Zack Golditch knows how much worse it could have been.
The bullet from the Aurora Theater shooter’s gun that passed through his neck 10 years ago Wednesday left him “an inch away from death.”
But instead of becoming one of the 12 people killed that night, Golditch went on to graduate from Gateway High School, play college football at Colorado State and fulfill a childhood dream of playing in the NFL.
“It was definitely an eye-opener to some degree, realizing that anything can happen to anyone at any time,” Golditch said Tuesday.
He has no doubt it made him a better person.
“It gave me a great perspective to be grateful for every single day and take advantage of all of my opportunities and really slow down a little bit and appreciate the people around me, my health and the things around me.”
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After bouncing around the NFL for two years, playing in a few games with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, Golditch is back home in Colorado, serving his community as a firefighter with South Metro Fire and Rescue in suburban Denver.
And with no training camps to prepare for or attend this summer, he’s getting involved in efforts to support victims from Aurora and other mass shootings across the country, lending his name to a new scholarship program established and run by the 7/20 Foundation – a charitable organization that was launched to support survivors of the Aurora Theater Shooting – and the Aurora Public Schools Foundation. Proceeds from The Hero’s Journey 5k on Saturday in Aurora will support the Zack Golditch Opportunity Scholarships, managed and awarded by the Aurora Public Schools Foundation.
Victims of mass shootings need help long after the media attention – and added support it brings – has moved on.
Although Golditch has yet to respond to a shooting in his two years as a firefighter, he knows that day will come. And he believes his training as a first responder and experience as a mass-shooting survivor will impact his response in a positive way.
It’s why he became a firefighter instead of going into law enforcement, as he had originally planned. The physical exertion and teamwork he learned playing football are a perfect fit, he said, noting that four of his former CSU teammates (Kevin Davis, Sammie Long, Kevin Pierre-Louis and Jordan White) are also South Suburban firefighters.
“(The theater shooting) definitely had some motivating influence on me,” he said. “I thought I wanted to get into law enforcement, but as I grew up a little bit more and started to learn about what they actually do, I realized law enforcement wasn’t my style and firefighting really spoke to me. …
“The work of a firefighter is everything but get people in trouble. If you need something, we’re going to be there, no matter what it is.”
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Golditch, 17 at the time of the shooting, grew up quickly after the “near-death experience,” he said.
What started out as a night with some friends to see the late-night premiere of the newest Batman movie, “The Dark Night Rises,” became a nightmarish, life-altering event when a gunman, later identified as James Holmes, opened fire in an adjacent theater showing the same film at the Century 16 complex.
“I was looking over my right shoulder, and the bullet came through (the wall) and hit me on my left side,” Golditch said. “It was close to a lot of stuff, really, really close. For it to have missed everything …”
He didn’t need to finish the sentence.
There was no need to explain how fortunate he was that the bullet passed through his neck, entering below his right ear and exiting on his left, without hitting his carotid artery, jugular vein, spinal cord or anything else that would have killed him immediately or left him paralyzed or with permanent loss of his hearing, speech or sight.
The only lingering physical effects, other than small scars, were some numbness on the outside of one ear because of a nerve root that eventually reconnected itself.
He walked out of the hospital the day after the shooting and was participating in offseason workouts with his Gateway High teammates within a week or two – “once it was healed enough to where I could slap a bandage on it and not have to worry about it getting infected,” he said.
“I was fortunate to get back really, really quickly,” he said.
He went on to earn all-state honors in football and win a second straight Colorado Class 5A state track and field championship in the discus.
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He came to CSU, redshirted his freshman year and started 38 of a possible 39 games on the offensive line, playing both guard and tackle, over his final three seasons (2015-17) and earning All-Mountain West honors his senior year.
The Los Angeles Chargers signed him as an undrafted rookie free agent immediately after the 2018 NFL Draft and he also spent time in training camps or practice squads with the San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts before making the Arizona Cardinals’ active roster and playing sparingly in a couple games that season. He was in training camp and on the preseason roster of the Kansas City Chiefs the following summer, 2019, but waived in the final roster cuts.
Golditch was drafted by the Tampa Bay Vipers in the new XFL’s inaugural draft in 2020, but the league folded after just a few games at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He returned to Colorado and began his training to become a firefighter, with that tragic night 10 years ago forever etched into his being.
“I think everyone plays that ‘what-if’ game,” he said. “ ‘If this happens to me, then I would do this,’ or, ‘If this happens one day, it would totally change this.’ Unfortunately, that ‘what if’ did happen.
“In a way, it’s very simple and cliché to say, but until you really have an experience like that and you realize that anything can happen to anyone at any time, you don’t take much for granted. Life slows down a little bit, and you have a little more appreciation for everything and everyone around you.”
Zack Golditch knows how much worse it could have been.