Last offseason, while some players were vacationing, working on their golf game, simply resting their bodies or doing whatever players do in their off time after a grueling NFL season, Detroit Lions running back Zach Zenner was preparing for his life outside of football.
Last spring, Zenner was a volunteer research student at Henry Ford Hospital, working on a research project that looked into the effects of fructose induced salt-sensitive hypertension in rats.
Zenner and his research team controlled the rats diet with fructose and high salt to see how it affected their blood pressure.
"I became friends with the rats and then became enemies," he said with a grin.
The project was designed to see how rats react to increased fructose and salt in their bodies with the hope of applying the results to humans.
His work on the project is set to be published in a medical journal sometime this winter or next spring, according to Zenner.
"The idea is to just be involved in the healthcare field and any publication in that sense helps a lot," said Zenner, who plans to go to medical school when his football career is over. "No matter what you want to do. If you're interested in being in healthcare in any sense, having a publication, really it shows a lot about the scientific process.
"You have a problem. How are you approaching that problem? What were your results? How are you communicating those results with people? So, it's really transitional to a lot of the healthcare professions."
Zenner, who graduated with a biology degree from South Dakota State, has set up another research project this offseason similar to the one he was involved in last spring, this time at the VA hospital in downtown Detroit.
"Really it just kind of brings you back to the SDSU (South Dakota State University) days where you have school, football and then you study at night. You study both football and school at night."
There's no way he'd be able to take on this work in season, but the offseason and through the half-day OTA schedule works out perfect.
"As far as these research projects, they require a lot of my time and attention, so it needs to happen in the offseason," he said.
Zenner said these projects are good not only as resume builders for his next career, but also for his brain, as a totally different mental exercise than preparing for a defense.
"You can make similarities between the two just in the fact that football isn't just 'Run straight ram your head against a brick wall over and over,'" he said.
"There's a lot of mental aspects to football as well, but it's just totally different in the lab."
On the football field, Zenner became an important piece in Detroit's offense this season after Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick were lost for the season. He finished second on the team with 334 rushing yards on 88 attempts, and led the Lions in rushing touchdowns (4).
His football career is still priority No. 1, but it never hurts to have an eye on the future, and the future looks bright for Zenner in the medical field some day.