After the National Football League swept up seven players from the 2007 USC football team in the first two rounds of this year’s college draft, the following limerick appeared in the letters section of the Los Angeles Times sports pages on May 3:
With the ‘07 SC juggernaut,
The Trojans should have notched
the top spot;
In two rounds of the draft,
“They picked seven,” they laughed.
But against Stanford they weren’t
quite so hot.
The author of these lines was Jim Zant, my younger brother. In the heart of Southern California, he was a passionate fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and he took delight in sticking a needle to their arch-enemy, USC’s Trojans. His classroom at Rosemead High School was decorated in homage to the Irish. When the preceding verse was printed in the Times, he wrote in an email: “The Trojans at this school are villagers with pitchforks, and I’m Frankenstein’s monster. I love it!”
Jim may have overstated his ability to rankle the ranks of the Trojan faithful at his school. For one thing, they saw him suffer last fall: Notre Dame went 3-9, although the Irish did finish the season with a victory over the Stanford team that had upset USC. Above all, despite his passions, or because of them, Jim was the most beloved teacher at Rosemead.
He died on July 10 in an accident on his way to teach summer school. That night, rather than pitchforks and torches, candles were lit at an impromptu vigil attended by more than 300 students. Then the tributes poured in, handwritten notes filling two large banners that were hung at the school, and more than 80 memories posted on the San Gabriel Valley Tribune Web site.
They all said that my scrappy little brother, my companion in fabulous fun and forgotten feuds, was witty, wise, thoughtful, and inspiring-a great man. They saw right through his bluster.
“Have you ever praised USC within the proximity of Zant?” Edward Hong wrote. “You would get a growl in response. Well, I asked Mr. Zant to write a letter of recommendation to USC. He was more than willing to help. In fact, it was the greatest letter of recommendation I have ever received.” Gena Merlo said, “I remember us arguing about Notre Dame and USC, but also the smile on his face when I was actually accepted into USC.”
Jim attended UCSB, where his professors, such as Homer Swander, stoked his interest in literature. He was one of the best-read people I know. He was blessed with quick feet and played some football for the Gauchos, scoring a touchdown in the 1968 spring game. But after one redshirt season, he’d had enough-he set his heart on becoming a teacher.
For the past 29 years, my brother taught English, history, and government at Rosemead, a foothill community east of Pasadena. He also coached football and track, much to the surprise of some students who did not expect a coach to be so conversant with hundreds of books, from The Odyssey to Catch-22, and to be so aware of the latest Supreme Court rulings. He received the Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year Award in 1993-94.
During his first year at Rosemead, Jim was assigned to coach a downtrodden sophomore football team. The boys had lost every game as freshmen, and the losses continued to pile up under Jim’s watch until late in the season, when the score was tied at halftime. On the Internet, a former player recalled the scene: “After all the words, after all the motivating, after all the attempts to fire us up, Coach Zant, in frustration, in eagerness or in desire for us to win, took off his glasses and crushed them in his hand. We all looked at him and each other in bewilderment. After that speech : we went on to our first and only win in two seasons.” Two years later, those same boys were varsity league champions. “So, thank you, Coach, for not quitting on us like most everybody else did,” the player wrote. “Thank you for believing in us when most didn’t. But most important to me, thank you for the life lessons of giving everybody a chance and second chance.”
Jim unfortunately did not get a chance to look back on his distinguished career in the sunshine of retirement. The family did send him off in style. A bagpiper played the Notre Dame fight song at the conclusion of his funeral Mass in La Habra. He was laid to rest last Thursday at the Santa Barbara Cemetery, and we toasted him more times than I can remember at Dargan’s Irish Pub that night.
Rest in peace, little brother.