Ethan Zohn, the ultimate survivor

Lowell Nash

Ethan Zohn answers questions before his lecture April 3 in Akin Auditorium for the Artist Lecture Series. Photo by Lauren Roberts
Ethan Zohn answers questions before his lecture April 3 in Akin Auditorium for the Artist Lecture Series. Photo by Lauren Roberts

Murmurs of excitement could be heard as spectators trickled into Akin Auditorium for the year’s last Artist Lecture Series on April 3. The audience, a mixed crowd of nearly 200 students, faculty and community members, anxiously awaited its first glimpse of the former professional soccer player and reality TV star Ethan Zohn.

When Zohn took the stage, shortly after 7 p.m., he began the night by posing two questions. He asked, “What is it that makes you who you are? And is that person preoccupied with the right things?”

Zohn left a favorable impression on Adaobi Ezeodum, junior in management.

“Ethan Zohn story is so inspiring. His story can teach me that even when I have difficult times I know how to make it through those times,” Ezeodum said. “Nowadays the media places so many spotlights on what celebrities are wearing and what they are buying, philanthropists like Ethan and the work they are doing often goes unnoticed. This is the story the media should be reporting about. He is a real life hero.”

Zohn has faced many different challenges that led him to his own path to self-discovery. After graduating from Vassar College and time spent working for an advertising company in New York City, he played professional soccer for the Hawaii Tsunami and Cape Cod Crusaders of the United Soccer Leagues. He then played for Highlanders F.C. in Zimbabwe. During this time, Zohn had his first encounter with the epidemic of AIDS/HIV.

“Prior to winning Survivor I played professional soccer and I witnessed firsthand what was happening in this community I was now apart of. When I was there I would see countless graves of men, women, and children who had died from AIDS,” Zohn said. “One day, one of my friends, and also a teammate, missed a practice. Days, weeks passed by without him showing up. I found out later that he had passed away because of AIDS. That was a difficult time, but ultimately it helped me become mentally tough.”

Survivor: Africa Winner

Zohn would put his mental resilience to the test when he submitted an audition tape for the third season of the highest rated reality TV show in 2001, Survivor. Survivor was a sociological experiment that placed 16 strangers in desolate regions for 39 days. The contestants competed on teams in daily challenges to win food and water. Throughout the competition the show’s producers expected contestants to eliminate members of their team based on performance.

“At that time I was between job opportunities, more commonly known as unemployed, and had nothing to do that day when a buddy of mine convinced me to make an audition tape for Survivor: Africa,” Zohn said. “He recorded mine and I was supposed to record his, but we ran out of time.”

Producers selected Zohn as one of the contestants. He excelled in the daily competitions and often won prizes for his team, like a ham or a trip to a local village. It was during one of those trips to a local village that Zohn had an epiphany and realized his purpose in life.

“I was allowed to bring one luxury item with me to Africa. I brought a hacky sack that looked like a soccer ball,” Zohn said. “I was playing hacky sack with a bunch of kids in front of a hospital. I asked the nurses why there were so many young children hanging around the hospital and they told me that all of those kids had AIDS or HIV. That is when I knew something had to be done to stop this epidemic.”

Grassroot Soccer

Zohn eventually won Survivor: Africa and was awarded the $1 million prize. Zohn used a portion of his winnings to create the non-profit organization Grassroot Soccer along with three of his fellow soccer-loving friends. GRS is an organization dedicated to mobilizing the global soccer community to combat the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

“Although winning the money was freaking great, it was better just to have the title of Survivor winner because no one can take that away from me. I decided to start Grassroot Soccer because soccer is such a huge part of their culture. Soccer in Africa is the equivalent to hockey in Montreal, football in Texas, or competitive plastic surgery in Los Angeles,” Zohn said with a sly grin. “We really wanted to see how we could use the world’s most popular sport and the heroes that this sport creates, to deliver life-saving health interventions to kids.”

Zohn officially launched GRS in Aug. 2008. To raise money and build awareness for his foundation and mission to end HIV/AIDS in Africa, he embarked on a world-record-breaking 550-mile journey on foot from Boston, Mass. to Washington, D.C. – all while dribbling a soccer ball the entire route. GRS is now functional in 27 countries with 100 employees worldwide and has provided more than 640,000 African youth with life-saving knowledge and skills to help the fight against HIV/AIDS. GRS also is partners with Nike, the Gates Foundation, (RED), and the Elton John Foundation which allows Zohn’s message of initiating action for change in Africa to reach a worldwide audience.

GRS has a yearly internship for recent college graduates. The interns will go to Africa for nine months to assist with teaching the curriculum designed specifically for GRS and other various tasks that empowers young people with access to HIV testing and treatment options.

Cancer Survivor

In April 2009, Zohn was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare form of cancer. He underwent months of intensive chemotherapy to fight the cancerous cells. Throughout his chemotherapy treatments Zohn was vocal about everything he was going through.

“I made a conscious choice to share my story with America,” Zohn said. “I wanted to bring awareness to this disease as well to help find a cure. So I did what normal people do and went straight to People Magazine.”

Zohn served as the National Ambassador for the “Stand Up 2 Cancer” organization and Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation. He spearheaded the national awareness and fundraising campaign called “Survivors Stands Up 2 Cancer.”

He was able to fight his way through and received a “clean CT scan” in April 2010 and remained in remission for 20 months. In Sept. 2011, the cancer returned in his chest.  He then had to undergo two stem cell transplants which he received from his brother Lee. During a guest appearance on Survivor host Jeff Probst’s short-lived daytime talk show The Jeff Probst Show Zohn proclaimed he was cancer free.

“There were times I was angry at the world, but I refocused my anger as fuel to beat cancer. Also, it was the willingness of strangers to do things like run in marathons and donate money to fund cancer research that saved my life,” Zohn said gratefully.

Motivational Speaker

Ethan Zohn sticks out his tongue while he answers questions before his lecture April 3 in Akin Auditorium for the Artist Lecture Series. Photo by Lauren Roberts
Ethan Zohn sticks out his tongue while he answers questions before his lecture April 3 in Akin Auditorium for the Artist Lecture Series. Photo by Lauren Roberts

Since winning Survivor: Africa Zohn has become a fan favorite and they dubbed him one of the “sexiest survivors.” He has also participated in several other hit reality shows such as Fear Factor, The Amazing Race, and Survivor: All-Stars. However, Zohn’s focus has shifted toward motivating America’s youth to become active. His lecture entitled “Character: The Ultimate Survival Tool” inspired the audience in Akin Auditorium to find a cause they have an incredible connection to and begin to fight for change.

Kallie Essary, senior in education, said, “I’m an education major and former soccer player, I like how Ethan combined the two in order to bring about change to thousands of children and youth in Africa. I learned that you can make a difference in yourself by making a difference for others.”