Image courtesy of Best Buddies International
By Trinity Ruiz
The event dominating campus on Thursday, October 21, highly anticipated by the Catholic U community, was one to remember. Catholic University’s Best Buddies club was honored to welcome actor Zack Gottsagen from the film The Peanut Butter Falcon, directed by Tyler Nilson and Micheal Schwartz, to speak about his experience as an actor and active member within the Best Buddies national organization. In honor of National Disability Awareness Month, Gottasgen, hailing all the way from Florida, dedicated his Thursday to spending time with Catholic’s Best Buddies Club and speaking with the Catholic U community about the challenges he has overcome despite his Down Syndrome.
In the film, Gottsagen plays the cinematic version of himself and instead is named Zak. Gottsagen clarifies that it was not confusing for him, because “that is the real me.” Mirroring Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the film follows Zak and Tyler, an outlaw fisherman played by Shia LaBeouf, through their journey in search for the ‘The SaltWater Redneck,’ Zak’s favorite professional wrestler. Dakota Johnson plays the supporting role of Eleanor, Zak’s caretaker in the nursing home he escaped from to live out his dream of going to wrestling school and becoming a professional wrestler, as promised by ‘The SaltWater Redneck’s’ advertising. In spite of trials, the characters unite and are committed to achieving this goal. The two supporting characters made it their sole mission to help Zak attain what he sought all his life.
“I couldn’t do it with my moms,” Gottasgen says proudly before asking them to stand. From the moment he knew he wanted to be an actor, Gottsagen’s mother, Shelley, fought to make this a possibility. When denied from a performing arts high school that had never accepted a person with disabilities, Shelley went to civil court. The following year, Gottsagen was able to attend the school. He emphasized, “that was how I became included…mom helped me” in calling out how the system wasn’t “doing a very good job.” Gottsagen thanked both of his moms for telling him the story of his life.
When he was just three years old, Gottsagen was a frog in his school production; he “liked acting the most.” On the set of the film, he was always excited and full of energy. Gottsagen says enthusiastically his “favorite part was everything!”
“While you’ve been doing paperwork, we’ve been doing something called living,” LaBeouf’s character says to Johnson in the film. And this is what Gottsagen has done. He was the first person with disabilities to present at the Oscars, was invited by the Smithsonian museum to be the keynote speaker for the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2015, and was a recipient of the Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award in 2018. He’s lived and his accomplishments show for it. With his biggest challenge on set being “waiting” and “patience,” it is safe to say that Gottsagen has lived an abundant life. He now devotes himself to advocating for the disabled community and spreading awareness towards the necessity of inclusion.
Gottsagen says Best Buddies is about friendship; it stands for loyalty and direction. Alumnus and CUA Best Buddies director Julia Moluf introduced the event by talking about Best Buddies Living, a program that allows adults with disabilities to live independently. Since Best Buddies Living is relatively new, their locations are limited to Washington D.C. and Miami, Florida. However, Catholic’s organization hopes to contribute greatly by partnering with the program in allowing the adults a meal plan and access to athletic facilities and weekly events! This program strives to create an inclusive lifestyle and unify any separation between this wonderful community and the community created here at Catholic.
In the film, LaBeouf and Johnson’s characters were bonded so simplistically by this one person they mutually cared for. The love they shared for Zak brought them together. And this is what Best Buddies is all about. In dedicating oneself to the club, you are also forming bonds with people who are doing the same. It is important to inquire not only how we can make their lives more inclusive but also how they are giving us purpose and something to be a part of.
Gottsagen spoke so hopefully about Best Buddies and serves as an inspiration not only for the disabled community but for everyone who has a goal to accomplish. Gottsagen hopes to one day write his own movie. He encourages the Catholic U community to “follow your heart and dreams…to stand up, speak up, speak from your heart so you can make it happen.”