At first glance, Zack Cummings is a cheerful 19-year-old from Saugus, Mass., a first-year undergraduate student at Tufts University who plans on studying political science and is a die-hard New England Patriots fan. But behind his contagious positivity and unending smile is a story of adversity and an extraordinary will to overcome.
When Cummings was 15 years old, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and faced a years-long road ahead toward recovery. It was while Cummings endured the effects of cancer treatment that his unbreakable bond with the Tufts football program began to form.
Cummings and the Jumbos were first brought together by Team IMPACT (Inspire, Motivate, Play Against Challenges Together), a nonprofit organization based in Boston which connects patients facing childhood illness with college athletic teams as part of a two-year therapeutic program. Since its inception in 2011, the program has combated the social isolation faced by thousands of child patients and given tens of thousands of student-athletes the opportunity to contribute to something far greater than themselves.
During his two-year therapeutic program, Cummings enjoyed being at team practices, games and dinners, as an official member of the Tufts football team. It was during this time, which overlapped some of the most challenging periods of his battle with cancer, that Cummings found himself leaning on the team for support.
“The Tufts football team was something I could look forward to,” Cummings said. “When you’re struggling with treatment and the side effects that come from treatment, you really just have to get to the next day and keep pushing yourself to move on. And keep pushing yourself to get over the sickness and just try to rehabilitate. I think giving yourself something to look forward to is good for that and Tufts football was a big part of that.”
Cummings’ presence has had a transformative impact on the members of the team. Senior cornerback and co-captain Brandyn Jones has known Cummings since his first football season.
“Zack has been through so much adversity in his life already ― more than most people go through in an entire lifetime ― but he never let that affect his attitude,” Jones said. “As someone who has also gone through a lot of rough patches, having the opportunity to be close to Zack has given me a new appreciation for life because if he can be happy and positive after all he’s been through, why can’t I do the same?”
Although Cummings’ health at one point required him to stay back a year in high school, he excelled academically at St. Mary’s School in Lynn, Mass. as his physical condition improved and the road toward full recovery shortened. When it came time for Cummings to apply to colleges in 2020, his choice to apply to Tufts through its early decision option was a no-brainer.
“For the last three or four years, I’ve been able to envision myself walking at Tufts as a student,” Cummings said in an interview with NBC Boston. “Tufts is my family, and when it came down to a big decision like that, I think the decision was right to choose family.”
Cummings found out about his acceptance to the Tufts Class of 2025 while on a FaceTime call with Tufts football head coach, and now-long time friend, Jay Civetti.
“It’s honestly surreal,” Civetti said. “It makes you feel really positive that it’s what you expected the relationship to be, times 1,000. You knew that you were a part of this kid’s life, that Tufts was a part of his life, and that Tufts football was a part of his life so much to the fact that it ended up helping direct him to make a choice to come to Tufts. That’s pretty unique and I’m very grateful that Team IMPACT paired us and that we’ve been in the position to be a part of his growth and his healing.”
The powerful connection that Cummings felt to Tufts and Tufts football also brought him back to the team in a role focused on what he could do to help them win. In his first season as a team manager, Cummings picked up where he left off, inspiring his teammates to finish the 2021 season on a high note, with four consecutive wins.
“Staying positive during a season when you start out 0–5 is definitely challenging, but Zack made it easier for us to push through,” Jones said. “Whether it was shouting one of us out after practice, or his jokes on the sidelines or being on the field to hype us up on game day before we start officially warming up, Zack’s infectious energy radiated throughout the team and helped pull us out of the place we were in.”
When Cummings isn’t on the sidelines communicating with his teammates, he’s playing a vital role by capturing drone footage of plays run during practice.
“Without Zack, I can’t do my job,” Civetti said.
As Cummings transitions into life as a college student and football team manager, now some distance from the hardships of the cancer he faced in his early teenage years, he has a message for anyone facing obstacles in their own lives.
“Keep pushing forward,” Cummings said. “Just remember that if the day you’re having right now is a bad day, you always have something good to look forward to, you always have the next thing to get to and you always have something to work toward.”