It should have been just another tournament for Castle View senior Joe Hunsaker.
He knew the routine: Wake up early, meet at the school to carpool, weigh-ins at 7 a.m., wrestle at 9. He'd done it time and time again. Only this time, by the end of the day, Hunsaker's life would be changed forever.
On Feb. 1, Castle View's wrestling team headed to Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver. Hunsaker weighed in at 194 pounds. He had a bye the first round in the 197-pound weight class.
“I sat around for a while and was just sort of napping,” he said. “My time rolled around and I started to warm up.”
He stepped onto the mat. The match started like many of his matches had that year. He found himself getting off to a slow start and quickly losing points.
“I wouldn't say the guy was a good wrestler,” he recalled, “but he wasn't bad. Somebody I definitely should've beaten pretty good.”
Hunsaker's opponent took him down and threw him in a double wing, a common wrestling move that stacks an opponent onto their shoulders.
That's when things went wrong.
“I remember feeling the pop and the fracture,” he said. “My whole body from my neck down went numb and warm and I couldn't move anything.”
He rolled to his stomach and lay still.
And he began to pray.
“That's just the first thing I did,” he remembered. “That's pretty much the only thing I did until my surgery.”
A trainer rushed over and waited for an ambulance to arrive. It took him to the nearest hospital, Swedish Medical Center, about five minutes from the high school.
Doctors determined the young wrestler had dislocated his C5 vertebrae from his C6 vertebrae, which are located in the middle of the cervical spine and affect movement throughout the body.
Within two hours, Hunsaker underwent surgery to straighten his spine. After nine days at Swedish, he was transferred to nearby Craig Hospital, one of the world's best neck and spinal hospitals.
“This situation sucks,” said his father, Jim Hunsaker, who was also at the tournament that day and is the team photographer. “But we've been blessed along the way.”
Currently, Joe has full movement of his arms with the exception of his triceps and fingers. Movement in his fingers and triceps is gradually returning. He spent 10 weeks at Craig before returning home April 16.
The goal now is to get healthy.
Road to recovery
At Craig, he would attend physical therapy classes every day during the week. Now, plans call for him to go to physical therapy three days per week and to work out at the Craig gym a couple more days a week. Wendy Hunsaker, Joe's mother, is at almost every class with him. That way, “when he comes home, we know how to do everything,” she said.
While Joe was in the hospital, Wendy would arrive every day at about 9 a.m. Jim would go to work at 8 a.m. but then leave at about noon. Both parents would stay at Craig until 10 or 11 p.m. each day.
The Castle View senior used to wake up at 6:30 am and go through physical therapy every day at Craig. Now, he wakes up at 8 a.m. and commutes to Craig for physical and occupational therapy from 10 a.m. until noon. After a one-hour lunch break, he starts lifting from 1- 2:30 p.m. before heading back home. In the afternoon, he likes to spend time with his friends and relax.
“The best part of the day is physical therapy,” he said, “either that or whenever I get to work out.”
During physical therapy, he keeps the same competitive drive he had with wrestling and football. “The therapist will say `Are you done? Do you need a break?' and Joe will just say `No, we can keep going,'” Wendy says.
On the weekends at Craig, Joe would spend six to seven hours visiting with friends. Now that he is home, visitors come and see him there.
He uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, and a manual one on occasion, and invites his visitors to try the manual one the way he uses it. The manual wheelchair is difficult for him to use because he has limited feeling and movement in his fingers.
He still hangs out and watches movies with his friends at home. “It's like old times before he was hurt,” said his father. “It's great.”
For Joe, one of the greatest challenges has been the loss of use of his fingers. “Having to figure out how to use your hands or do different things” is difficult, he said, adding that he has occasional, limited movement in his fingers. “That's the biggest thing, not being able to use your fingers.”
Exactly when he will regain full mobility in his fingers and arms is unknown.
Despite all that's happened, he maintains a positive mindset.
“I can't go back and change anything that's happened, so I just have to make the best of what I have,” he said. “That's what's going to make things easier for me. It sucks, but instead of trying to go back and change everything, I just try to make things the best that I can.”
One of the adjustments Joe is making now is getting around at home, where the facilities are not set up as well for wheelchairs.
“It's one step towards getting back to normal,” said Jim. “We can be with Joe and hang out with Joe.”
His injury has inspired support from all over the nation with 48 states being represented through the Facebook page, “Joe's Battle Back.” Kaleb Geiger and Hudsen Marker, wrestling teammates and friends of Joe's, also kick-started a “TEAM HUNSAKER” T-shirt campaign, which has raised money to help with medical expenses.
The medical costs are daunting, the family said, so they greatly appreciate all the help. Another fundraiser is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. May 9 at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. Olympic wrestling gold medal winner Rulon Gardner is scheduled to appear with Joe for an evening of food and support.
One of the biggest inspirations has come from family, friends and, even, strangers, who have responded to Joe's unexpected trial with generosity of spirit, the family said.
During halftime of the Douglas County-Castle View basketball game on Feb. 21, Huskies and Sabercats filled the gym with the chant “We Love Joe! We Love Joe!”
Wendy was there. “I thought to myself, `Way to go, Joe,'” she said. “To have it all contained in one room, to have one common cause, it was amazing.”
The overwhelming support, along with the Hunsakers' unwavering faith, keeps them all moving forward.
There is no doubt, Jim said: “God has got a plan for Joe.”