By David Willis
---- — The fearlessness did not immediately return for Andover’s Mark Zavrl.
The unflinching, unbreakable quality Zavrl once felt as he flew around the football field was missing when the tackling machine retuned to the field this season for Phillips Exeter after a knee injury left him on the sidelines for nearly a full year.
“The first three games I was timid and unsure with my knee,” Zavrl said. “I was worried about being hit and how it would hold up. It was more mental than physical. I just wasn’t confident.”
As this fall has gone on, however, opponents from New Hampshire to Massachusetts will agree Zavrl has discovered his game in a big way once again.
Playing a post-graduate year at Phillips Exeter, the former Andover High star has excelled at both linebacker and fullback for a Big Red squad that finished the regular season at 6-2 with a near upset of archrival Phillips Academy this past Saturday.
It’s been a long-awaited return to the sport he loves after a torn MCL and PCL robbed Zavrl of his senior season with the Golden Warriors.
“It’s been awesome to be back,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s very different than high school, but I am happy to be playing football again.”
Zavrl first exploded onto the scene for Andover High as a sophomore. Playing both safety and linebacker, he made 55 tackles, 34 solo, including 11 in a win over Dracut. He added two interceptions and had a sack.
But it was his foot that most impressed spectators that Thanksgiving Day, when he booted an amazing 42-yard field goal and added a 32-yard boot that were crucial in the Golden Warriors clinching the MVC Division 1 title on Turkey Day for their first postseason trip since 1975.
As a junior, he was even better after moving to primarily linebacker. Zavrl led the team in sacks with seven, was third in total tackles (69), solo tackles (38) and tackles for loss (6.5), plus intercepted two passes and caused three fumbles.
He also caught a touchdown pass, kicked five field goals and was 30 for 35 on extra points.
Zavrl was expecting a huge season when he hit the field as a senior quad-captain last year for the Golden Warriors.
In the first three games of the season, he registered 36 tackles, including 21 stops in a victory over North Andover in which he also rushed for 72 yards and a touchdown as halfback.
But disaster struck in game 4 of the season against Xaverian.
“I was playing running back,” Zavrl said at the time. “I planted funny and was tackled weird. The next day, we went to the doctor and I had an MRI. That’s when I found out I had a torn MCL and PCL.”
Zavrl’s once-promising senior season was over, undergoing surgery two weeks later. But it still took time to accept his fate.
“It took a while for it to really sink in,” he said. “I didn’t want to accept that I would never play on the (Lovely Field) turf again because I knew how hard I had worked. I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I was so excited for a big senior year. It was definitely one of the hardest things I have ever had to deal with mentally.”
After a great deal of rehab, Zavrl returned to sports in the spring for the track team, setting the school record in the javelin with a 193-8.
But he faced a new set of challenges when he returned to the football field in the summer.
“It was really once we started hitting that I really got worried,” he said. “I was nervous my knee was going to go out again when I was hit. I really hadn’t cut on the knee or been hit in so long.
“But after the first couple of weeks I started to trust the brace on my knee. Mentally it just took a while to get over it.”
He recovered well enough to help lead a defense for Phillips Exeter that allowed just 7.2 points a game over the first six games and 11.0 points per game for the season, including a shutout of Northfield Mount Hermon. He also helped out the offense at fullback, but he had to give up kicking, due to the restrictions of his knee brace.
Zavrl said life with Phillips Exeter football has been very different than at Andover High.
“Football is much more scheduled and regimented at Exeter,” he said. “There is a lot more work inside on learning plays and a lot less hitting. Sometimes we have classes after practice. But this is a good bunch of guys and I have really enjoyed it.”
Zavrl is now looking forward to playing football in college. He is exploring Ivy League schools including Dartmouth and also Holy Cross. But he admits that sometimes, there is nothing like high school football.
“I loved the Friday night lights at Andover,” he said. “I think that might be the biggest difference. Playing under the lights in front of those crowds. There is really nothing like it. Getting to wear your jersey around school on Friday. Then there is the Turkey Bowl, which is just great. Great memories.”