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."
"What are you talking about your heart?" his father asked. "When did you faint?"
When Stupar called his father the following day, he had frightening news. Stupar had Wolfe Parkinson White Syndrome, a sometimes fatal condition that causes the heart to beat irregularly. Doctors told Stupar if he hadn't broken his foot and had practiced and played in games more than he had the previous season, there was a 90 percent chance he would have died.
"That was pretty eye-opening," Stupar said. "I'd had this condition my whole life, but didn't know it."
An electro-cardiologist offered Stupar two options: undergo risky corrective surgery or give up football and strenuous exercise for the rest of his life and the condition could be controlled by drugs. For Stupar, the decision was easy -- he wanted to continue playing football for the Cavaliers and possibly in the NFL. He had grown up watching Penn State football in his home town and his father had played defensive tackle for the Nittany Lions during the 1970s. His uncle, Jeff Hostetler, was a star quarterback at West Virginia and led the New York Giants to victory in Super Bowl XXV in 1991.
"I wasn't going to sit around and do nothing for the rest of my life," Stupar said.
Stupar's parents left the decision up to their son, but they worried about the risks of surgery. Virginia Coach Al Groh was out of town recruiting when he learned of Stupar's condition. By the time he talked to Stupar, the player had already decided to have surgery.
"It certainly was a very shocking thing," Groh said.
According to the Cleveland Clinic Heart Center Web site, Wolfe Parkinson White Syndrome is caused by an extra node in the electrical system between the top and bottom chambers of the heart. In a normal heart, there are three connections on the right atrium and one on the left. Stupar's heart had two connections in the left atrium. The extra impulses caused by the additional node can travel around the heart very quickly, in a circular pattern, causing the heart to beat unusually fast, sometimes resulting in a life-threatening arrhythmia. When doctors tested Stupar's heart, his resting heart rate was nearly twice the normal rate.
To correct the condition, surgeons must eliminate the additional microscopic node in the heart -- without damaging the normal connections. The additional node is destroyed through burning or freezing and usually takes several tries. The surgery can last as long as 12 hours and proves to be fatal for some patients.
"If you knock out a good connection, you're done," Stupar said.
When Stupar's parents arrived at his hospital room before surgery, their son was connected to several wires and monitors.
"It was scary seeing your son laying there on a table and the doctor is saying, 'This is a risky surgery and there are some patients that don't make it,' " Steve Stupar said. "I said, 'Jonathan, are you sure you want to do this?' But he wanted to do it. Football isn't life, but it's very important to Jonathan."
Doctors inserted wires near Stupar's collarbone and groin. During the procedure, the surgeon told Stupar's parents he wouldn't have done the surgery if he had known how close the nodes in his heart really were, his father said. "Jonathan was about a quarter of an inch away from never playing football again," Steve Stupar said.
The surgeon was able to freeze the additional node on the first try, less than three hours into surgery. But then Stupar's heart went into an arrhythmia, so surgeons had to stop his heart and restart it at a normal rate with defibrillators, his father said.
But the surgery was a success and less than three months later, Stupar was running and lifting weights again with his teammates during spring practice. He is finally healthy and hopes to live up to the potential that made him one of the country's most highly recruited players during his senior season at State College Area High School.
Stupar, 6 feet 3, 250 pounds, was offered scholarships by Florida State, Ohio State and Southern California, but wasn't recruited by Penn State, his father's alma mater and his hometown college. The Nittany Lions had only 11 scholarships to give out when Stupar was being recruited, and signing a tight end wasn't a priority. So Stupar chose Virginia, which also has offered a scholarship to his younger brother, Nathan, a high school junior.
If Nathan Stupar chooses to play for the Cavaliers, one of the first things he'll do in Charlottesville is undergo heart tests for Wolfe Parkinson White Syndrome, a new medical requirement for every Virginia football player.
"They say God works in mysterious ways," Steve Stupar said. "Here we were worried about a broken foot that wouldn't heal properly, but in the end, it revealed a heart condition that could have killed my son."
Leg injury led to discovery of a heart condition that could have been fatal.
"The doctors said there was a 90 percent chance I could have dropped dead," said Virginia sophomore tight end Jonathan Stupar.