A Matter of Life and Death for Cavs' Stupar

By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

When Virginia tight end Jonathan Stupar suffered a foot injury for the second time within a few months last October, he felt the frustrations many athletes face when their seasons end prematurely. Redshirted as a freshman in 2003, Stupar worked hard last summer to emerge as a backup behind all-American Heath Miller. But Stupar broke his foot during training camp, missed the first five games and then aggravated the foot injury after playing in only two games.

"I was depressed because I'd worked so hard," Stupar said. "I was just so crushed."

Stupar couldn't have known the second foot surgery would ultimately save his life. During a final checkup of his foot in January, Stupar told Virginia trainers of symptoms that led doctors to diagnose a potentially fatal heart condition. For more than 20 years, Stupar had lived with heart disease that could have killed him. But not until Stupar broke his foot did he realize his heart was a ticking time bomb.

"The doctors said there was a 90 percent chance I could have dropped dead," Stupar said.

So when the sophomore made three catches for 34 yards Saturday, his family, friends, teammates and coaches had more to celebrate than a season-opening victory over Western Michigan. Fully healed from heart surgery, Stupar and sophomore Tom Santi are being counted on to replace Miller, the greatest tight end in U-Va. history.

"The bottom line is the broken foot saved his life," said Steve Stupar, the player's father. "We feel very fortunate. There are a lot of kids who have died from this."

Only now does Stupar realize how close he was to dying. By the time the Cavaliers left in December to play Fresno State at the MPC Computers Bowl in Boise, Idaho, Stupar's foot had healed enough for him to begin running and lifting weights again. When Stupar returned to his parents' home in State College, Pa., for winter break, he went to a local gym to work out. After the workout, he went back to his parents' house and showered, walked downstairs and watched television while his family prepared for dinner.

A few minutes later, Stupar called for his father and told him he had lost his peripheral vision and could only see straight ahead. After about 30 minutes, his vision was clear. His parents called a doctor, who told them to take their son to a hospital for tests. A CT scan revealed nothing abnormal, so Jonathan and his parents figured he had overexerted himself after going so long without working out.

"We felt a little bit at ease about it," Steve Stupar said.

A few days later, Stupar, 21, left home to begin spring semester classes at Virginia and stopped at a cousin's house in Baltimore on the way. There, he had a couple of fainting spells after working out, but didn't think much of it. So he climbed into his car and finished the drive to Charlottesville.

When Virginia trainers were checking Stupar's foot the following day, he mentioned his loss of vision and fainting spells. One of the team physicians was standing nearby and overheard the conversation. The doctor ordered Stupar to go to University of Virginia Medical Center immediately for tests on his heart.

Stupar called home later that night and told his father trainers said his foot was healed. He then matter-of-factly added, "Oh, yeah, I told them about me fainting and they took me down to do some tests on my heart, but they said it wasn't a big deal."

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