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Zack is back

Zack Golditch has bravely fought to keep his life on the path it was on before he went to see "The Dark Knight Rises" at the Aurora 16 theaters in Colorado last July. Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Zack Golditch doesn't want to be The Guy Who Got Shot anymore.

He's sick of being known as the 270-pound football and discus star who survived a bullet through the neck in the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings.

He doesn't want to hear, even one more time, how that bullet, one centimeter over, would've cut his carotid artery and made him victim No. 13 in the "Batman" movie murders.

"I'm more than that," he says.

But no. All anybody wants to talk about is The Bullet.

It was a Friday night, July 20, 2012. He'd gone to the Aurora Century 16 theaters with 10 teammates -- among the 70 students there that night from Gateway High School, which is just a mile away. He and two buddies arrived at Theater 8 two hours early to make sure they got a good seat. Hell, the show before the show was just as good -- people in costumes, doing voices, guessing what the plot would be.

Twenty-five minutes into the movie, Zack heard huge bangs from Theater 9 next door that sounded like "Black Cats or little sticks of dynamite." Then he saw smoke. Then he felt a massive stinging in his neck. He yelled out and collapsed into his buddy.

Next door, witnesses say James Holmes was running a blood bath, standing in front of the crowd, in an urban assault vest and gas mask, and firing a shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol, killing 12, including a kind of "superfan" of the school, artist A.J. Boik, Zack's classmate.

Golditch, meanwhile, took his 6 feet, 6 inches and sprinted for his life. Blood was running into his hands. He ran past a man with a hole in his arm, mumbling. He ran through screams and mayhem. He ran outside, into the parking lot, where he ran into two construction workers, one who'd been an Army doctor for 10 years. The man stanched the bleeding with a towel and got him into an ambulance.

In the hospital, an X-ray technician told Zack a bullet must've gone through the wall and then through his neck. That's how he found out. The X-ray itself told him how close he'd come to death.

Most of his life, Zack Golditch had been a little kid in a big kid's body. He'd been slapped and pushed and bullied. But ever since the day in fourth grade when his mom told him, "Zack, you're big. People have expectations of you. You have to lead, not follow," nobody's been able to throw him off that path.

But a madman with three guns? Would that do it?

In the hospital, in the early hours of that morning, when his bus-driver dad walked up to the bed and laid his hand on him, Zack brushed the hand aside. "That's what you do when somebody's dying," he bristled. "I'm not dying."

Far from it. In fact, that next morning, even with three wounds in his neck -- one entrance and two exit (the bullet split inside him) -- he called his coach, Justin Hoffman, to let him know he'd still be at team weight lifting that afternoon, even if he couldn't lift.

"Zack, there's police all over the school," said Hoffman. "We won't be having conditioning."

But they did have it. And Golditch showed up, just to let his teammates know. No excuses. None.

He didn't want attention, pity or a hero's medal. You're not a hero because you got shot. The only thing he wanted was a new Colorado State football jersey. When he'd verbally committed to CSU that June to play offensive line, his mom bought him one and he wore it everywhere. But now it was soaked in blood and cut off him by EMTs in the ambulance. He called Rams coach Jim McElwain to tell him he was OK and to ask for a new one.

McElwain shook his head and laughed. "Umm, sure, Zack. We'll see what we can do within the NCAA guidelines to make that happen."

But way underneath, all his plans were suddenly foggy. Win the state high school discus title again? Lead Gateway to the state football title? Play in the NFL? All of it was seeping out of those three holes in his neck.

His mom didn't care. "I knew I was lucky my son was alive," Christine Golditch says. "I didn't care if he won anything again."

But Zack did.

"I thought this whole thing might wreck everything," he admits. "But then I realized, this is all mental. I can get past this. Yeah, I got shot in a theater, but I'm not going to let that define me."

After four weeks of healing, Golditch was back in a Gateway football uniform. "When he got out there and started playing like himself?" says Hoffman. "Just right away? There was a huge sigh of relief. It was a huge weight lifted off of everybody."

From there: the best football season of his career (8-3), another state discus championship (176 feet, 10 inches on his first throw), graduation (3.67 GPA), finalist for the Denver Post Athlete of the Year award, and packing for his new dorm room at CSU.

Yes, he has scars. But they're all on the outside.

"I think about it every once in awhile," he admits in a softer moment. "I'm grateful for what I've been given. … I guess it was a miracle. I do believe in miracles. I'm not going to let this one slip away."