked because no child should ever have to go to school and worry if they’re safe,” Zavaleta offered.

Return from injury

On the soccer front, Zavaleta returned to full training this week and could feature in Friday’s road game against the Philadelphia Union following significant time spent on the sidelines.

Zavaleta, 25, has been an important defensive piece for Toronto over the last two years, including in 2017 when he made 29 appearances (27 as a starter) during the regular season, playing a key role in the Reds’ historic, treble-winning campaign.

But he’s been limited to just four MLS games this year due to an ongoing quad issue, while TFC have stumbled to a 3-7-2 record to start the 2018 MLS season. Zavaleta suffered the injury during the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final against Chivas de Guadalajara, and missed the decisive second leg in Mexico on April 25, though he was on the bench in case he was needed in an emergency. He was also an unused substitute for TFC in last December’s MLS Cup win over the Seattle Sounders.

“It’s been tough. It’s been tough to watch your team and feel like you’re needed on the day, and that’s how it’s felt like for me for the past couple of months. … It’s easier to be out injured when the team is doing well and they’re winning,” Zavaleta said.

Last month, Zavaleta started and played a full 90 minutes in Toronto’s 2-1 win over Orlando City, and it looked like his injury woes were behind him. But a few days later he felt tightness in his quad, and he’s been out ever since.

“I pushed myself as hard as I could because I knew I needed to be back out there, and the team needed me back out there. So, I pushed myself and we got the win. I felt great. But then I found out that I wasn’t, that my body wasn’t ready. Since then, it’s been about making sure I’m fully prepared to play and getting myself back into the fold. Hopefully that begins on Friday,” Zavaleta said.

Zavaleta has also used this injury layoff to help the team in other ways.

“For me, it’s been a learning opportunity to become one of the voices in the locker room, and maintain that voice while not being able to be on the pitch. It’s much easier when you’re on the field to have that voice because you’re there,” Zavaleta said.

“But I’ve been able to be around the team a lot during this time, and I haven’t felt left out compared to when players are usually out injured. For me, it’s been about [developing] my leadership skills within the group while not being on the field.”

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