April 8, 2015 | 12:04 a.m
At 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, Zach Cornwell was known as a big man. Yet in reality he was a 20-year-old kid, perhaps best described as a gentle giant.
The big fella, known as sweet and sensitive, is being missed by a community that’s been saddened by his sudden death on Saturday.
Cornwell, who played football at Newport Harbor High, died after being hospitalized for Evans Syndrome, a rare autoimmune blood disorder that had attacked his red blood cells, his father, Fred, said Tuesday.
“Zach was the happiest person that anyone has ever been around,” said Fred Cornwell, who played as a tight end at USC and in the NFL. “He was never down. He was just happy.”
Those who know Zach are also saddened because his big dreams ended after being hospitalized on March 30. His eyes had turned yellow and his family feared he had problems with his liver, Fred Cornwell said.
Zach had dreams of playing football at USC and then for the pros, just like his dad, but as an offensive lineman. Zach had starred at Newport Harbor before taking a year off as a redshirt at Saddleback College, where he played in the fall.
Recently, he transferred to Orange Coast College to return close to home and be with friends, his father said.
Zach earned first-team, All-Sunset League honors in 2012, when he was named to the Daily Pilot Dream Team for being among the best in the Newport-Mesa area. He also earned third-team All-Orange County honors by the Orange County Register. In addition, he played in the Orange County All-Star Football Game for the victorious South team.
In just a little over three months with OCC, Zach made a big impact with the Pirates, Fred Cornwell said. The father said OCC head coach Kevin Emerson visited the Cornwells’ home after Zach’s death to express his condolences and tell the family how much of a great leader the boy had become in such a short time.
Emerson said the Pirates could not find any weaknesses in Zach during the practices, Fred Cornwell said.
Emerson and the Pirates aren’t the only ones who reached out to the Cornwells. There have been several messages of support for the family on social media.
“The outpouring of support has been unbelievable,” Fred Cornwell said. “Like we said in the obituary in the Daily Pilot: No one has ever told me they liked my son, they told me they love my son. He brought joy and happiness to everyone he was with.
“Even though he was 6-4 and 300 pounds, he was just a kid. The happiest kids I think are at the age of 7. Every day they wake up and they are happy and they laugh all day long. Zach has been like that, the happiest 7-year-old through his 20 years. He was happy every day.”
Zach also made his coaches very happy. He drew a strong connection with his All-Net, youth basketball coach Bob Griffin.
As a basketball player in the fifth grade, Zach towered over the other kids as he was 6-2, 210 pounds, Griffin said. But Griffin remembered one of his all-time favorite players for other reasons.
“He was just so funny,” Griffin said. “You see this kid and he was the biggest kid. But he was sensitive and sweet. He would always get fouled, but sometimes not get a foul called, and he would barely touch a kid and he would get a call on him. We would say, no one feels sorry for Goliath.
“He was such a sweet boy. His passing is so sad. Social media has a lot of things that aren’t great about it, but something like this is great because so many people are reaching out. A 20-year-old passing away is so sad. He will be missed.”
Zach had remained friends with Griffin, as well as his son, Ryan, throughout high school. Zach began at JSerra before going to Newport Harbor.
“The funny thing about youth sports is you make a connection and it stays with you,” Griffin said. “Even today, my wife sent photos to Fred and [wife] Mary when the boys were in fifth grade. It brought back fabulous memories. It’s just very sad.”
A funeral mass for Zach will take place Thursday at 11 a.m. at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach, with a reception to follow at 2 p.m. at Santa Ana Country Club.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made in Zach’s name to Children’s Hospital of Orange County-Hematology Department.
In Zach’s obituary, his family also wrote: “Zachary had to overcome many obstacles growing up and he did so with a smile on his face and laughter in his heart. No one ever said they “like” Zachary; everyone said they “love” Zachary. He was everyone’s best friend – whether they wanted it or not. He was quick to a joke, quick to acknowledge when it wasn’t funny, and even quicker to laugh together about it. Laughter is how Zachary measured his life, and he was leading the field. He lit up the room no matter where he was – between his bad jokes (‘Zach, what position do you play?’ ‘Lock-down corner’) and his genuine free spirit, he was always fast to laugh and slow to judge. Every day with Zach was filled with sunny optimism – sometimes unrealistic but always entertaining. Zach’s family, friends, and the whole community suffered a loss of pure joy and kindness with his passing – he will be greatly missed and never forgotten.”