Kingman High School head football coach Russ Stryker spent all of the HS football season on a hospital ventilator suffering from COVID-19.
Russ Stryker is home for Christmas, a gift from God, a miracle, he calls it, as he catches up on everything.
How his Kingman High School (Arizona) football team did, while he lay in a hospital bed the entire season on a ventilator, battling complications from COVID-19, coding once, his kidneys trying to shut down, his lungs collapsing.
How his son Garrett, a junior, his first time starting at quarterback, led the Bulldogs offense and, late in the game, intercepted a pass to seal a 16-10 win in their opener against Kingman Academy with Garrett also acting as offensive coordinator because only Garrett and his dad knew the offense inside out.
How the team ended up 2-4 with one game canceled due to the virus.
He didn’t recall any of it, because he was intubated on a ventilator in a fight for his life.
When he went to the hospital on Sept. 22, before his team’s first scrimmage, his oxygen level was at 30. On Dec. 17, when he finally came home, after five weeks in a Kingman hospital, four weeks at Mayo Clinic and three weeks at St. Joseph’s in Phoenix, Stryker said his oxygen was at 98.
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His voice was raspy, but he was talking football again with his son, cherishing every waking moment, breathing easier.
“It’s a miracle,” Stryker, 53, said. “No doubt about it.
“I think the doctor working on me told my wife at one point there was no chance I was going to pull through. And, if I did pull through, I’d probably be in a nursing home. It doesn’t line up with what God is telling me. She kept praying. Mayo put a trach (tracheostomy) in my throat. Just really good doctors. They were able to get everything back in line.”
When Paul Clark, part of Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep’s (Arizona) coaching staff, got a call from his childhood friend during a practice a week of the 5A semifinal game, he stepped away to take it.
Stryker had just gotten the tracheal tube pulled and was finally able to breathe on his own.
“I said, ‘This is the greatest call I ever had,’ ” Clark said. “He’s a fighter. He wanted to get back and up so bad. He had me bring him elastic bands to St. Joseph’s to use for exercises, so he could build back up.”
“Those kids at Notre Dame, at the end of practice, asked for special attention for Coach Stryker.”
‘Fights to the bitter end’
Stephanie Stryker, 49, came down with COVID-19 first in September. Russ tried to stay away but he got it as well. He stayed away from his team and son so they wouldn’t have to go into a two-week quarantine and cancel the season opener.
Stephanie had symptoms — fatigue, fever, chills, body aches — but no respiratory issues. By Day 7, she was feeling better.
“His Day 7 was coming up,” she said. “That night, we were watching TV and said, ‘Tomorrow is Day 7, it will probably be a turning point.’ “
Kingman High School head football coach Russ Stryker spent all of the HS football season on a hospital ventilator suffering from COVID-19. (Photo: Nick Oza)
She didn’t know it would be turning into a near-fatal direction for Russ.
Stephanie said his breathing was short, irregular and he was panting as if he had just run three laps around the block.
She told him, “If you can’t quit panting like that and can’t take a deep breath, I’m going to take you to the ER.”
She took him to the Kingman Regional Medical Center emergency room, somehow finding the strength to lift his 6-foot-2, 280-pound frame out of her Chrysler and into a wheelchair.
“They told me he only had 30 percent oxygen when he got there,” Stephanie said. “I thought they would give him some oxygen and keep him a few days. I had no idea. He had bacterial pneumonia and got a bad infection in the hospital. Once he started to get an infection, his body was so run down.”
Because of the no-visitors COVID-19 protocols, she couldn’t stay there with her husband. Stephanie said the hospital called later that night to tell her he had coded and doctors were working on him. His heart had stopped. They told her to come to the hospital.
“They were only going to let me come because he was dying,” she said. “My sister and best friend prayed for an hour. They got him stable.”
By the fifth week in the hospital, Stryker took another bad turn and it didn’t appear he would make it. But he came through.
The next day, Stephanie decided she needed to move him to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix for a change in care. Because of his size, she said he was taken by airplane, instead of a helicopter.
An Army veteran who served during Desert Storm, Stryker was covered by the VA for medical expenses, and Mayo took him in.
But the transportation via airplane to Mayo was not covered. And that’s costly. Her best friend started a gofundme page with a goal of $50,000 to offset costs. It had raised more than $14,000 as of this week.
At Mayo, Stephanie said she was asked tough questions.
Russ Stryker, with his son Garrett, in Philadelphia, before COVID-19 this fall nearly took his life, causing him to be on a ventilator for more than nine weeks. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Stryker (Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Stryker)
“Do you want us to pursue this or do you want to call it?” was one of them, Stephanie said.
She was told that her husband’s lungs “were trashed,” a byproduct of the COVID, and they didn’t think he’d ever come off the ventilator and would have to spend the rest of his life in a nursing home.
She felt God had something in store for her husband. She told them to do anything they can to save him.
“The next day he was responding,” she said. “Things got better.”
— Coachrstryker (@coachrstryker) November 5, 2020
After four weeks at Mayo, he was moved to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, where, for three weeks, he underwent physical therapy to build his lungs back up and walk on his own again, having had to use a wheelchair as he recovered.
He is home now, but the the road to recovery continues. At least now, he can see a light at the end.
“He never gives up,” Stephanie said. “He fights to the bitter end with everything. That’s one of the things that makes him a great coach. Never, never gives up on kids with their home lives and school. The coaching is the easy part. Dealing with what was going on with kids in their lives, he never gave up on anybody.”
L.D. Schritter worked with Stryker on youth and middle school football teams in Kingman. He knew the man’s resiliency, which motivated the players to battle through.
“It was a challenge,” said Schritter, who helped lead the team. “He’s special. He brings a family atmosphere to the team.
“He was on the vent for our first scrimmage. He was under until the last week.”
Schritter said Garrett Stryker, born into football, showed tremendous leadership while knowing his father could die.
“I think football was the release for him to keep his mind focused,” Schritter said. “He handed it better than any high school player.”
“He was just a junior but the kids rallied behind him,” Stephanie said.
Garrett said it wasn’t his best season, but he was determined to not let his teammates down.
“I tried to step up to be like him as a player, emulate him,” Garrett said. “I knew the offense inside out. It was more fun (calling the plays). But at times, it was stressful. You can see everything. I would try to think what my dad would do and sometimes I would get lost.”
Russ said he is proud of his son for stepping into the role he would have calling the offense.
“I’ve always been my own offensive coordinator,” Russ said. “The only thing that saved us a little bit, this summer I decided to start using my son at quarterback. I’m not positive he was ready. But I knew I trusted him. He has a good football head. He’s a good athlete.
“When I came down sick, the only person who knew the offense was him.”
Garrett figured he ended up calling 75 percent of the offense, and had the ability to check down and change plays at the line of scrimmage.
Once his father was able to talk again, he told his dad about every game, every play.
Today, Stephanie calls Russ “a miracle walking.”
Russ lost 50 pounds over the course of 12 weeks in three hospitals.
He said doesn’t remember anything while in the Kingman hospital and a little bit while at Mayo, because he was sedated.
“Because I didn’t know what was going on, I was shocked that all that stuff had happened,” he said. “I’m still a little bit shocked. It’s traumatic.”
Kingman Athletic Director John Venenga said the school and team never doubted Stryker would survive.
“He was strong in body and faith,” Venenga said. “You know how teams talk about ‘next man up’ when someone gets hurt? That is exactly what our coaching staff did. They all took on a bigger role within the organization.
“Our players continued to stay motivated and played hard from the opening kick off until the final horn sounded. It was always, ‘This is what we are doing until Russ gets back.’ We did what we could to support his son. We continued to stay in touch with his wife to make sure she had what she needed. And of course, we continued to pray for his recovery and to get him back.”
With vaccines starting to be distributed, Russ said he doesn’t think he’ll get the shot, but added, “I’ll still play it safe and wear a mask.”
He goes through physical therapy and occupational therapy. He said he hopes to go back to coaching in early March.
Stryker credits Mayo for saving his life, along with “a good praying wife.”
“God has bigger and better stuff planned for me.”
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