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MARKUS-KUHN-COLLAGE
The giant bond between Markus Kuhn & Zack Pollack
By Dan Salomone Feb 22, 2021

Zack Pollack needed to get down the steps. Barcelona is known to be wheelchair-friendly, but there are limitations up the rugged coast of Spain's northeast corner. And he had ventured to the town of S'Agaró in the Costa Brava region, just south of the border of France, for Markus Kuhn's destination wedding.

Kuhn, a German-born defensive tackle four years removed from his last game as Giant, was set to marry his fiancé, Marta, who is a native of Azerbaijan and grew up in Russia and Israel. Pollack, from Passaic, N.J., made the long trip to see the two immigrants, who now live in New York City, make their vows on July 4, 2019. Pollack had made it across the Atlantic Ocean, but the steps were the last thing in his way before the ceremony, which was held at an old structure on the water … and that is when having a guest list with current and former football players comes in handy.

"Fortunately enough," Kuhn said, "I probably had some of the biggest guys ever at our wedding."

The guest list included Sebastian Volmer, a two-time Super Bowl champion offensive tackle for the Patriots (and another German native), and Cardinals guard J.R. Sweezy, who played with Kuhn at North Carolina State before they were drafted in 2012. So, along with Kuhn and other former teammates from college and Germany, they carried Pollack and his electric wheelchair down to the ceremony. And then back up.

"It was just a bunch of huge guys," Kuhn recalled via video conference call from the Quest Diagnostics Training Center, where he is part of the Giants Legends Internship Program. "I think they were worried a little bit about how Zack's going to get down there. But then all of a sudden, all these huge guys just picked up Zack and we all just went down."

"And it was very hot," said Barbara Pollack, Zack's mother, who had also traveled to the wedding with her husband, Larry, and daughter, Shayna. Their oldest son, Rudy, did not make the trip. "I didn't know how they were going to do it. They were ancient steps – steep, ancient, tiny steps. Everybody was in tuxedos and all."

"They each took a corner of Zack's wheelchair and hoisted Zack up, and carried him like royalty down to the ledge in the nearly 100-degree sun," Larry Pollack said. "After the ceremony, they then hoisted Zack back up and carried him back up the hill. Together with his wheelchair, the weight is over 200 pounds and the hill was steep. Barbara and I were very nervous about it, but Zack and Markus and the volunteers were very insistent, so we held our breath."

Once the group made it, all could exhale. Then the party was on at the wheelchair-accessible reception venue.

Markus and Zack have been friends since they met during a Make-A-Wish event with Giants rookies in 2012.

Nothing could stop Zack Pollack from seeing his best friend get married that day. After all, they had known each other longer than the newlyweds. They first met when the Giants' 2012 rookie class visited the Make-A-Wish castle. Pollack, now 27, has been challenged by Cerebral Palsy since birth. He is quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair, and does not have most functions in his arms and legs.

That's why traveling internationally was no small task for the family. But thanks to a little bit of fate, it all came together.

Larry and Barbara Pollack had originally planned a trip to Italy to celebrate their wedding anniversary. They were married July 2, 1989, in East Rutherford, N.J. – two days (plus 30 years) before Kuhn was set to be married. However, the Pollacks changed their mind and unknowingly booked Barcelona. That night, a somewhat somber Kuhn called to invite them to the wedding, assuming they would not be able to make it.

"We already have the tickets," Larry Pollack said. "Some things are just meant to be, right. I have to apologize to Markus if I got a little crazy at his wedding. I don't know how I got back to my hotel room, like around 5 o'clock in the morning."

This was just one of many memories that Kuhn and the Pollack family have made over the years. Their chance meeting in the Spring of 2012 was not a one-off community event.

"He sat with us and he really stayed with us for a very long time while all the other rookies were going from one table to another," Barbara Pollack said. "Markus was bringing everybody over, and it was just an amazing, amazing experience. They hit it off like they knew each other from birth. They were talking. Zack was asking him a little bit about Germany. He asked Markus how do you say 'Let's go Giants' in Deutsch."

Zack Pollack remembers: "Auf gehts Giganten!"

And he also never forgot Kuhn's face that day. "It was glowing," Pollack said. "It didn't feel like just an ordinary thing. There was something special with Markus. Markus doesn't know this, but if he didn't want to be my friend, I would have asked him to be my friend, anyway.

"The Giants are not just a football team. The whole organization is just a special organization. The Giants and Make-A-Wish together, it's just a special thing. I feel like Make-A-Wish brought us together. If it wasn't for me going to the special Make-A-Wish castle, we would have never met."

After the event wrapped up, Kuhn gave Pollack his German email address to stay in touch. Pollack went to summer camp, and when he came back, he wanted to connect – but Barbara had lost the email and had to break the bad news.

"I remember, I was devastated because I didn't think of him as an ordinary player," Zack Pollack said. "I thought of this guy as my long-lost friend."

The Pollacks thought to try Facebook, and there was the rookie defensive tackle. They messaged him. Kuhn responded: "I've been wondering where you've been. I haven't heard form you all summer."

It was the start of a genuine friendship that was a comfort to Kuhn, who at first had no family in the United States. They watched college games, had family dinners, explored the city, drank beers on Zack Pollack's 21st birthday and, of course, went to Giants games. When Pollack wasn't there on the sidelines before games, he was texting him at home.

"Zack was the last person I wrote before every game," Kuhn said. "I usually didn't write to anybody, didn't text anybody, didn't talk to anybody before games except my family. But I made sure before every game, Zack got a text and I got a text from him. … I knew he was watching and thinking about me."

View photos of former Giants defensive lineman Markus Kuhn, a seventh-round draft choice in 2012.

Kuhn played his 39th and final NFL game on Dec. 14, 2015. The Giants beat the Dolphins in Miami, but the lineman suffered a knee injury and was placed on injured reserve. As a free agent, he signed with the New England Patriots the following Spring, but was released during final cuts shortly before the season. Kuhn's final game in a uniform was against the Giants in a preseason contest at MetLife Stadium. Zack and Marta, the future bride, were there.

Kuhn had other opportunities with the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons, but he had a revelation when he was about to fly to Atlanta for a tryout. He noticed another defensive tackle, whom the Patriots had also just cut, at the gate. Markus boarded the plane and took his seat in the back of the small plane.

Kuhn recalled: "I'm like, 'They're just inviting every guy that's a defensive tackle that can walk to a tryout.' I was sitting in the plane, I was sitting in coach in the back, and I'm just like, 'I'm just a guy. I don't want to do that.' So I walked off the plane, went home, and was like, 'This is it. This has been so much fun and a great experience. I'm not going to claw and hang on to this life.'"

He applied to Columbia University that Fall and finished his master's degree in sports management in 2019. During this time, he started broadcasting games in German, alongside Vollmer.

"The first year we were kind of in like a basement under the stadium broadcasting off a screen to Germany," Kuhn joked.

After executives realized the appetite for the NFL in his home country – and the ratings they drew there – they were upgraded to a booth. The tandem moved on to broadcasting primetime games, including Super Bowls, from a studio in Miami. Upon returning to New York after one of these work trips, he received a call from Giants Assistant Director of Community & Alumni Relations Joann Lamneck about the team's internship program, which had mentored Super Bowl champions Henry Hynoski and Jay Alford.

"To re-live that from the other side was just a nice 360[-degree] experience," Kuhn said. "I've kind of seen this whole industry from a player perspective, from a media perspective, and now, really behind the scenes, which was amazing considering how I first came here. I had no idea about any of this.

"I came here because I literally love the sport, and to this day, all of my experiences, everything that the NFL, the New York Football Giants especially, have given me, it's absolutely amazing. I never thought I would live in New York City, get my master's after playing in the pros and now being back with the Giants. All of how life went, it's pretty crazy. All of it was because of American football."

The same thing can be said for Pollack, who graduated from Emerson High School, where he was honored with the annual award for the top student in media/journalism in 2015. He has become a motivational speaker and can be found at zackinspires.com.

"The Giants and me, we're like family," said Pollack, who weighed less than two pounds when he was born in 1993 and underwent an extensive and very risky 10-hour spinal surgery in 2008. "They're one of the reasons why I'm so strong. To watch them play football, it gives me so much strength. When you play football, it's a physical game. When you play a physical game like football every day, you have to fight every day, and I feel that relates to my life. I love the Giants, especially 78 (Kuhn's jersey number). ... I feel like we're family because the Giants preach teamwork, but they also preach love – to love your fellow neighbor, even if they're different. The Giants treat people like they're all the same."

Said Kuhn, "And it's about learning from people you maybe don't think about right away that have so much in common with you and get along with so well. I mean, I'm a German football player, and Zack is an American-Jewish guy that's in a wheelchair. And we have so much in common. You wouldn't think it until you spend some time together and you talk."

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