Hit Hard: One Family's Journey of Letting Go of What Was-and Learning to Live Well with What Is

Hit Hard: One Family's Journey of Letting Go of What Was-and Learning to Live Well with What Is

Hit Hard: One Family's Journey of Letting Go of What Was-and Learning to Live Well with What Is

Hit Hard: One Family's Journey of Letting Go of What Was-and Learning to Live Well with What Is


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Life hit Pat and Tammy McLeod hard when their son Zach collapsed on a high school football field; he had sustained a severe brain injury. Facing the devastating possibility that things would never be the same for their beloved son, they committed to staying strong as a family and finding a way to maintain their footing. But the journey would reshape their faith, their family, and their future in ways they never saw coming.

What would it take for them to navigate the endless fallout of their son’s life-transforming injury? How could they reconcile their grief over the life Zach lost, with gratitude for the life that remained? And how does a couple move forward together in their search for hope, rather than letting indefinable loss drive them apart?

Hit Hard is the true story of the McLeods’ journey through ambiguous loss—both having and not having their son. It’s the story of a family who faced unexpected heartbreak, a story that offers us all glimpses of how we can pick up the pieces, redefine expectations, and trust God for hope in the midst of unresolved pain.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496425331
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date: 07/09/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,111,019
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Pat and Tammy McLeod serve as Harvard Chaplains for Cru, an interdenominational Christian ministry. Tammy is also the Director of College Ministry at Park Street Church in Boston. She received her MA in Spiritual formation from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Pat holds an MA in Theological Studies from the International School of Theology, and an MA in Science and Religion and a PhD in Practical Theology from Boston University. Pat and Tammy have been married for more than three decades and are parents to four grown children.

Read an Excerpt



"Pat, can't you drive any faster?"

"You want me to get us all killed?" Pat glanced my way.

"Sorry. I didn't mean —"

"I know."

I gripped the seat belt that lay across my chest and lifted it away from my body so I could breathe easier. The crushing pressure remained. The pain's genesis must have been internal.

Pat checked his rearview mirror and pressed down on the accelerator. Boston traffic. He hit the blinker and steered our car into the other lane, swerving in front of a slow-moving delivery truck.

From the backseat, I heard eleven-year-old Soren draw a sharp breath, reminding me we weren't alone in this race to the hospital. I glanced over my shoulder. Soren sat, wide-eyed, tugging at his own chest strap.

I turned to watch Boston fly past my passenger window, but Pat's profile reflected back to me in the glass. Even without a clear image, I could see the distress written all over his posture.

"Tell me again exactly what Nate said to you on the phone, Pat." As if recounting it one more time would uncover a new detail — a missing fact that would make sense of the message our fourteen-year-old son had screeched over the phone, jerking our hearts out of rhythm. I listened again as Pat repeated the scant information he had received from Nate.

I'm the no-nonsense one between us. I'm the give-it-to-me-straight person. But I'm also a ponderer. Nothing about the minutes between us and the hospital gave me anything to slide into orderly notches. Logic? Absent. Thoughts worth hovering over? Gone.

Pat's focus was still trained on the traffic in front of us, and behind us, and on either side.

Before. Behind. Beside. Familiar words in unfamiliar territory.

"We have to be prepared, Tammy," Pat whispered.

"Is Zach going to be okay?" Soren's vocal cords registered enough tension for all of us.

Sure he is lay on the tip of my tongue. Why wouldn't Zach be okay? I couldn't nudge the words any farther.

No matter how fast we drove or how much traffic we negotiated, the distance between us and the hospital seemed to widen rather than shrink.

We should have been at the scrimmage.

"Regret travels at the speed of light," Pat spoke into our silence.

How had he known what I was thinking? We would have been there. But we'd been responsible for organizing the meeting that evening where hundreds of Boston students would take their first steps toward integrating faith and college life.

Zach's scrimmage. There'd be others we could attend. Now that idea seemed absurd. We'd been laughing with, hugging, and counseling other parents' kids in our role as campus chaplains at the defining moment when, twenty miles outside of Boston, our sixteen-year-old Zach took a hard hit on a high school football field.

Now stoplights and speed limits, like referees on a field, had become impediments in the way of getting to our son.


A gut-bruising unlike any other. An excruciating pain in my chest. Though I'd played a lifetime of sports, I don't remember a hit like the one I felt when Tammy and I were finally allowed into Zach's cubicle in the Boston Medical Center trauma unit.

Zach had four faces — relentless joy, I'm-plotting-a-joke-you-don't-know-about-yet, intimate worship, and irrepressible compassion. But now it reflected no reaction. His face was expressionless. Blank. Empty of everything that defined our son.

Temporary. This is only a temporary condition. When the shock wears off ...

I'd seen hard hits before. Came with the territory of being a football family. My grandfather played football. My dad played and coached football. Both of my brothers played football — one professionally for the Green Bay Packers. I'd played college football and coached high school football before my current job in Boston with Harvard students. We McLeods knew about hard hits.

We knew risks exist with any sport. They'd all seemed worth it. But at that moment, as I held Zach's limp hand and searched his face for the slightest flicker of life, I realized I didn't know anything at all.

I should have been there on the sidelines. Guilt came as an unbidden distraction.

While Zach was lying on the football field, Tammy and I stood with our youngest — Soren — at the back of an auditorium filled with college students. None of the hundreds of smiling, laughing, chatty students seemed in a hurry to leave when the first citywide meeting of the year ended. The walls vibrated like a stadium after a victorious homecoming football game, as if Harvard had just beaten Yale. Close friends who had spent the summer on different coasts spotted each other across the room and screamed like revelers in a mosh pit at a rock concert.

I had been caught up in the celebration and reunions until I felt a tug on my sleeve in the middle of a conversation. A Harvard student — Julia — anded me her phone. I might have been irritated by her impatience if it hadn't been for the look of anguish on her face.

I held her phone to my ear and heard panic in Nate's voice, our middle son. He was supposed to be at the meeting with us, but he'd begged to stay home that night.

"Dad, why aren't you answering your phone?" Nate's words tumbled out as if pouring through a fissure in a dam. "I've been trying to reach you. Zach's hurt." His voice hitched. "Coaches have been calling. Parents of other players are calling. Now the hospital is calling!"

Drama came second nature to Nate. I hesitated to indulge him without knowing the details.

It wasn't the first time we'd received a phone call that one of our four children had been injured. Nate had broken his arm five times. We'd deal with it. Inconvenient, but parenting is rarely convenient. In the moment, I briefly hoped whatever had happened wouldn't be serious enough to make Zach miss that week's game. He was tough. He'd played hurt before.

But I'd pressed the borrowed phone to one ear and covered the other with my hand while I made my way out of the noisy auditorium.

"He collapsed during the scrimmage," Nate said.


"They're taking him to the hospital. In a helicopter!" His voice wavered again. "Dad, they said they need your permission to perform emergency brain surgery."

What? No. Kids get broken bones and twisted ankles. Not emergency brain surgery.

Minutes later, after I'd rounded up Tammy and Soren, we were in the car darting in and out of traffic on Massachusetts Avenue. The three of us arrived, breathless, at the door of the emergency room. We left Soren with a band of five speechless, stoic, obviously troubled football coaches so Tammy and I could get to Zach.

Now she and I stood on opposite sides of the gurney. I couldn't read what was going on in her mind. And I couldn't process what was going on in mine, much less Zach's. Come on, buddy. Open your eyes. Say something. Say anything.

I struggled to square the energetic young man I knew with the unmoving, unresponsive son lying in front of me.

"We're here, Zach."

Tammy's head was bowed. She rocked side to side as she had when she'd held Zach and our other children as newborns. Same Zach. That one.

The boy whose love for the outdoors and passion for adventure emerged during his early life in rugged Montana. The son who, nine years before, had wholeheartedly embraced urban life when we moved to Boston. The boy who'd exchanged being pulled on a horse-drawn sled for hopping on the back of a UPS truck while it raced around the streets of our Boston-Cambridge neighborhood. The one who'd replaced deer hunting with tackling our temporary rodent problem using his pellet gun, on the lookout for the rat he spotted in the basement every morning when he retrieved his bike.

That same boy now lay before us, still clad in the bottom half of his football uniform, including his football cleats. Zach's eerily unmoving body mocked the boy he'd been, the one who traded riding his bike along logging trails of a national forest for weaving in, out, and over the potholes and granite curbs of Boston. That's my Zach. Tough and resilient.

Zach's steady breathing slowed my pulse. Zach was breathing. His face was blank, but peaceful — no sign of pain.

When the surgeon burst through the doors with an entourage of doctors and nurses, he brought all the pain with him.

"We need to open his skullcap and remove a blood clot to save his life," the surgeon said, mincing no words. "This can result in anything from death to full recovery or anything in between." Handing us a clipboard, he added, "Sign here."

Chilled by the cold words and emotionless delivery, we signed. We weren't invited to ask questions but probably couldn't have thought of any after a blow like that.

A nurse broke the tense residual silence left in the surgeon's wake. "You can talk to your son. He hears you."

How does she know? Tammy and I took Zach's hands, leaned over him, and breathed in the ripe-athlete smell of our first man-child. We whispered a prayer in each ear and kissed his cheeks, our faces a much-loved son apart.

Two startling clicks announced that the nurses had unlocked the wheels of his bed. They could waste no more time.

I expected Tammy would melt into my embrace when we were left alone. I hadn't expected to feel as if I wasn't strong enough to hold myself upright, much less her. Or that instead of remaining in my embrace, she'd push away too soon and head for the waiting room to console the growing crowd of the concerned.

In the moment just before we stood alone, we watched the medical staff steer Zach through the double door toward a surgery with the power to give his life back ... or take it from him.

* * *

I watched Coach Papas — the weight on his shoulders palpable — as I headed toward him and a group of empty chairs in the corner of the waiting room. This was not a man known for his softness — at least, on the football field. He was as intense and demanding as they come. If a player arrived for practice on time, Coach Papas considered him ten minutes late. The man elicited respect bordering on fear from his football players, including Zach.

I reached to shake his hand before asking the unanswerable question. "Coach, what happened? I don't understand."

The coach with a reputation for toughness dissolved in tears and tried to recount what had transpired.

On the first play of the game, Zach intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown. Then — an unremarkable play. Zach and four other teammates tackled a running back. Nothing out of the ordinary. Zach went down with the pile, but it wasn't clear if his helmet hit another player's. He stumbled on the way back to the huddle. Unusual, but not worrisome. The coach made a joke about Zach tripping over the paint on the yard line, brought him in to discuss the next play, and looked into his eyes.

That's when Coach Papas knew something was wrong.

"I'm fine, Coach," Zach had said with his signature enthusiasm.

And then he collapsed at the coach's feet.

"I've seen lots of my players go down," Coach Papas said. "Nothing like this." His words trailed off, disappearing into the swirl of conversations, the endless echo — How could this have happened?

As Coach Papas finished sketching the details of what led to this moment, other friends and family members poured into the quickly shrinking space in the waiting room.

Tammy and I fielded a steady stream of questions. Our answers consisted largely of "We don't know" or "We don't know yet." I caught glimpses of Tammy moving from one person to another, offering comfort.

Tammy's strength didn't surprise me. It warmed me in the air-conditioned chill of the waiting room. She saw a need and, as she usually did, stepped up to meet it. She tamed what must have been her own raging internal upheaval to serve those locked in confusion and concern. I admired that pattern in her and had seen it often. For some reason, on this night, my admiration was tinged with — what? — loneliness?

We'd always worked well together — as a couple, as parents, as partners in serving the spiritual needs of college students. Still tag-teaming, we operated in our strengths — Tammy calming others, me capturing all the details I could. Only a few feet apart from each other. She turned a pained smile my way.

Suffocating numbness enshrouded me. Emotional asthma. I couldn't exhale. Couldn't inhale. Out of sight, away from our presence, doctors huddled over our son, attempting to use all of medicine's resources and their well-honed skills to preserve Zach's scrambled brain, to save his life.

How could a cohesive, rational thought push past that reality?


So many people. Our circle of friends was large, diverse, younger, older ... what a gift. We'd never be able to thank them all. I made my rounds, giving and receiving hugs, thanking them for coming, as if they'd taken off work to attend a funeral.

"Thank you for coming."

"Thank you for coming."

"Thank you for coming."

Their presence was a comfort, but it also underscored the seriousness of our unfolding family drama.


Excerpted from "Hit Hard"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Patrick McLeod and Tammy McLeod.
Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Our Story

Prologue xiii

Chapters 1-19 1

Photo Gallery 226

Acknowledgments 235

Writer's Note 239


Creating Your Own Ambiguous Loss Ritual or Ceremony 241

Learning to Live with Ambiguous Loss and to Support Others in Theirs 245

Holding On to Your Closest Relationship in Ambiguous Loss 249

Notes from Tammy about Football and CTE 251

Additional Resources for Your Own Hard Hits 255

Meeting God in the Midst of Pain and Loss 257

Resting in Scriptures for Times of Loss 259

Endnotes 263

About the Authors 267

What People are Saying About This

Gerald L. Sittser

On the surface, Hit Hard tells the story of a young man’s brain trauma and its long-term impact on the McLeod family. But there is far more to this book than a story about a catastrophic injury. Parents Pat and Tammy alternate as authors, often reflecting on the same incident from two points of view. In essence, they weave two stories into one, which underscores how each member of a family—of a community, really—is affected so differently by the same loss, especially a loss that never ends. The story itself is compelling on its own. But their honesty, their maturity of faith, their confession of hope, and their commitment to deal with the harsh reality of the experience without yielding to despair set this book apart as profound, insightful, and helpful. I was so captured that I read it in one sitting.

Ben Bradlee Jr.

A stirring and inspiring story about loss, grief, love, and faith. Pat and Tammy McLeod have much to teach us all about the meaning of ambiguous loss—how they let go of the son they once knew and learned to embrace the son they have today.

Bob Swenson

Clarity. That is what this book brings to those searching for meaning in the midst of loss and suffering, or for those who feel caught up in a story that has no last chapter.

Dr. Pauline Boss

This book is riveting. I could not put it down. Pat and Tammy McLeod share their story of being “hit hard” by their eldest son’s head injury in a high school football game. With twists and turns, their story moves from sadness to joy and back again, but always informs and provides hope. While this book is about a child who is brain injured, it will be helpful for anyone coping with losses of any kind. The awful challenge is to embrace change—especially a change we loathe. In Hit Hard, the McLeods share their journey of how, with faith and dignity, they are coping with loss. I recommend this book not only for professionals but also for those who want to learn how to live with loss of any kind, clear or ambiguous.

Matt Carroll

Good stories can help us find meaning in the midst of devastating tragedy. Hit Hard is one of those stories. It’s a hard but wonderful story that shows us how to deal with unimaginable loss.

Matt Mikalatos

One of the greatest destroyers of hope in our lives is a lack of honesty about pain, grief, and loss. In Hit Hard, Pat and Tammy McLeod share, with painful honesty, the reality of living through ambiguous loss together as a family. I wept several times reading this book and was moved by their commitment to Christ and especially their son Zach’s focus on God. If you are experiencing loss, this book will bring you hope, comfort, joy, and a certainty that you are not alone.

Stephen Arterburn

Hit Hard is a story of tragedy, grief, heartbreak, acceptance, hope, and redemption that will encourage every reader who has also been hit hard by the reality of this life in a fallen world outside the Garden of Eden. I have been privileged to know Pat and Tammy through this difficult journey. I have witnessed, through the pain and challenges, their struggle to accept the unknown and begin grieving without closure. Their faith has inspired me, and Zach is so fortunate to have parents who are deeply committed to Christ and to him. Hit Hard does not answer the question of why these difficult things happen to faithful believers. It does provide an inspirational guide to what we are to do when the challenge before us is so great that, without faith in a faithful God, we would lose our way. Pat and Tammy do not lose their way. Instead they show the rest of us how to find ours.

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Hit Hard is a gripping, brutally honest narrative of the emotional devastation of parents and siblings when the athletically gifted eldest son suffers severe brain injury in a football accident, and of the disruptive effects of the injury on family relationships. When, after several years of flailing about in their grief, the family learns to identify what they are experiencing as “ambiguous loss,” they are finally able to acknowledge and celebrate what is good and precious in the life of their son, especially his unbounded joy in family and friends, and his unwavering faith in God. Told by the parents in alternating sections, the story is both gut-wrenching and inspiring.

Chris Nowinski

The McLeod family has been on a remarkable journey. By sharing the highs, the lows, and the unvarnished truth of their son Zachary’s serious brain injury, they invite us all to reflect on finding meaning in tragedy, coping with a new reality, and discovering the depth of a family’s love.

Dr. Ron Sanders

I’ve known Pat and Tammy McLeod since 1986. This is the story about how their family’s life changed when their sixteen-year old son, Zach, suffered a traumatic brain injury after a routine hit during a high school football game. It is a story about marriage and its imperfections; about parenting and its vulnerability; about the struggle of faith in life’s uncertainty. It is a story about overwhelming grief and unexpected slivers of grace; about loneliness and friendship; about finding a marker when you are lost. It is a story about finding a name for their experience—ambiguous loss—and trying to hang on to God and each other when sometimes “hanging on” is all you can do. You will find your-self in this story somewhere. As I read it, I thought of being a parent, being a child, being a brother, being a friend, and being a person of faith. I cried and I laughed . . . it seemed like real life.

Edwin Smith

Hit Hard hits hard. By sharing their experience through story, Pat and Tammy offer humanity a wonderful gift from their struggle, making meaning of their loss in the crucible called life. Their story resonates with issues that transcend geographic location, class, and race, not only because it interweaves their experiences in South Africa and in the US, but because ambiguous loss and its ubiquitousness is a reality for many people across the world.

Jonathan L. Walton

Jesus told us that in this life we will have trouble (John 16:33). Hit Hard is a heartfelt and courageous testimony of fear, disillusionment, and hope in the midst of loss. Pat and Tammy corroborate the reality of so many Christians who walk through the shadow of death and still feel evil. In this regard, Hit Hard is a generous and empathetic love offering to the body of Christ.

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