For Love of The Game
By Carlos Valle, Athletics Media Relations
When asked about his decision to attend the University of Virginia, senior tight end Jonathan Stupar said, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
This is not an unexpected answer since Stupar has the opportunity to be a part of one of the country’s elite tight end squads. But there is more to Stupar’s decision. Playing college football at Virginia may have saved his life.
After redshirting his first year, Stupar was eager to get on the field. However, he broke his foot in training camp in 2004, required surgery and was hampered by the injury for almost half the season. After returning to the field and playing in just two games, he broke his right foot again. Stupar had to have a second foot surgery to replace a screw from the first surgery with a larger screw in order for everything to stay in place.
The surgery went smoothly but during his recovery period, Stupar suffered fainting spells on several occasions. During a final check-up of the foot after the surgery, a Virginia athletic trainer overheard Stupar describe the fainting and other symptoms that led to the diagnosis of a potentially fatal heart condition Wolfe Parkinson White Syndrome.
This condition 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 four node connections but Stupar had five. The fifth node adds extra impulses to the heart and can cause it to beat up to three times faster than the average rate. This abnormal heartbeat could lead to a life-threatening arrhythmia if not corrected.
Stupar was shocked when he heard the diagnosis. It really made him think about his life and his future.
“It was amazing,” Stupar said. “Once they found out about the Wolfe Parkinson White Syndrome they told me, ‘If you hadn’t broken your foot, we probably would never have found it.’ Who knows what could have happened? That’s when it really first hit me that it really was a blessing and I had to re-think everything all over again. I thought about what my real purpose was and what I was doing out there when I was playing the game. It changes your life when you have something like that happen to you.”
It was Stupar’s dedication to the game of football and desire to get back on the field that caused him to aggravate the foot injury and require a second surgery. Had it not been for his determination and hard work during the rehabilitation process, Stupar’s condition might never have been discovered and the quality of life he enjoys today might not have been possible.
“To be able to try and push yourself through a broken bone means pain isn’t really an option,” Stupar said. “When it gets to that point it’s just really amazing what the mind can block out from the body. It ended up being a really good thing, obviously.”
Upon the discovery of the Wolfe Parkinson White Syndrome, Stupar had two choices. His first option was to take corrective medication for the rest of his life, which would limit his ability to partake in strenuous physical activity. His second option was to undergo heart surgery to remove the extra node. The choice was clear for Stupar.
“I didn’t want football to end,” Stupar said. “If I had chosen to take medication, I wouldn’t have been able to play football. Having the surgery was the only way I would have been able to keep playing. I felt that I was at a point in my life where I had more to give to the game of football than what I had done so far. For me it was an easy decision but for my family, with the risk of the surgery, it was more of a challenging decision for them. But ultimately it was up to me and I prayed about it a lot and felt like it was the right thing to do.”
Stupar has never second guessed his decision His love for the game and his dedication to it is easy for everyone to see, including teammate and fellow senior tight end Tom Santi.
“Jon is a great talent,” Santi said. “He is a special player and a big asset to this team. He is dedicated to this team and I really enjoy spending time with him.”
It was the people that Stupar spent time with as a child that helped foster his love for the game of football. Growing up in a family where becoming a football player was almost a rite of passage, Stupar was exposed to the game at a very young age and instantly knew he wanted to play.
“In 1990 I got to see my uncle play for the New York Giants in the Super Bowl,” Stupar said. “I was a really little kid and I was watching the game at my grandma’s house. I just remember watching him play on TV and wanting to do what he was doing. When it runs in the family, I think it’s just something that you want to do. It just becomes part of you.”
Football certainly runs in the Stupar family. Steve Stupar, Jonathan’s father, was a defensive lineman at Penn State. Stupar’s younger brother, Nathan, plays linebacker for the Nittany Lions as did his uncle Doug Hostetler. Perhaps the best-known member of this football family is Stupar’s other uncle, Jeff Hostetler, who began his career at Penn State before becoming the starting quarterback at West Virginia and eventually moving to the NFL to lead the New York Giants to victory in Super Bowl XXV.
“I remember countless times growing up I would be with my uncles and my dad out in the backyard,” Stupar said. “They would teach me different things since they had a lot of knowledge of the game, playing in college and going to the NFL. All of their knowledge played a huge role in developing me as a player and developing my skills to become who I am today.”
Growing up in State College, Pa., the home of Penn State, Stupar had a very bright high school career. Stupar finished his senior year with 50 receptions for 475 yards and four touchdowns and was heralded as one of the nation’s top tight ends. Despite Stupar’s impressive performance, he was unable to follow the family tradition and play for Penn State. Going into the 2003 season, Penn State only had 12 scholarships to give out and already had three redshirt freshman tight ends. The news came as a bit of a disappointment to Stupar and his family.
“At first it was a little disappointing because I grew up there,” said Stupar. “They are my hometown team. It’s kind of like Chris Long growing up here. It turned out to be a blessing though because it opened me up to all the other schools around the country. I had a mindset growing up that was ‘Penn State, Penn State, Penn State.’ But you get older and things don’t work out and it just opens you up to a lot of new things. There is so much else out there that I never knew about, so it was a real blessing that they didn’t have a spot for me.”
Stupar was exactly right. The fact the Nittany Lions did not have a spot for him would prove to be a blessing in more ways than one. Initially, it led to Stupar being recruited by schools like Florida State, Ohio State and USC. However, Stupar focused on each program’s coaching staff. He knew he would have to feel comfortable with the coaches in order to make the most of his college football experience. This was one of the many factors that led to him committing to Virginia.
“One of the real reasons was Al Groh and the coaching staff at the time,” Stupar said. “They are just great guys. They did a great job recruiting me and it’s far enough away from home that I get to grow up by myself. The academics at this school are amazing. The program was on a rise and everything just clicked and it felt right, so I made my decision based on that.”
It was a life-changing decision that truly had life-changing results.