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UNC's Zeller not injury prone, just unlucky


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- I visited a Borders about three miles from the North Carolina campus last Friday in search of a certain book a friend recommended. Predictably, I walked out with three preseason college basketball magazines, and I immediately read every word about the Tar Heels because, well, I was in Chapel Hill for the weekend.

All three magazines made similar points.

You can't blame Tyler Zeller for the amount of games he's missed in his North Carolina career. (Getty Images)  
You can't blame Tyler Zeller for the amount of games he's missed in his North Carolina career. (Getty Images)  
They focused on the importance of bouncing back from last season's nightmare, the arrival of heralded recruit Harrison Barnes, the criticism point guard Larry Drew has faced, so on and so forth. Pretty much what I expected, almost all of it fair and reasonable. What surprised me was how each magazine approached the subject of Tyler Zeller, UNC's 7-foot center whose history of injuries was referenced ad nauseam.

"The Tar Heels do need a healthy season out of Tyler Zeller," it was written in one magazine, and I can't argue with that. The only other bigs on UNC's roster are John Henson and Justin Knox. So, yes, the Tar Heels do indeed need a healthy season from Zeller. That's a true statement.

But here's a false one: "Zeller has been injury prone."

That sentence was in Lindy's Magazine.

I couldn't disagree with it more.

"I don't get mad when people say it," Zeller would later tell me as we sat in an empty Dean Smith Center, those six national championship banners hanging above us. "But it is frustrating."

In fairness, it's easy to look at Zeller's college career, see that he missed 23 games as a freshman with a broken wrist, 10 more as a sophomore with a stress fracture in his right foot, and surmise that he's injury prone. I understand how it happens. But a closer look suggests it's an unfair label. For starters, the broken wrist was suffered when Kentucky's Ramon Harris hammered Zeller on an attempted dunk in transition, which caused Zeller to fall violently on his wrist. So his wrist snapped -- just like my wrist would've snapped or your wrist would've snapped.

"It was a freak accident," Zeller said, and yet that accident is at least partly responsible for the "injury prone" label. Dude broke his wrist when he fell on it on a hardwood surface after being hit midair in transition, and that's why he's described as "injury prone." Seriously? That's like calling a man "death prone" when a drunk driver runs a red light, T-bones him and kills him instantly.

That doesn't make somebody "death prone."

It makes them unlucky.

Which is why the 23 games Zeller missed as a freshman should be considered unfortunate more than a sign of something larger. The stress fracture during his sophomore season? No doubt, that was an injury. If it happens again, call Zeller injury prone. Won't irritate me a bit. But for now I reject the label because the reality is that in all the years Zeller has been playing basketball he has suffered one broken wrist that almost anybody would've suffered in the same situation, one stress fracture in his right foot, and that's it.

"I never even missed practices in high school," Zeller said. "I missed one practice ever, and it was because of some flu shot or something. It was some shot, and I couldn't be active for like 24 hours, so I missed one practice because of that. But that's it."

No sprained ankles.

No pulled hamstrings.

No torn knee ligaments.

Zeller has lived 20 years, played basketball for most of those years, and he has had exactly one normal injury. Pretty good, if you ask me. But the problem is that Zeller happened to have the injury the year after he suffered the freak accident. So now folks glance at his game log, see big holes in two straight seasons, and draw conclusions.

Again, it frustrates Zeller.

But he doesn't consider himself cursed.

"God's got a plan for everything," Zeller said. "I feel like it all happened for a reason."


Let's hear the reasons.

"Freshman year, it truly helped a ton," Zeller answered. "I put on 20 pounds when I was hurt, and it was weight that I probably wouldn't have put on if I was healthy because I would've been running and burning all the calories. So being hurt helped me put on a lot of weight and become a true big man."

And last year?

"I don't know about last year," Zeller said with a smile. "I'm still searching."

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.

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