‘Old Man’ Zach Hannon brings unique maturity to KU football

Former Nebraska non-factor earns starting nod along offensive line for Jayhawks

LAWRENCE — Some college football recruits and transfers make their commitment based on program success and tradition. Others base their choice on sprawling, swanky facilities.

 

What sold Zach Hannon on Kansas was a nearby daycare.

“We found a great daycare for our daughter right off the bat,” said Hannon, a senior offensive lineman who joined KU this spring as a graduate transfer. “It was just one of those things where all signs were pointing, so we prayed on it and here I am.”

Swayed not by flat-screen TVs nor gaming facilities in the locker room but by whom could best take care of his child while he lived out the final year of a football dream, Hannon acknowledges he isn’t like most college athletes.

But then, nothing about Hannon’s journey to and ascent at KU has been typical.

From the Kansas City, Mo., native and hardcore Mizzou fan’s original recruitment in the Charlie Weis era to the unexpected “blessing” of fatherhood at 20 and subsequent marriage to the family cancer scare that made him re-evaluate his priorities, Hannon was hardened at a young age and carried the maturity gained from those experiences to Kansas.

“I come in here and most guys are thinkin’ about, most guys are really thinkin’ about, ‘OK, how hard is this conditioning that we have today?’ Or, ‘What are we going to do for this O-line test?’ ” Hannon said. “My mind is just kind of like, ‘How’s my dad doin’ with his treatment? Who’s going to take my daughter to daycare?’

“Just a lot of things that people don’t have to really think about at a younger age.”

* * * * *

After getting the life-changing call, Hannon went straight from the classroom to the church.

Hannon, then primarily a special teams contributor at Nebraska, was headed to class this past March when his father Tim rang. The elder Hannon had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, he told his son.

Zach Hannon remembers that afternoon — March 10, 2017 — like it was yesterday.

“I was just like, ‘Wow, why would this happen right now?’ ” Hannon said. “But it’s one of those things where everything happens for a reason. I prayed on it.”

That prayer process began almost instantly, as Hannon left class early and went to a nearby church. While there, he stumbled upon a meaningful Bible verse, Philippians 4:6-7:

“In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.”

The words provided instant comfort.

“From that moment on, I was like, ‘All right, this is a horrible thing but at the same time I know he’s going to be fine.’ ” Hannon said. “I’ll remember that day forever.”

Tim Hannon has always been a big influence on his son.

A longtime lacrosse coach at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo., Tim coached Zach during the latter’s prep days. A 340-pound high school senior playing lacrosse but with a body and passion for a different sport, the younger Hannon gravitated toward football and away from his father’s chosen sport.

“He put a stick in my hand at a young age,” Hannon said, “but at the same time he knew (football) was something I wanted to do.”

Then a three-star prospect according to recruiting outlet Rivals.com, Hannon took an unofficial visit to KU and seriously considered the Weis-led Jayhawks. The diehard Tiger fan, whose parents and grandmother graduated from Mizzou, even attended the final Border War matchup contested Feb. 25, 2012, at Allen Fieldhouse on an unofficial visit.

“It was so tough for me not to cheer for Missouri. It was real tough, I’m not going to lie,” Hannon said with a smile. “I was just sitting there trying to keep my mouth shut and everything.”

Hannon wouldn’t return to KU for another five-plus years. Looking to get away from home, the guard instead chose Nebraska, a program steeped in tradition with a high success rate for producing offensive linemen.

The playing time never materialized in Lincoln.

After redshirting in 2013, Hannon appeared in all 13 games the next season primarily as a shield blocker on the Cornhuskers’ punting unit, making cameos sporadically on the offensive line. When Mike Riley took over the program in 2015, Hannon’s playing time on all units essentially evaporated.

That’s where the other major player in the maturation of Hannon comes in — his 2-year-old daughter, Harper, whose arrival was admittedly “kind of a shock” to Hannon and his high school sweetheart Jennifer, who followed him to KU as a grad student in the School of Social Welfare following the couple’s marriage this past May.

“Being a father at 20, it really taught me to grow up quick,” Hannon said. “But like I said, I’ve loved every minute of it.

“You’ve got class, you’ve got academics, but then you know, throwing fatherhood into the mix, it’s different but it’s great. It makes you grow up quick. You’ve got a lot of responsibilities, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Harper helped her father prioritize what was important during his dwindling playing time. She also played a key role helping lift the spirits of a grandfather Zach Hannon says she has wrapped around her finger.

“When the coaching transition at Nebraska came, it was one of those things that I was starting to get upset at my playing time, but I would come home and see her,” Hannon said. “And on top of that, when my dad found out about him being sick, it was one of those things where whenever she’s in a room with my parents or Jennifer’s parents, she just lights up the room.

“My daughter is really like a blessing in my life. She came at a perfect time.”

* * * * *

Hannon, 23, has earned a number of nicknames in his short time at KU.

“Father Z” and “Papa” are two popular options, though sophomore guard Andru Tovi prefers another moniker.

“‘Old Man,’ that’s a big one that Tovi especially always calls me, just because after practices I’m not as young as I used to be, so you can catch me limping off the field and whatnot,” Hannon said. “They always tell me that I need a cane, but yeah.”

Regardless of the preferred name floated around Anderson Family Football Complex, it’s now one that surprisingly sits atop the Jayhawk depth chart at right tackle, a position Hannon hasn’t played since high school.

Hannon has supplanted former starter Antione Frazier and former Alabama transfer and five-star prospect Charles Baldwin and is expected to make his first start for the Jayhawks (1-2) in their 11 a.m. Saturday game against West Virginia (2-1) at Memorial Stadium — an impressive ascent considering the coaching staff first approached him about transitioning from guard to tackle just one week ago.

Listed at 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds — but admittedly closer to 6-3½ — Hannon is not the prototypical tackle. One part of his past, though, has helped him with the position change:

The stick his father put in his hand at a young age.

“(Lacrosse) has helped me out a lot with my feet,” Hannon said. “So even though I’m kind of like a heavier, shorter dude, I can still have footwork enough where I’m able to keep up with those D-ends.”

Hannon’s first extended appearance Saturday against Ohio provided mostly positive results outside of one ugly — and now viral — play that saw all five offensive linemen cut block and quarterback Peyton Bender get obliterated moments later. (Hannon told offensive line coach Zach Yenser that he is just going to stay up after the play. “Yeah, for sure, don’t do that anymore,” Yenser deadpanned.)

The results have been ideal off the field, too.

“He’s brought a level of maturity to our locker room,” KU coach David Beaty said. “He’s also brought a different perspective. … He graduated. He’s got a child, is married. He’s a real serious guy, real serious about his craft. But (the value is) having him in that locker room and really being able to speak truth into guys about how good they have it here and what a phenomenal place this is.”

Saturday’s personal milestone has been preceded by a moment of personal jubilation.

Hannon was headed into the team facility for a 2:45 p.m. Monday medical check when his father called. He revealed his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels, once at a dangerous 7.1, were now down to 0.51, a “great, great score,” the younger Hannon said.

After enduring 49 continuous days of radiation, Tim Hannon is now cancer free.

“Just such a great feeling of relief,” Zach said, “and just something that you’ve just got to look up to God and say, ‘Thank you.’ ”

With his father in the clear, Hannon can now devote more of his in-demand mental space to his final year of football, something the elder Hannon wanted from the outset.

“He never wanted me to worry from the start,” Zach said. “He’s always just been like, ‘Hey son, go do your thing.’

“He’s a fighter, man. He’s always just been a great, positive role model, a great example of the type of man that I want to be, the type of father that I want to be, the type of husband that I want to be. I’m just very blessed to have him as a father.”

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