A few years ago, photojournalist Dave Hynek and I chronicled an AMAZING story about a father, donating a kidney to his young son. We followed their journey from start to finish, including in the moments leading up to the transplant. We interviewed a very brave Dad as his anesthesiologist inserted his IVs to prepare him for sedation.
You’d think I would’ve learned…
I don’t handle needles well. Like, I pass out when I see one. (Really. It’s not embarrassing AT ALL.)
So here I am, in the surgery preparation area of the Nebraska Medical Center, getting more and more lightheaded, trying to conduct an interview.
Right at the moment I feared I was going to lose my breakfast or crash head first into the floor, I STOOD UP AND LEFT THE ROOM MID-INTERVIEW. Dave finished it for me. Apparently, it was pretty obvious I was having ‘problems’. Dave came out of the area laughing, and noted that the anesthesiologist had noticed, too.
‘You know who that was, right?’ Dave asked me.
DR. ROB ZATECHKA. As in Husker legend turned doctor Rob Zatechka.
REALLY. Not embarrassing AT ALL.
Clearly, I was not destined for a career in medicine, but a lot of Huskers have been. ‘Dr. Rob’, Judd Davies, Sean Fisher… and now..
Dr. Mike Stuntz, Nebraska Free Safety (photo courtesy Nebraska Athletics!)
#16 permanently sealed his place in Nebraska Football history as a freshman, taking part in one of the most memorable plays in recent years. Nebraska versus Oklahoma in 2001, a key game in Nebraska’s journey to the national title game and Eric Crouch’s to the Heisman trophy. Out of nowhere in the 4th quarter, Crouch tosses the ball to Thunder Collins, who tosses the ball to Stuntz. Stuntz, just 18, delivers a rocket to Crouch downfield, who runs for a 63-yard touchdown. Nebraska beats the #2 team in the country, 20-10.
“I can’t think of one [play] that meant more to our team that I contributed to. I can’t think of one that people talk about with me more often than that one,” Stuntz told me in a recent interview. “We started practicing it early in the week. I knew about it, even starting that Monday, I think. We ran it throughout the week and it never really worked that well in practice. During the game, they told me even in the first half they were think about running it. Whey they finally called it, I was a little surprised, it was so late in the game and the game was so close.”
During what many might consider a nerve-rattling moment, Stuntz just ‘played the way he’d always played’.
“It’s almost one of those ‘ignorance is bliss’ things,” said Stuntz. “I didn’t really realize just how much people cared about Nebraska football, college football in general, how big of a game it was. You’re just kind of oblivious to all that when you’re 18 years old.”
You want to talk nerves, imagine this: HOLDING YOUR NEWBORN DAUGHTER FOR THE FIRST TIME.
Dads, do you remember that moment? Mike Stuntz does; it just happened a month ago when he and wife Natalie welcomed their first child, Blakely Autumn.
“I knew what I was doing on that play, I played football all the time. I’d never been a dad before,” said Stuntz. “So that was, definitely, without a question, more nerve wracking, the first time I saw Blakely.”
“He did use the football hold, though!” added Natalie with a smile.
Stuntz doesn’t just know football, he was pretty darn good at it. An incredibly versatile player, Stuntz saw time at free safety, split end, and reserve quarterback at Nebraska. Off the field, Stuntz also excelled in the classroom, a 9-time Academic Honor Roll member in the Big 12 and a 2005 First-Team Academic All-Big 12 student. His college major also attracted attention; Stuntz earned his degree in professional golf management.
This photo shows Stuntz golfing Lilongwe Golf Club in Malawi in 2011, his former career colliding with new. See, Stuntz told me he loved golf, but didn’t know if he had passion to pursue it for 40+ years. He discovered a new passion: medicine.
Natalie Stuntz is also a doctor, a pediatrician with CHI Health. Mike is in his first year of residency at the Nebraska Medical Center, specializing in ophthalmology. The two didn’t meet in medical circles, but certainly have A LOT in common professionally now, including the summer they spent together in Africa working at a Pediatric AIDS hospital.
They even found a Husker fan, thousands of miles away!
THAT is pretty normal for Dr. Mike Stuntz, still recognized nine years after hanging up his cleats, 13 years after that legendary play.
“I’ll be in the hospital or in the clinic or something like that, and it’ll be a patient and they’ll just say ‘aren’t you that guy?'” said Stuntz. “It happens much more often than I thought it would. I always enjoy talking about it.”
ESPECIALLY with his biggest fan. Miss Blakey is also his smallest.
“I come downstairs, and whether she’s awake or not she comes with me. We sit on the couch right here, we turn on the TV and we don’t move for the next 12 hours or so,” said Stuntz. “I’m pretty sure she’s very engrossed in the games, and then afterwards we have a nice group discussion about it. Her input is limited, but it’s growing.”
Stuntz’s message for today’s players is about the bigger world outside of football. Even when he bumps into his former teammates Dr. Judd Davies or Dr. Kyle Ringenberg, they talk about research and their goals in the hospital now, not what they used to be on the field.
And when Dr. Stuntz, Dr. Stuntz, and Lil Stuntz are at home, the focus is on family.
“I want to be Mom and Dad,” said Natalie. “When we’re at home, we leave work. We’re Mom and Dad, Mike and Natalie, and I want that for her.”
And when that little beauty opens up her gorgeous blue eyes to gaze up at her mom and dad, it’s easy to see why.
For more on #16 Mike Stuntz check out his bio with Nebraska Athletics.