NOTE: A version of this story first appeared in Concordia University's Broadcaster magazine.
At four-over-par through three holes, Concordia freshman Nolan Zikas faced an uphill climb while navigating the course at Firethorn in Lincoln, site of the season’s third conference qualifier meet. But Zikas is difficult to rattle. He stormed back by shooting one under the rest of the day to claim his first career collegiate tournament victory. Said Nolan of his early struggles, “I could have gotten mad. I could have just given up.”
If any observers expected Nolan to fold that day, well they just don’t have any idea who the native of La Vista, Neb., really is. You could throw out that old cliché, “tough as nails,” to describe Nolan, but it’s like saying water is wet, the sky is blue and the desert is hot. If you know Nolan, you know what toughness really looks like.
You see, Nolan has faced adversity much more trying than anything that may go wrong on the golf course. Early on in his high school days he began to experience discomfort in his right leg. While playing baseball, he’d hit the ball, run halfway to first base and then pull up limping. He was 15 years old. Perhaps it was just a matter of growing into his body. Said Nolan, “I thought it was growing pains.”
But reality proved far, far worse. Jan. 5, 2012. No chance Nolan will ever forget that date. It’s the day his life changed forever, the day he learned of the tumor in his right leg, the cause of his physical pain. Nolan had cancer, osteosarcoma, to be exact, a form of bone cancer that would eventually spread to his lungs. The presence of the tumor necessitated surgery that resulted in the removal of Nolan’s right femur bone, the insertion of a titanium rod and knee replacement on April 24, 2012.
“I can just remember sitting in the room with my mom and dad and the surgeon,” Nolan said. “Him saying, ‘you have cancer’ definitely took a toll on me and my family, but we knew we would get through it together. I don’t think I could have done it without them.”
It’s been more than four years since that first surgery. There have been 11 additional operations since then with the most recent occurring early this summer. The visits to the Mayo clinic, chemotherapy and regular checkups are a constant reminder of the rough circumstances Nolan continues to deal with. When Nolan won the GPAC qualifier on April 11, at least for a moment, he felt on top of the world. Said Zikas, “I was at the highest point of my life.” He was in his element, doing what “God planned for him.”
Two days later Concordia head golf coach Brett Muller received a text message from Nolan. Muller was in the middle of coaching a tournament with the Bulldog women’s team. Muller was taken aback. How do you even think about golf in a moment like that? Nolan suffered a setback. The tumor in his lungs, believed to be under control, had spread. Yep, more surgery. The news understandably overwhelmed Nolan.
Nothing about the situation is fair for the ever-optimistic Zikas, the type of gentleman everyone would want of a son. Mentally unbreakable, Nolan is the sort of young man who lets you know when he’s running late. And simply engage him about his situation. He’ll fill you in. Asked via text for an interview, Nolan replied, “I enjoy telling my story.” He’ll tell it like it is. He won’t tell you everything is fine, because that’s not the truth.
The way Nolan sees it, there’s a reason why he’s forced to deal with an adverse set of circumstances. Mature beyond his years, he’s equipped to handle it like few people as youthful in age. “I always believe that God gives the toughest situations to the toughest people,” Nolan said. “I don’t think I’m ever really going to know why. Why me? Why not some other kid who does drugs or gets into trouble? God has given me this situation because He knows I can overcome it.”
Nolan is a testament to the power of faith and positive thinking. In his mind, neither surgical operation nor chemotherapy will be as instrumental in his fight as will be his attitude. “You will win this battle” is the powerful message Nolan gives other cancer patients seeking positive encouragement. Says his mother Erica, “When he gives speeches at American Cancer Society events and Make-A-Wish events it makes us real proud that he’s able to get up there and tell his story. People are inspired by it. He’s a fighter. He just says, ‘I’m going to beat it, mom.’ It keeps coming at him, but he keeps fighting.”
Incredibly, Nolan played even better golf in the wake of the unsettling news he received in mid-April. The cancer didn’t cripple him. It made him stronger. He carded a career low 69 as part of a school record team performance on April 19. Then he finished his freshman season by again tying for first at the final GPAC qualifier.
The second career win in less than a month’s span was made ever sweeter by the presence of his parents, grandmother and aunt at the event. “He’s handled it a lot better than I do,” said Nolan’s father Tim. “There are no words to really describe it. You just have to be around the kid. He’s one of a kind. He’s an inspiration to a lot of people whether he knows it or not.”
Nolan has been an inspiration now for several years. It crushed him to have to miss his freshman golf season at Papillion La Vista High School. He often rode along in the cart with his coaches and watched his teammates play as he went down the long road to recovery. His rehabilitation required him to relearn how to walk while attempting to rediscover his stroke on the course. Those skills came racing back for Nolan, who’s never had a problem with drive or determination in life or on the course. Told by doctors that there was a chance he’d never walk again, Nolan never listened.
He returned to the state tournament with a 12th-place finish as a junior and then a third-place claim as a senior. As the lone qualifier from his high school his sophomore year, Nolan didn’t gloat about how impressive of a feat it was for him to make it to state so soon after cancer diagnosis and life-altering surgery that forced him to walk with a cane during the first few meets upon his return. He longed for the teammates that supported him through it all to be there with him at state. Says Nolan, “We were one big family, and we’re one big family here at Concordia as well.”
Family is what helped Nolan get through the latest dose of cruelty sent his way. On May 11, two days after shooting an even-par 70 at the final meet of his freshman season, he went back under the knife for a successful operation that removed the cancer from his lungs. By this point Nolan had accepted surgery as an inevitability. There would be no time for celebration of another tournament win. No, Nolan celebrated by having his 12th surgery in just over four years. Still, he remained positive. “That’s just his personality,” Erica said. “We’re very thankful for that. So many times he’s kept us from getting down because it’s so devastating to hear that your child has cancer. He’s always just had that attitude that he’s going to beat it.”
The day prior to surgery, Nolan sent out a tweet that perfectly summarized his stubbornness. The tweet read, “The fight is not over, but when it is over I WILL BE THE VICTOR.”
One day when Nolan does fully kick cancer to the curb, he will have done so in part through the game of golf, which he started playing at the age of six. He also loved baseball but since the two sports conflicted, he had to choose one. Perhaps steered by the hand of God, Nolan settled on golf and decided he never wanted to let go, no matter the circumstances. The recreational sports studies major even wants to make a career out of working in the golf industry in some fashion.
It would be unwise to bet against Nolan attaining his career aspirations. He accomplished his performance goals on the course this spring and then immediately set his sights on what would come next. Don’t look back. Keep looking forward. That kind of focus in the face of significant physical and mental challenges make Nolan a hero. “I’m an inspiration to people,” Nolan says. “It just makes me feel good inside. I enjoy being an inspiration. I like telling my story. I want kids to know that they can overcome this.”
Now Concordia is the great beneficiary of Nolan’s unwavering spirit. He arrived this past fall after drawing little recruiting interest from college golf programs. Nolan doesn’t know if the lack of golf scholarship offers had anything to do with his situation. He first entertained the idea of moving down south to play collegiately, but for so many reasons it would not have made sense. He made his final college visit at Concordia and “felt like I already fit in.”
Nolan’s presence on the team pretty much insures that excuses and woe-is-me-comments will be at a minimum among teammates. You think you’ve had a bad day? The stresses of homework, college relationship drama and a bad putt have you feeling a bit sideways? Try switching situations with Nolan. Said Erica, “His high school coach always used him as an example and his teammates rallied around it. ‘If Nolan’s out here doing it, so can we.’”
Nolan’s attitude has made him an easy person to rally around. Muller never saw cancer as a crutch for Nolan and says he has yet to see the budding star break down mentally. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard the kid complain,” says Muller. “He’s never used his medical misfortunes as an excuse. We found out on our spring break trip to Florida that whatever he’s doing at that point in time, he’s all in. If he’s throwing a Frisbee to guys on the beach, he’s 100 percent in. That’s how he lives his life. He’s never complained about his situation. He’s always met it head on. His quote before the surgery is him. He is the victor.”
May 12, 2016. Lying in a hospital bed a day after surgery, Nolan relayed the details of his latest operation to Muller. Prayers were answered. The surgery went as planned. #TeamZeke won again.
Winner on the course. Winner off the course. That’s Nolan Zikas. Says Nolan, “If I were to give up, which is never going to happen, I’d not only be letting myself down but my family, my friends and all my supporters who’ve been right there with me.”
I will be the victor.