Telling his story meant resurrecting his past, and with it, all the pain and chaos and hurt. Thomas Zaffino wasn't sure it was worth it...
BELLEVUE — Telling his story meant resurrecting his past, and with it, all the pain and chaos and hurt. Thomas Zaffino wasn’t sure it was worth it. He feared what people might think. He knew some would assume the worst.
“I didn’t want them looking at me like I’m just a bad kid, like I just came from a crack environment,” he said. “I had to think long and hard about it.”
In the end, he decided to tell his story. But he is not doing so to relive the past; he is hoping to build a future. He is 18, short of credits, and desperate for another chance.
“I just know what’s right,” said Zaffino, sitting in the bleachers at Bellevue High School before a recent spring-football practice. “Instead of hiding from everything my whole life, just have no regrets, let people know my situation, and where I’m at, and what I’m trying to do.”
He has spent much of his childhood in transition, running from trouble, shuffling from house to house and school district to school district, living with friends and siblings while he said his mother battled drug addiction. He said he has seen too much of that world to want it for his own. He dreams instead of college and a career in business.
Football, he thinks, can help make that happen. But he needs another chance.
Sometime this fall, shortly before the start of the high-school football season, Thomas Zaffino, claiming hardship, will petition a Sea-King District committee for an additional year of eligibility.
If granted, he likely would start in the offensive backfield for the Wolverines as they go for an unprecedented fifth consecutive Class 3A state championship. Teammates already have voted him captain.
Zaffino rushed for about 1,000 yards for Bellevue last year in an offense dominated by running back J.R. Hasty, now at Washington. Highlight tapes, sent after the season, attracted interest from some of the state’s small-college programs, but all of them wanted to see Zaffino play this year before offering a scholarship, according to Bellevue coach Butch Goncharoff.
That’s what makes the coming months so crucial.
“This is really the best way for me to get in school, you know?” Zaffino said. “I think I can get into college, truly. I know I can.”
And so he talks, hoping that somebody might read his story and understand how much one season could mean.
Zaffino said the trouble started when his mother, trying to raise five children on her own, turned to drugs. He said he remembers strangers in the house, loud arguments and his mother disappearing for days at a time.
“A lot of chaos,” he said. “A lot of stress.”
He said he moved out to escape the madness sometime around his seventh-grade year, starting in motion a series of temporary living arrangements.
He lived for a while with his oldest sister in Burien, sleeping on the couch, without a place to even put his clothes. A friend’s family took him in for a year after that.
By ninth grade, he was staying with another friend’s grandparents in West Seattle. But he hadn’t registered for high school — he said he didn’t know how — and, consequently, had no schedule. On the first day of classes, he just followed his friend to Chief Sealth High School in West Seattle.
“Whatever class he did, I did,” said Zaffino, explaining how teachers added him to the rolls. “I thought that’s just how you did it. I didn’t know. I didn’t have nobody to direct me.”
Once settled in the routine, Zaffino said he didn’t want to tell anybody he wasn’t registered for fear the state might get involved and send him back to live with his mother. Besides, he had attended nearby Denny Middle School, so Chief Sealth seemed to him the logical next step.
School officials discovered the error after about a month and sent Zaffino to Rainier Beach. Shortly thereafter, his friend’s grandparents split up. He said he lived with the grandmother until financial hardships forced her to turn him out.
“One day I came home from school,” he said, “and all my bags were packed.”
He managed to finish the year at Rainier Beach, moving in with another friend, but he did not play high-school sports.
“I simply couldn’t,” he said of the year he’s now trying to regain. “I just had to worry about life situations and try to stay right.”
The tumult continued through his sophomore and junior years. He moved back in with his mother, who had been to drug rehab, and started attending Jefferson of Federal Way. But he said the old patterns resurfaced and his mother’s drug habit returned. The family was soon evicted, and to help support his younger brother and sister, Zaffino took a job, basically full-time, detailing cars for minimum wage.
He turned out for sports, but missed a lot of school; his grades slipped.
“That was another time I missed out because of something I had no control over,” Zaffino said.
Determined to do better the following school year, Zaffino, by then living with his family in the Federal Way attendance area, re-focused his efforts. He played football for the Eagles in the fall, starting at safety, and turned out for the basketball team that winter.
He said he started sitting in the front row of his classes, too.
And that’s where he was on Jan. 30, 2004, the day a teacher’s science demonstration went horribly wrong and sent a methanol-fueled fireball hurtling toward him.
“Like a torch gun,” Zaffino said.
The flames blasted him from the side. He ran from the room, his velour sweatsuit on fire, and rolled on the ground to extinguish the blaze, but not before suffering severe burns to his hands, arm and face.
“I’m thinking, ‘This ain’t real. This can’t be real,’ ” Zaffino said. “I’m burning. The worst feeling ever. The worst pain ever.”
Zaffino said he spent a week at Harborview Medical Center, and required several months of physical therapy and rehabilitation.
About the same time, he said things were again getting crazy at home. One night, he said his mother brandished a needle and threatened to stab his younger brother.
After that incident, and others, Zaffino said his second-oldest sister, Destiny, arrived one night to take him, a younger brother and sister, away from the situation. They eventually found an apartment in Bellevue early last year.
“Some of our family was up there,” Destiny, 22, said of her reason for choosing Bellevue, “and it is a really good school.”
The siblings now live in Kent, but Zaffino said he hopes to move back to Bellevue before school starts this fall.
Since arriving at Bellevue, Zaffino has impressed many of his teachers and coaches.
Goncharoff calls Zaffino the hardest-working player he has ever coached. When the two met to talk about offseason conditioning in January, for example, Zaffino showed up with a calendar outlining everything he was going to do until the first day of turnout in August.
He has flourished academically as well, earning mostly A’s and B’s and a sizable fan club of teachers and administrators, according to Yvette Cook, his school counselor.
“He’s probably endured more hardship than anybody — the whole football team put together,” Cook said. “And he has persevered.”
Zaffino says he is doing everything in his power to prove he’s worthy of another chance: getting good grades, building a support team of teachers, counselors and administrators, and staying out of trouble.
He wants to make it impossible for anybody to deny him his dream.
“It’s actually hitting him,” said Destiny, “that this is his life, and he can make it or break it.”
At night, Zaffino said he prays to God.
“I’m sure He sees me trying hard after all the stuff I’ve been through,” Zaffino said. “I don’t see why He wouldn’t try to give me another chance, or why any of these people wouldn’t try to give me another chance.”
But for now, he works and hopes. In a few weeks, he will tell this story again to administrators and then await word on his future.
“You can laugh at it, you can smile about it, you can cry about it,” said Zaffino of all he has endured. “But you’ve just got to come out on top at the end.”