For about five months, NC State offensive guard Chandler Zavala was at the mercy of the NCAA.
Having suffered season-ending injuries in two seasons, and losing another to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zavala was seeking a sixth year of eligibility. Initially, the NCAA denied his request, effectively ending his collegiate career.
In early May, the NCAA reversed course.
Now, he enters the 2022 season looking to help fill the void left by first-round NFL draft pick Ikem Ekwonu and grateful for the support he received from NC State during his off-field battle with the NCAA.
After transferring to NC State from Division II Fairmont State, Zavala (6-5, 325) started the first five games of the 2021 season for the Wolfpack. In those five games, the Pack averaged 172 rushing yards — twice rushing for more than 200 yards, including 293 yards rushing in the team’s opener against South Florida.
Zavala’s season was cut short due to injury — for the second time in his collegiate career — when he suffered a back injury on Oct. 2 during NC State’s game against Louisiana Tech. He had surgery in November, and thought he would be granted an additional year of eligibility for the time he missed.
Without Zavala in the lineup, the Wolfpack’s best rushing performance was 130 yards against Boston College. The pack averaged 93.4 yards rushing in its final seven games, next to last in the ACC.
Zavala’s initial application for an additional year of eligibility accounted for all the time he missed, and the extenuating circumstances. Still, it was denied.
With help from NC State, he appealed. And he waited until May when the NCAA reversed its ruling.
“You guys will see, once we hit the field, how appreciative I will be,” Zavala told The News & Observer. “I’m just at a loss for words that I’ve even in this building. I didn’t think I was coming back because I got two no’s.”
‘He was down’
Zavala’s mom, Brandi Bush, said her son wasn’t himself while awaiting the decision.
“He was down,” Bush explained, “pretty much to himself because I think he felt like he failed not only himself, but me, his dad, his siblings as well as his girlfriend and her parents.”
Between his injury last season, the knee injury that ended his freshman season at Fairmont State after three games, and the 2020 season he missed with the Falcons when the Mountain East Conference canceled its season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zavala has played in just 31 games — an average of 5.8 per season — during his first five years in college.
Despite a low level of national exposure, and uncertain he’d have the opportunity to play another season with the Wolfpack, he entertained the idea of entering the NFL daft.
“A lot of teams were still calling,” Zavala said. “All I could tell them was that I have to wait another week. It was kind of frustrating because I wanted to come back for another year and they just kept calling. I knew coming back for another year would benefit not just myself and my family, but to bring an ACC championship and win games is what they brought me here to do. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Adding to his tough offseason, Zavala received more difficult news in December, as NC State was preparing to head to California for the Holiday Bowl. His dad, Demetrio, got really sick, and had to have emergency surgery.
“I almost lost my dad,” Zavala said. “So that just made it worse.”
NC State’s collaboration
Zavala and his family didn’t have success battling the NCAA on their own, so NC State head coach Dave Doeren and athletic director Boo Corrigan stepped in to help. They put the family in contact with attorney Jason Montgomery, who was formerly employed by the NCAA, specializing in waiver cases.
“In a lot of these situations, it comes down to reevaluating what was originally submitted and looking at it from a different perspective,” Montgomery told the N&O. “Determining if there is additional information we can gather to better position the case to prove it in a different way.”
Montgomery’s first step was speaking individuals to from Fairmont State to confirm Zavala wasn’t able to play for a period of time. He also worked to make sure that Zavala presented a “more comprehensive narrative to the NCAA.”
Montgomery showed precedent in previous cases, proving the NCAA has granted similar waivers.
“Without NC State’s collaboration, without a whole lot of factors, I don’t think we would have been successful,” Montgomery said. “The reality, is Chandler was super motivated, probably the best client I’ve ever had in terms of being responsive, getting me information, asking what he could do to help.”
Now, Zavala enters the 2022 college football season motivated to make the most of his second season with the Wolfpack, a season he wasn’t sure he’d get.