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June 25, 2022

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A Lasting Impact: Concussions lead Kunz to end football with Freedom Bowl

Columbia River grad had scholarship to play at Montana Tech

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

Nathan Kunz didn’t need medical professionals to diagnose another concussion for him to put an end to his college football career months before it began.

He knew it in March, walking out of Chieftain Stadium at Columbia River High School after taking not one, but two blows to the head during a lacrosse match.

But before doctors diagnosed his third known concussion since eighth grade, Kunz got proactive about his health and well-being. By his choice, he’s forgoing a scholarship to play football at NAIA Montana Tech, a program he celebrated signing his letter of intent with in front of friends, family and coaches Feb. 7.

But Kunz said he feels at peace with his decision to step away from the sport after Saturday’s annual Freedom Bowl Classic because the short-term risks aren’t worth the possible long-term effects.

“It’s hard not doing something you love,” said Kunz, 18. “Any football guy knows, that’s what they want to do — play college football. … I know that down the road it’s not good for you at all and the more you get, the worse it is.

“I need my brain to be at full capacity.”

Kunz graduated from Columbia River last month and is one of four Chieftains on the West squad. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. at McKenzie Stadium. Proceeds from the game highlighting the area’s top seniors benefit Shiners Hospitals for Children nationwide, including its Portland location.

And Saturday is all about having fun one last time for Kunz at defensive back. It’s a game he knows will be bittersweet while closing one door and opening another.

“Things happen for a reason,” he said, “and I believe that, so I feel like that was a sign for me not to play.

“It’s time to move on for a new chapter of life.”

At all levels of football — from Pop Warner to the NFL — leagues are making changes in response to increases awareness of concussions and its long-term health effects. New rules teach players how they should tackle, and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, the governing body for the state’s high school sports, mandates all athletes must sit out if they’re suspected to have suffered a concussion with rigid rules for athletes returning to play.

For Kunz, he’s stayed a step ahead of some of his peers on the impact of head injuries by keeping up with latest concussion-related news and data, calling it a “warning sign … that concussions are very, very dangerous.”

“Even as a high schooler,” he added, “they’re dangerous.”

Last month, the family of Tyler Hilinski, the Washington State backup quarterback who died by suicide in January, revealed that evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was found in their son’s brain. CTE is a degenerative brain disease caused by excessive hits to the head.

That made a lasting impact on Kunz, too.

“I feel that opened up a lot of peoples’ eyes,” he said.

Kunz knew how severe the two blows sustained to the head March 28 in a lacrosse match against Union, eventually leading to his life-altering decision.

Kunz recounts in detail the hits that caused more than a month of headaches, dizziness and a daze-like state, leading to difficulties concentrating in school: The upper-cut to the chin he didn’t see coming, and the second and harder hit came bracing for a defender’s impact trying to corral a ball in the midfield.

Looking back, Kunz knows he should’ve exited the game after the first hit, but ignored the throbbing headache that progressively worsened.

He regrets not putting his pride aside and listening to his body.

“That wasn’t smart of me,” Kunz said.

That was Kunz’s third diagnosed concussion in five years. The first two happened playing football, including one sophomore year that forced him to miss most of the season.

He missed the rest of lacrosse season following the latest one, in addition to missing five weeks of track and field. He returned in time to run the 100 meters at subdistricts, then ran in the team’s district-bound 4×100 relay.

Kunz said he feels 100 percent for Saturday’s game, coached by Dwight Patterson, his position coach for three years at River. With the help of Patterson, Kunz transformed from a quarterback to a first-team all-league cornerback as a junior and senior. While tough to watch what Kunz has endured, Patterson knows there’s light at the end of the tunnel outside of football.

“He has a plan,” Patterson said. “It’s almost like football was his Plan B, and he had a main plan.

That plan is now attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and eventually enter the medical field as a radiologist.

And, no more football — except watching, of course.

“It’s a good thing BYU has a football team,” Kunz said, “because I’ll be at every home game. That’s for sure.”

FREEDOM BOWL CLASSIC

When, where: Saturday at McKenzie Stadium

Games: CCYF at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.; senior all-stars at 7:30 p.m.

Head coaches: Columbia River’s Dwayne Patterson (West), Union’s Joon Apulu (East).

Cost: $10 (all day); proceeds help benefit Shriners Hospitals for Children.

More info, including complete rosters: freedombowlclassic.org

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