From Victim to Champion
September 2, 2011
Steve Kempfer grew up in Jackson, and learned to play hockey well enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Michigan. He was a good student and a good player on some very good days, but few expected Kampfer to make it to the NHL. I confess that I was one of them.
What chance he had seemed to vanish on an October night in 2008, when he was leaving a campus bar. He started jawing with another student, who happened to be on the wrestling team. Things got hot, but it was all just talk, until the wrestler picked up Kampfer and turned him upside in a single, sudden move – then dropped him head first on the sidewalk.
Kampfer lay there unconscious, with blood sliding out of his mouth. His stunned friend thought he might be dead.
They rushed Kampfer to the hospital, where they discovered he’d suffered a closed head injury and a severe skull fracture, near his spine. He woke up on a flatboard, his head in a neck brace and tubes running out of his body.
His coach, Red Berenson, talked to him about the possibility – even the likelihood -- that he would never play hockey again. The goal was simply to make a full recovery, but they wouldn’t know that for three months.
Kampfer was a student in my class at the time, which met twice a week at 8:30 in the morning – not the most popular hour for college students. Just one week after the incident, at 8:30 Monday morning, Steve Kampfer walked back into my class, wearing a neckbrace. He never discussed the injury. He never made any excuses. He never missed a single class.
But his life was far from normal. I found out just how far only this week, when his mom gave me a paper he had written for another class. In it, he explains how hard it was just to eat, shower, go to the bathroom, or read a book. Nothing was the way it had been – not even sleeping.
Beyond the inconvenience, there was fear. When he looked in the mirror and saw his neck supported by a huge plastic brace, he knew if he turned his neck just an inch, he could be paralyzed forever. Any time somebody ran toward him, it scared the hell out of him.
After a few weeks, he started going back to the rink – not to skate, but to ride a stationary bike for five minutes a day. Then eight. Then ten. It was the best part of his day, when he would imagine his bones healing, his neck turning, and himself skating again. And on some days, he let himself dream every hockey players’ dream, of raising the Stanley Cup over his head.
After two months, Kampfer started skating again, and got to work building up his legs, and his heart. Instead of becoming gun-shy, he got tougher, and faster. The next year, he had a strong senior season, earned his degree, then reported to the Boston Bruins’ top farm team in Providence, Rhode Island.
I thought that was great, but was as far as he was going to get. But the Bruins called him up in December, and he played very well, before he injured his knee. Boston went on to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in almost four decades, when Number Four, Bobby Orr, was still a young star.
Kampfer had played in 38 games, three short of the 41 required to get your name engraved on the Stanley Cup. But Boston’s general manager petitioned the league, in the hopes of getting Steven Kampfer’s name on the same silver cylinder as Gordie Howe’s, Wayne Gretzky’s and Steve Yzerman’s. Those legends all have bigger names, of course, but not better stories.
Last week, Steve Kampfer got the Stanely Cup for a day, one of the NHL’s most cherished customs. He could have held his party in Boston or Ann Arbor, but chose to take the greatest trophy in team sports to downtown Jackson, surrounded by his friends and former coaches and teachers.
Naturally, they all wanted to get their picture taken with Kampfer, hoisting the Cup over his head – and that sucker weighs 50 pounds. I saw him do it over a hundred times. I had to remind myself this was same kid who, just two years ago, couldn’t lift his own head.
After Kampfer’s friends took their last picture, I said, “Hey Steve -- you must have gotten a hell of a work out tonight. Are you feeling it?”
“No way,” he said, with a deeply satisfied smile. “This thing never gets heavy.”
Copyright© 2011, Michigan Radio
Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnubacon John U. Bacon is the author of, "Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football," due for release October 25. It can be pre-ordered now.
Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnubacon
John U. Bacon is the author of, "Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football," due for release October 25. It can be pre-ordered now.