Admire Zach McLean for his ability to make big plays.
Call him special for his size, strength and speed off the edge.
Consider him inspiring for the way he challenges himself and motivates those around him to do the same.
But, as far as Zach McLean is concerned, please do the above despite the fact he is legally blind. Not because of it.
McLean, a junior defensive end at Interlake High School in Bellevue, was born with a rare condition that limits his eyesight. Because of pigmentation — like a dot — on his retinas, he sees only peripherally. Out of the corners of his eyes.
Shapes and colors, yes, but not much more without enhancement, like from his phone camera or extra-large text.
“I just don’t see detail,” he said.
And McLean doesn’t see it as a big deal.
What impact does it make on him as a football player?
“Zero,” he said.
But McLean is making a major impact this season for the Saints (4-4, 4-2), who are headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2016 after finishing second in KingCo 2A behind Highline (7-2, 6-0).
“He is insanely strong,” Interlake coach Dante Foster said. “He is probably our best pass rusher. The kid is just so physical.”
Once bullied and beat up because of his condition, McLean now manhandles many on the football field.
Credit that to the extra training he was able to do in 2020 with D’Anthony Smith, a former defensive lineman who had NFL stints with several teams, including the Seahawks.
“COVID was pretty good for me,” McLean said.
With classes online for the first part of the school year, he was up at 6 a.m. almost daily to lift and run and even train in a pool. Whatever it took to get bigger and better.
He gained 50 pounds, mostly muscle.
The typical reaction when classes resumed: “Oh, you got huge!”
McLean, who weighed maybe 155 as a freshman, turned heads during Interlake’s brief COVID football season last spring, when they went 2-2.
Recruiters took notice. McLean, now 6 foot 2 and 222 pounds, said he began drawing interest from numerous colleges.
The attention grew with his performance in Interlake’s opener against Clover Park, when he notched nine solo tackles, including three sacks and two other tackles for loss.
He finished the regular season with 26 tackles, four and a half sacks and seven other tackles for loss.
“He’s a playmaker,” teammate Dylan Riordan said.
Brandon Huffman, national recruiting editor at 247Sports.com, is familiar with McLean as a player but was unaware of his vision impairment until it was mentioned in an inquiry for this story.
“I had no idea at all he was legally blind,” he said. “That makes his film that much more impressive. I’d watched the film and liked him off the edge as a pass rusher, more of a standup-guy. Now adding that layer is pretty remarkable.”
Many who meet McLean never become aware of his limited sight. The pigmentation is not visible. But if you look closely while talking with him, you’ll notice something is off.
“I will be looking at someone — my head and face will be pointed at them — but my eyes drift to the right or left,” he said. “A lot of people come up to me and try to talk to me and are like, are you looking at me?”
Often those inquiries were delivered in a harsh tone. If getting around was ever tricky, and at times early on it was, getting away from verbal and physical abuse was even tougher.
“It was a challenge just to learn how to get around independently or find a way to be able to see things in everyday life,” McLean said. “But I think the bigger challenge than that when I was younger was being bullied and picked on.”
The comments ran the gamut.
“I’ve heard it all,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything I could say that would do it justice.
“People would beat me up. I would have to get in fights. And it wasn’t just little kids being mean. It was grown men and women coming up to me and making comments.”
It made him mad. It made him motivated.
“That fueled the fire,” he said. “That made me stronger, mentally and emotionally.”
He managed to hide the bullying from his parents, Heather and Pete McLean, until the stories spilled out one evening around the firepit after his eighth-grade year.
“He just talked all about it,” Heather said. “That’s really tricky for me to hear, after the fact.”
Especially because Heather is a longtime special-education teacher at Interlake, a fierce protector of vulnerable kids.
Not that Zach considered himself vulnerable. Extremely independent, he insisted his parents never needed to intervene.
“And he never had any marks on him, so he must have held his own,” Heather said. “You see him now, no one is going to mess with him.”
Some of that holding his own came by design.
Heather and Pete, both former collegiate athletes, wanted life to be as normal as possible for their son once they accepted his condition wasn’t fixable — which didn’t happen without dozens of doctor visits stretching from Seattle to Oregon to MIT and Harvard.
Zach was about 6 months old when his parents noticed something was off. The first doctor deemed him cross-eyed and suggested surgery.
They sought a second opinion. And a third.
One doctor said Zach would ultimately lose all vision.
Heather and Pete didn’t buy it.
They took him to a premier eye clinic at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), where tests detected the pigmentation. Zach later became part of a study at MIT, and his parents were told they were aware of only one other patient in the world — a girl from England — with the same condition, which has no name.
And, at this point, no cure. Or a known cause.
Heather and Pete don’t even wear glasses. Neither does Zach’s younger sister.
Zach continues to make annual visits to OHSU that have revealed no changes in the size of the pigmentation or Zach’s vision. So, they stay the course.
Heather and Pete had Zach go through the tests to get the legally blind diagnosis. They knew he would need it for assistance in educational settings.
It’s not a term Zach — who carries a 3.7 grade-point average — particularly likes.
“It is informative, but I just feel like there are misconceptions,” he said. “A lot of people hear ‘legally blind’ and they think, ‘Oh, he can’t see.’ Usually, people go to extremes.”
Zach’s parents got him involved in a variety of sports, from baseball to soccer to swimming (which he especially excelled at but didn’t particularly like) to mixed martial arts. He earned his black belt in taekwondo at age 9.
But Zach longed to turn out for football, which he loved watching and playing with friends. Heather was hesitant because of the injury potential, then relented when Zach reached seventh grade.
His middle school didn’t offer football, so he joined the Bellevue Seahawks, a junior football club.
Zach found his passion.
“I just love being able to hit somebody,” he said. “I think getting a sack or tackle for loss is one of the best feelings ever.”
And his parents love what the sport has done for him.
“It’s everything to him,” Heather said. “When you think about being legally blind, your world is pretty small. You can only see a certain distance away from you. Your world is small, and that’s his world. It’s important to him.”
Before Zach’s freshman season at Interlake, Heather approached Foster — then an assistant coach — with one request.
“She made a point of telling us not to take it easy on him or have him treated any different due to his eyesight,” Foster said. “I thought that was super cool, how they challenged him and didn’t allow him to feel sorry for himself — and Zach’s not that kind of kid.”
Heather and Pete made sure of that.
“I teach student life skills, trying to teach them to be as independent as they can,” Heather said. “That’s been my passion. That’s what I want for him, too. No obstacles. It’s just his world.”
Riordan, then a sophomore at Interlake, admits he did notice something unusual when McLean first turned out — but nothing to do any special considerations.
Just the opposite.
“I had a feeling he was different, meaning his work ethic,” he said. “That was something that kind of clicked between me and him — just the passion we both have for it.”
Despite his diminutive frame at the time, McLean earned a couple of starts his freshman year, against Garfield and Bellevue.
“I remember going against these huge linemen and thinking, what am I going to do?” he said. “I just made plays and thought, I’ve got this.”
Teammate Kam Abbasian, who learned of McLean’s vision impairment in elementary school, wasn’t surprised.
“Even with this obstacle, he still refuses to let that stop him from doing what he loves,” he said. “He is still able to dominate his opponents and get noticed by many for his performance. He has inspired lots of people.”
When Alex Papadopulos joined the football staff in 2020 as the defensive-line coach, McLean quickly stood out.
“Zach is a special young man,” he said. “Most people today, and high-school-aged kids especially, chose to follow the easiest path. To get them off that path of least resistance requires a lot of motivating. This is where Zach separates himself from the masses.
“Zach is driven to be great at football. He doesn’t need to be motivated daily. Even on his worst day of practice you will find him on the field as all his friends drive home. He is always trying to better himself. It is inspiring to see a young man seek to be great at what he loves.”
And McLean, recently voted to be a captain for next season, seeks to be great at the highest levels of football.
“I want to play Power Five,” he said of his collegiate goal, “then go to the NFL and take football as far as I can.”
Yes, Zach McLean has a clear vision of his future. And perhaps not despite his limited sight. But because of it.
“I just feel like it’s made me stronger,” he said. “Do I wish I was able to see clearly? Yeah, but that doesn’t make much of a difference as people think. It’s made me work harder. I’m not going to let you outwork me. I’m going to be the hardest-working person in the room at all times.”