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Eagles fill Gehring’s plate, and the senior gobbles it up

Senior Zack Gehring (85) has been Mr. Versatile during his career at Eastern Washington. (Jesse Tinsley)
Senior Zack Gehring (85) has been Mr. Versatile during his career at Eastern Washington. (Jesse Tinsley)

The face of Eastern Washington football? It might just be Zack Gehring.

The senior from Castle Rock, Wash., has 26 career starts, two prominent former Eagles athletes for parents and a national title ring; a lot of kids would love to be in Gehring’s position – whatever that is.

If you could put a face on the Xs and Os of the Eagles offensive playbook, you’d find Gehring’s mug on every page: at fullback one play, at tight end another, split end the next.

“He has a lot on his plate,” Eastern tight ends coach Brian Strandley said.

Gehring also has the smarts to digest it all, and it paid off last week at North Dakota. He caught a 37-yard play-action pass from Vernon Adams and landed at the 1-yard line to set up a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 21-6 lead in the third quarter.

“We’ve been practicing that for four years,” said Gehring. “When I got past the linebackers, I noticed there was nothing but green grass. That’s the thrill – what you can do with the ball once you catch it.”

But first he had to catch on. For the tight ends, Eastern’s playbook is all the thicker because they must learn multiple sets: two tight ends, one tight end, and sometimes none.

But if the weight of the playbook rests heavily on his shoulders – the ones he’s dislocated – Gehring doesn’t show it.

Maybe it’s the sight of his father, Mark, an Eastern tight end in the mid-1980s and a three-year NFL veteran – on the sidelines, standing 6-foot-5 but topping 7 feet with the Viking horns he wears to every game.

“I love seeing that; him getting the crowd pumped up,” said Gehring. “It’s great knowing that’s he’s my father.”

The love of the game has followed Gehring since he was a young boy: youth football, a Rose Bowl trip with his grandfather in 2003 to watch Washington State and watching his older brother, Aaron, suit up at tight end for the Cougars from 2006-10.

Eastern figured in the story even before Zack was born, as Mark married Cristy Cochran, a first-team Mountain West Conference player and still the eighth-leading rebounder in Eastern women’s basketball history.

Back in Castle Rock, just north of Longview, Cristy schooled the Gehring boys on the court “until we got too big,” said Gehring, who by sixth grade was also too big under league rules to play his favorite position, running back.

“They moved me to receiver, which was pretty cool, since my brother was a quarterback,” said Gehring, who also relished hitting people on defense.

“I just love football, and love the contact,” he said.

A first-team all-star in football, basketball and baseball at Castle Rock High, Gehring saw the proverbial next level looming by his junior year.

“I never played to get into college, it was just a privilege to play,” said Gehring, who received offers from Portland State and Eastern while hoping in vain for one from Washington State.

His parents gently pushed him in the direction of Cheney, and a personal visit from head coach Beau Baldwin sealed the deal. “I should have picked them right away,” Gehring said.

Five weeks into his first season in 2009, Gehring dislocated his left shoulder, setting up a redshirt season that in hindsight was a blessing. The following year, he appeared in 13 games, starting five, highlighted by the national championship game and a 70-yard touchdown catch against Portland State.

A separated right shoulder cost him part of the 2011 season, but he came back the next year to start nine games and play in all 14. And he made it back to Pullman, catching a 40-yard pass to set up a first-half touchdown against the Cougars.

Gehring’s career totals include 32 career catches for 406 yards and four touchdowns. The numbers don’t do justice to the position, or Gehring’s career.

“We’re like a hybrid, and it seems like people who don’t understand football, they don’t give us enough credit,” the 6-4, 240-pound Gehring said. “And those who do know the game, they appreciate the position.”

Appreciation comes from teammates, coaches and family. All will be there at Saturday’s Homecoming game against Southern Utah.

“It’s awesome,” Gehring said. “Not only my dad, but a lot of my family, my mom and grandpa, will be there.”