It was a Sunday afternoon in autumn, and the Mishawaka Catholic Saints’ middle school football team was locked in an Inter-City Catholic League contest. The opposing offense lined up and ran a quick pass play against the Saints defense. In a flash, a burst of purple and gold came streaking from the opposite side of the field, shedding blockers to make a jarring hit on the receiver.
“In the back of my mind, I can still see him coming out of nowhere, and just drilling the guy out of bounds,” remembers Tony Violi, head coach of the Saints at the time. “And I was just thinking to myself, if he could do that every single play, with that athleticism and that desire – wow, there’s something there.”
A decade later, Zander Horvath is still thriving on that same athleticism and desire. After a record-setting career at Marian High School, Horvath walked-on to the Purdue University football team, earning his way onto the field with unmatched determination and drive. Now, he is preparing for the NFL draft, primed to be the first Marian football player ever selected. Horvath’s football journey is a testament to what can be achieved with a tireless work ethic and a relentless pursuit of excellence.
‘He had to be first at anything’
Athletics were always a part of the Horvath household. Zander’s parents, Brian and Zita, introduced him and his siblings to multiple sports growing up. With four boys each playing different sports at the same time, Zander’s parents were often running back and forth, catching a few innings here, half a game there.
“It was definitely like another job for them, but I’m very appreciative of that,” recalled Zander. “They’ve shown support from when I first started playing sports, up to where I’m at now.”
In grade school, he decided to start going by Zander to help differentiate himself from several other Alexanders in his class. However, he had no trouble distinguishing himself from his peers on the football field.
“Ever since he was a little kid, he was determined,” said Brian. “It was his way; he had to be first at anything he did. He is determined like nobody I’ve ever met before.”
This determination served Zander well once he suited up for Mishawaka Catholic. By the time he’d reached seventh grade, Zander was a running back and a starting linebacker for a middle school team loaded with talented eighth-graders that won the Diocesan Championship. The following year, it was Zander’s turn to lead.
“In eighth grade, he was one of our captains because he was that good of a leader,” said Violi, who coached the Saints for 36 years and still serves as Mishawaka Catholic’s athletic director. “He definitely led by example. Always a quality kid – quiet, respectful, just a good kid to coach.”
‘The biggest jump I’ve ever seen’
When Zander arrived at Marian, head coach Reggie Glon knew exactly what he was getting.
“If you could ask for the ideal kid, he would be it,” said Glon, who coached at Marian for 24 years and is now head coach at Trenton High School in Michigan. “He’s a tremendous hard-worker, he was always one of the hardest workers in the weight room, and he’s one of the best kids academically that I’ve had in 36 years.”
Weightlifting was a major focus for Zander, who said he came into high school bigger and stronger than most of his freshman classmates. This physique helped Zander find his way to the varsity squad his sophomore year when he started to see the field in key moments. Horvath entered his junior year as the team’s number two running back, but that changed in a blink.
“Our starting running back got hurt at the beginning of the season, so then I had to step up,” said Zander. “And from that point on, I kind of showed that I could play at that higher level.”
Zander topped 1,000 yards rushing as a junior, but that was nothing compared to his senior campaign, in which Horvath broke essentially every school rushing record while also starting on defense at linebacker. He finished the year as one of the top rushers in the state, amassing 2,215 rushing yards and a staggering 34 rushing touchdowns.
“He was just bigger than all the kids, running them over,” recalled Zita. “It got to the point where he made so many touchdowns, I couldn’t even stand up to cheer anymore.”
Violi, who watched Zander play on Friday nights, said he was blown away by Horvath’s development and transformation at the next level.
“Of all the kids I coached in 36 years, his change from grade school to high school is the biggest jump I’ve ever seen,” said Violi. “He went from a very good player to an exceptional, superb high school athlete who is now on the brink of becoming an NFL player. He’s the poster boy, as far as I’m concerned, for hard work paying dividends if you continue to stick with it.”
“I’ve seen a lot of kids that have the same ability,” Glon echoed. “It was his work ethic and his attention to what he needed to do and how he needed to do it – those were all things that really set him apart.”
Zander, who still keeps in touch with both Violi and Glon, credited them for helping to shape him as a player and as a person.
“They’ve been great to me and helped me excel on and off the fields,” said Zander. “They’re almost like father figures. I also know they will go out of their way to help me, no matter what it is. It was great to have a strong foundation with coaching growing up.”
Zita said she believes this modesty is a product of Zander’s Catholic schooling.
“The Catholic faith and bringing him up, I think it’s just made him more humble,” said Zita.
“It was definitely good staying in Catholic high school,” agreed Zander. “Keeping up the faith is always going to be crucial. The students that I was around, too, were a lot of people who are my best friends still now.”
‘This is a different kid’
While Zander’s success on the field caught the attention of colleges, most recruiters saw him as a linebacker at the next level. His goal was to be a Division I running back. The United States Military Academy (West Point) offered him a full scholarship to play running back, but Zander didn’t have a passion for the military. Next, Indiana University gave him a chance as a preferred walk-on at linebacker, but the university didn’t offer engineering, which was his intended major at the time. Two weeks later, the running backs coach at Purdue messaged Zander on Twitter and invited him to visit.
“I instantly knew that I was going to switch over from there,” said Zander, who had been considering IU’s offer up to that point. “I scheduled a visit, loved the school; they were great coaches. I would say it’s definitely been a great choice to get me to the point I’m at now.”
Brian still recalls a conversation with Purdue’s running backs coach when they visited the university.
“I told the running back coach, ‘Sir, this is a different kid. Nobody’s more determined.’ And he said, ‘You know, I hear that from a lot of parents.’ And about two years later, he said to me, ‘You know what? You were right.’”
However, Zander was one of ten running backs on the roster when he arrived in West Lafayette. He knew he was facing an uphill climb to see the field.
“Coming in as a walk-on, I definitely knew I was going to have to work,” said Zander. “I knew it was going to take time and more effort than some of the other guys that may have been more talented. I always did extra when I came in with workouts. I’d stay after practice, do extra drills, come in early, watch more film.”
Zander began seeing action on special teams and as a blocking fullback as a freshman. He earned a scholarship as a sophomore, along with additional playing time when Purdue’s starting running back sustained an injury. But Zander broke out his junior year, emerging as the team’s top running back by rushing for 442 yards.
Most importantly, it was also a time of renewed faith for Zander.
“My running back coach kind of incorporated [faith] into every one of our meetings,” he said. “He was really big into it, so I started getting a deeper dive into it, too, once I got to college. At the end of every practice as well, we’d gather up, do a prayer and everything. So, he was just trying to not only build us on the field, but our faith was something he just really wanted to focus on. I’m definitely appreciative of that.”
Unfortunately, Zander’s senior season was interrupted when he suffered a broken fibula in the second game of the season. After surgery, he decided to prepare for the NFL draft, forgoing an additional season of eligibility at Purdue.
“I already had my mind made up before the season that this was going to be my last year, so I kind of leaned towards that,” Zander said. “And I just knew, from how I’d been over the past years, that I’m willing to make it work, no matter what the obstacle is.”
‘I’m just not one to settle’
“You have no idea how proud I am,” said Brian. “I just hope he gets a chance in the NFL, because I know his determination will get him a spot somewhere.”
Zander certainly helped solidify his draft stock at Purdue’s Pro Day on March 29. In front of agents from nearly every NFL team, Horvath put up impressive numbers at multiple drills, most notably recording 31 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press – more than any of the running backs attending the NFL Combine.
“I knew it was definitely a solid day, but there were some numbers that I’d been doing better for a month, so I was kind of mad that I didn’t get the numbers I wanted,” said Horvath. “Even though it was still good, I’m just not one to settle.”
Nevertheless, Zander’s versatility is getting noticed. He’s hearing positive feedback from scouts on his speed, agility and receiving skills, and he’s already begun meeting with NFL coaches ahead of the draft, set for April 28-30 in Las Vegas. He is hoping to become the seventh NFL draftee from one of the four parochial high schools in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. However, no football player from Marian has ever heard his name called on draft night, giving Zander yet another opportunity at school history.
“I’ve never really thought about that until now, but it would definitely be an honor,” said Zander of being the first Marian graduate selected in the NFL Draft. “I’m kind of astonished that I would be the first one.”
“He’s been part of the legacy, part of the history, of a pretty proud program,” said Glon, referencing the school’s eight regional titles and three state crowns. “He’s the number one rusher in school history, so you couldn’t ask for a more deserving kid.”
‘This is just a stepping stone’
As important as reaching the NFL is to Zander, his aspirations go far beyond the football field. He has been drawn to art for as long as he can remember.
“During grade school, I just started taking all the art classes I could,” recalled Zander. “It was just something I enjoyed doing and didn’t feel like an actual class.”
Glon remembers seeing Zander working on art between two-a-day practices at Marian, and he once again picked up the hobby while home during the pandemic. Zita, who also has an artistic background, offered Zander her art supplies and began posting his drawings on Facebook.
“And all of a sudden, people were like, ‘Draw me one,’” said Zita. “So, he started drawing them, and people were calling to have them commissioned.”
It’s turned into a side business for Zander, whose medium of choice is marker and colored pencil. He continues sending his artwork to Zita for her opinions, sharing his progress at each step. Zander said he envisions art as part of his future in some capacity.
“Outside of football, I would love to do something with my art,” Zander said, “whether it’s drawing for a company or just doing stuff on the side like I’ve been doing.”
Zander also wants to eventually design and build custom homes, an endeavor that he hopes can be financed in part from his professional football earnings. But first, he’s got wedding plans to make, as Horvath is engaged to be married on July 1, 2023.
It’s clear that football is just part of his future – a future that’s fueled by his drive and determination.
“This is just a stepping stone,” said Glon of Zander’s football career. “I think he’s going to do something special not just in the football world, but I believe he is going to do something special in the world of art and what he contributes back as an individual. He’s such a good person, such a quality individual, that whatever he pursues, he’s going to have success there.”
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