By TODD GOTTULA
KEARNEY – Roy Stutz was jumping rope.
It was a simple warmup, like all the others he had done so many times before his evening workout with buddies from his Kearney church.
The date was Feb. 7, a Thursday night just nine months ago.
Stutz, 42, had just finished helping with wrestling practice at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where he worked the previous 15 years as an assistant athletic trainer.
He grabbed a jump rope after practice.
His memory of the details remains unclear, but he became disoriented and left the practice room, walked through the nearby gym inside the Health and Sports Center and suffered a massive stroke just outside the football offices.
No previous symptoms. No warning signs. No idea that Feb. 7 would change his health, his outlook on life and his career.
“I didn’t know when I woke up that morning that it would be the last day I got to work as an athletic trainer,” said Stutz, his voice trailing off with emotion. “I miss it. I really, really miss it.”
After missing about eight months of work, Stutz is finally back on UNK’s campus. He returned in October and now is working as program coordinator for the student engagement office in the Nebraskan Student Union.
As Thanksgiving approaches, Stutz said this year’s holiday means more.
“My life is so different now. To say I was thankful before the stroke is one thing, but to say I’m thankful now is much different,” he said. “I am so grateful for life, my family, my faith and even having a job.”
“I’m thankful for getting up in the morning and being able to take on the challenges of a new day.”
Stutz came to work as an assistant athletic trainer at UNK in 2005. He is recovering well from the stroke – writing and finding the right words are still a challenge at times – but it’s taken a toll on him mentally.
“There are more tough moments than you want to hear,” he admits. “Some days I’m still trying to get out of a dark place.”
Not being able to return to his job in athletic training has been Stutz’s toughest battle.
“That’s been hard to accept,” Stutz said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be an athletic trainer again. I don’t really have a choice, so I’m trying to make the best of it.”
Stutz said he has a strong support system, and he leans heavily on his faith and relationship with God to get through the difficult days. “I love the message of hope and being in a pit and knowing God still has me.”
This Thanksgiving, Stutz will stay in Kearney – his family used to travel to Colorado on the holiday – and celebrate with his wife Dee, children Dawson and Eliza and mother-in-law Sheryl. His parents Bill and Carol will be there, too.
Stutz will cook the turkey to go with the family’s traditional meal of mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and sweet potatoes. “We’re going to eat and just be thankful for what we have. I just want to hang out and enjoy everything.”
Stutz welcomes, even encourages, people to stop by and visit him at the Nebraskan Student Union. But he isn’t quite ready to return to Loper Athletics facilities.
He misses the camaraderie of being around UNK coaches and athletes at practice and on game days, but those memories are too raw right now.
“I miss football games and hugging all the men before we took the field. I miss being around the wrestlers and being a part of their lives and watching them compete. I miss helping them rehab, talking to them and being part of their lives.
“Someday I hope I can get back to at least attending games, but it’s too hard for me right now. I’m just not there yet.”