On July 20, Zack Golditch had settled into his seat for the midnight showing of "Batman: The Dark Knight Rises" inside Theater 8 at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colo., just a little over a mile from the high school where he is a prep football star.
About 25 minutes into the movie, there was a loud, startling popping noise coming from the adjacent Theater 9. Dense smoke filled the theater, creating mass confusion.
It was thought to be a prank. The commotion was timed with a shooting scene in the movie. The patrons would soon realize it was not a prank at all.
|Zack Golditch says it didn't hit him right away how close he had come to suffering a major injury or worse.|
Tear gas grenades had filled Theater 9 with smoke, creating the puzzling scene. The hundreds packed into the seats there didn't have time to react. A gunman, dressed in tactical clothing and carrying multiple firearms, allegedly began shooting into the crowd. He first fired a 12-gauge to the ceiling, then aimed toward the back of the theater. He continued with a semi-automatic rifle, shooting at those fleeing through the aisles, then finished with a handgun.
Next door, inside Theater 8, there was a growing sense of urgency and fear. Before Golditch had time to react, he was hit with a shooting pain in his ear, which began to loudly ring.
"I put my hand on my ears and I felt blood," recalled Golditch, a senior at Gateway High School in suburban Denver and offensive tackle for the football team.
With a thick stream of blood gushing from his neck, Golditch was forced to seek help, though still unaware of what caused the disturbance. He was convinced it was simply a firecracker shot as a simple joke. He stood up from his seat and sprinted toward the exit at the back of the theater, using his hand to shield the blood. He had been hit by a bullet that passed through the wall from the adjacent theater.
Golditch was convinced to attend the movie by his close friend, Jack Engelson. When Golditch began his sprint for the exit, Engelson wasn't sure what was happening. Flustered by the scene, he was forced to stay behind with the group, which included his younger sister.
"I thought he was just messing around, pretending to be scared," said Engelson, who was seated next to Golditch for the movie.
Hurrying outside Theater 8, Golditch witnessed a man bleeding profusely outside Theater 9. It was then in which he understood this was no prank. Golditch fled past the parking lot to a nearby construction site, the only place he could seek immediate assistance. His instinct was to keep running, but he was instructed otherwise by the construction workers.
"They offered me a towel (to cover the wound) and told me to lie down," Golditch said.
Authorities began to flood in from Aurora and outside towns. The police arrested their suspect, 25-year-old James Eagan Holmes, outside the theater about seven minutes after the shooting began.
Golditch, meanwhile, was rushed to a local hospital and treated for a gunshot wound to the neck, one of 58 injured in the massacre that left 12 dead.
In January, a judge ruled that Holmes will stand trial for 166 counts of murder, attempted murder and other crimes.
As a high-school freshman, Golditch recalls the day a Gateway senior football player signed to play football at NAIA McPherson College, a small school in central Kansas. He was in awe of the opportunity. It was at that point in which Golditch committed himself to the goal of playing college football.
Golditch made the weight room his second home. He dedicated himself to improving and would shatter the school's power-clean record. He joined the track team to stay in shape during the offseason, and as a junior he would win the state title in discus.
"He's just dominant -- in whatever he decides to do," said Gateway football coach and director of athletics Justin Hoffman.
With his dream of playing college football in mind, Golditch remained focused. He wasn't prepared to let up.
"Not everyone has that motivation to do it -- to go through the grind to get to that point," Golditch said.
An All-Conference offensive tackle as a sophomore and junior, Golditch was rewarded. Even before his senior season, he had received scholarship offers from Air Force, Colorado, Colorado State, Northern Colorado, and Wyoming.
On June 11, Golditch gave his verbal commitment to Colorado State. He felt it was the best place to improve.
"They're committed to building their program and developing their players," Golditch said. "That's something I wanted to be a part of."
'Out of all people'
Golditch was one of those kids who had everything going so perfectly. He has a 3.8 grade point average, has never been in trouble with the law, and is an all-state football player.
"There is no shortage of words to describe him," Hoffman said.
Seated in the Aurora South Hospital waiting room on that July morning, Jack Engelson was stricken with guilt. He was waiting for news of Golditch's condition. The two had become best friends after just a short time of knowing each other. It was Engelson who encouraged Golditch to attend the movie.
"It was such deliberation, waiting to hear if he was going to be OK," Engelson recalled. "Out of all people, it was Zack. He already had his future planned ahead of him.
"It was the worst experience of my entire life so far."
Inside the hospital room, Golditch's wound was being treated. The bullet has passed through his neck, just below his left ear lobe. It missed his vertebrae by one quarter of an inch.
"I don't think it has really truly hit me," Golditch said, "how bad it could have been."
Time to heal
The morning after, Golditch awoke to countless phone calls and text messages. Family, friends, and even strangers reached out to offer support. One of the first phone calls Golditch made was to his head coach.
"He wanted to know if there was practice that morning," Hoffman recalled.
There was no football on that morning. Hoffman gathered his team -- current and former players -- in one room. One of the first to enter the room was Golditch, wearing a bandage to cover a bullet wound suffered just hours before.
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In all, eight members of the Gateway football program were in the Century 16 theater that horrific night. The tragedy affected everybody in the community. The team gathered together for healing.
"We were there for each other," Hoffman said.
In the weeks following the tragedy, Gateway moved forward and began its preparations for the football season. However, Golditch had not yet been medically cleared for team exercises.
Each day, Golditch arrived at the school, still with a thick bandage on his neck, and did what he does best -- leading.
"I'll see a freshman and ask if he finished his workout," Golditch said. "He could be good, but it starts in the weight room. I try to lead by example. I'm not sure if it's the best tactic, but there are people who see what I'm doing."
"He tries to set the example for everyone," added Engelson, a junior in the football program. "He's always trying to."
Leaving it all on the field
Just one month after the movie theater massacre, and one week before the start of his senior season, Zack Golditch was back on the football field.
For Gateway High School and a town grieving from its tragedy, football was an escape.
"The team came together," Golditch said. "It wasn't just a football team; it was a brotherhood. We all wanted the same thing, we strived, and we worked. It was really special."
With his wounds healed, his past behind him, and a bright future ahead, Golditch gave everything he had to his team. He finished the season with 62 tackles, including 20 for a loss, and recorded 11 sacks. At tackle, his primary position, he earned all-state honors.
"When we watch the film, you see he's always going 100 percent," Engelson said.
It was a remarkable end to Golditch's high-school career -- one which offered great personal reward.
"The things that I've had to sacrifice," he said, "all the hard work that I've had to put in, it has paid off."
The next chapter
On Signing Day, Golditch will achieve a goal he set three and a half years ago. When his letter of intent reaches the Colorado State football offices, a dream will be realized, marking a special moment.
"It's going to be a great thing for our school, a great thing for Zack and his family, and a great thing for Gateway football," Hoffman said.
As a high school freshman, Golditch began striving for more. It took hard work and commitment to make continued improvements.
When tragedy struck just past midnight in a local movie theater, it required great fortunes for his dream to be reached.
"It's truly incredible," he said. "It's a miracle."