If you didn’t see the scar, you wouldn’t know.
Rookie offensive lineman Zack Golditch has been a member of the 49ers practice squad for nearly four weeks, and many of his teammates aren’t aware that he was a victim of a nationally-known mass shooting. Web search Golditch’s name, and you’ll find accounts of his near-death experience faster than his football accomplishments.
On July 20, 2012, Golditch, 17 at the time, was shot in the neck during a midnight premier of “The Dark Knight Rises” at the Century 16 Movie Theater in Aurora, Colorado. About 30 minutes into the movie, a shooter open-fired in the room next to Golditch. A bullet pierced the wall separating the rooms and struck him in the neck. If the bullet had been 1/16th of an inch to the right or left, he would have been either killed or paralyzed.
Twelve people died that night, and an additional 70, including Golditch, were injured.
“I was a centimeter away from not being here, not being able to smell the grass, see the sky,” Golditch told KNBR.
That night changed his perspective on life. He has come to accept that he is consistently identified as “mass-shooting survivor” before “football player,” at least for now. He doesn’t mind talking about the experience, but he doesn’t advertise it.
When a reporter approaches Golditch to ask about that horrific night, he willingly talks. About 15 minutes into the conversation, he realizes practice begins soon. He grabs his helmet and starts to walk out of the locker room until his locker neighbor, 49ers defensive tackle D.J. Jones, stops him.
“That’s crazy!” Jones says. “I didn’t know that.”
“What?” Golditch says.
“That you were in the theater,” Jones says. “It’s a solid wall, right?”
“I’ll catch you after practice,” says Golditch, starting to smile.
“No, I’ll walk with you!” Jones says.
Getting to know new teammates means telling the story again and again. This has been Golditch’s reality throughout his search for an NFL home.
After going undrafted in April’s draft, the Los Angeles Chargers signed Golditch to a free-agent deal. He was released in the round of cuts following their fourth preseason game against the 49ers, coincidentally. Two days later, San Francisco signed him to its practice squad.
“I am trying to show them that they didn’t waste a phone call,” Golditch said. “It’s only up from here.”
Golditch is quick to point out that his playing career has nothing to do with surviving the shooting, but it motivates him. He views his platform as a way to inspire and connect with those who have endured similar tragedies.
He thinks about that July night every day.
Golditch had committed to play football at Colorado State one month before the shooting. He and a couple friends got to the theater early so they could reserve seats near the aisle, giving the 6-foot-5 Golditch extra leg room. They watched the showing in Theater 8, adjacent to Theater 9, where the shooting took place.
Around 12:30 a.m., Golditch heard popping noises behind him. He thought they were firecrackers. He looked backwards, then a bullet pierced his neck, just behind his left earlobe. Golditch had no idea he had been shot, even when he saw a puddle of blood forming in his hand and seeping to the ground.
He ran out of the theater as smoke filled the air and fire alarms rang. He quickly called ‘911.’ Police cars sounded in the distance. Nearby road workers noticed Golditch was bleeding and stopped him. They propped him up in the bed of their truck and secured a towel around his neck.
He was light-headed. The pain felt like a terrible road rash.
The road workers told him he had been struck by a bullet, which was news to him. They flagged down a police officer who was directing traffic, and he called an ambulance to take Golditch to Aurora Medical Center South about 10 minutes away.
All of it happened so quickly. Spiraling thoughts filled Golditch’s head. He thought his left ear lobe had been blown away. But he never thought he was going to die. He was walking, talking, thinking, and breathing normally.
Golditch was incredibly lucky amid a nightmarish situation that had swept the country by the following morning. The bullet had not just grazed him, it had pierced his neck. But it didn’t hit any arteries. There were no remnants of shrapnel, deeming surgery unnecessary. The doctors wrapped a bandage around his neck and conducted several scans.
He didn’t know there had been a mass shooting until he saw the televisions at the hospital showing the breaking news. He didn’t want to watch.
But the news followed him.
Golditch was released from the hospital around 7 a.m. that day. Later that afternoon, hordes of reporters flooded his Aurora home to learn about his story. He didn’t know how they had found his address.
“Every camera in the state of Colorado is at my house,” Golditch said. “If people want to interview me, I’ll give them what they want.”
That was one of his first realizations that his life had changed. For the next six-plus years, he would regularly answer questions about the most horrific night of his life. He didn’t want it to define him, but he also knew the kind of impact he could make, particularly helping other survivors of mass shootings cope with their own tragedies.
“As time progressed, I realized the responsibility that I hold to tell the story, to tell it properly, to make sure it’s told correctly,” Golditch said.
Golditch has told his story too many times to count. It has followed him throughout his journey from Colorado State, into the pre-draft process, to the Chargers, and now with the 49ers. More than five months ago, an NFL scout asked him to reflect on a time that he overcame adversity. Golditch chuckled, knowing a simple Internet search of his name would have deemed that question too obvious to ask.
He expects to be asked about it, but he’s quick to point out that he falls under many more umbrellas beyond “mass shooting survivor.”
Last December, Golditch graduated from Colorado State with a dual major in sociology and ethnic studies. He is the first person in his family to graduate college. While at CSU, he started 38 games at right tackle and left tackle. During his senior year, he was named a first-team All-Mountain West selection. The Rams allowed the 11th-fewest sacks in the country in 2017.
Golditch received calls from a handful of NFL teams in the seventh-round of the 2018 NFL Draft. He was not selected. The Chargers signed him to a free-agent contract, and he spent about four months there. When he was released, and the 49ers signed him two days later, he had to start over, learning new terminology and philosophies. Golditch equates digesting the 49ers playbook to “hopping into a moving car.”
As he sets his sights on an NFL career, he is reminded of his past frequently, whether random thoughts or teammates asking about his involvement in the Aurora shooting.
“It’s not every day you meet someone who has gone through what I have gone through,” Golditch said. “I think that if I tell somebody my story, maybe they will take something from it and help them. I have gotten a lot of positive feedback that I have helped people through different situations and circumstances. That is what has encouraged me to tell it.”
Golditch has reached out to those affected by similar tragedies, an unfortunate and recurring reality in today’s world. But he isn’t the first to contact them. He understands the importance of space because he didn’t have much of it during his own experience.
He knows he will always be asked about that infamous night at the Aurora theater. He knows he will always be synonymous with it, despite all he has accomplished and all that lies ahead.
“I just think being productive in a way to inspire and connect with people is what I am really looking forward to,” Golditch said. “This happens to be the path that I am on right now to inspire and connect with people. When it comes to an end, I will find my new path.”