A lot of coaches like to talk about their athletes having the heart of a champion, that intangible quality of being able to persevere through adversity.
Few athletes fit that description better than Riverside-Brookfield High School basketball player Renee Kunkel.
Casual observers of the Bulldogs will see a 5-foot-5-inch junior reserve guard who plays a few minutes each game, sinks the occasional three-pointer and plays hard-nosed defense.
What they can’t see is the three-inch vertical scar in the middle of Kunkel’s chest, a reminder of the open-heart surgery that saved her life last year, or her missing thyroid gland, which was removed in eighth grade to cure the thyroid cancer discovered during a routine physical exam.
So it is not surprising that Kunkel, though she hungers to play a starring role just as much as the next kid, doesn’t mind spending most of her time on the bench cheering on her more heralded teammates. She is a 17-year-old who has been through more than most 70-year-olds and knows not to sweat the small stuff.
“I still want to be a normal teenager but I know that I’m not,” Kunkel said. “I feel like I’m nothing like the average teenager.
“I’ve gone through experiences most adults hopefully will never have to go through. So [I want] just go back to a normal life and enjoying sports and interacting with people and making new friends, sharing my experiences and keeping everyone else positive.”
That Kunkel, a bright and personable young lady, has remained positive through her health problems is nothing short of amazing.
Her recovery from the cancer, which required her to be quarantined for several days because she was radioactive from the radiation treatment, was remarkable enough.
Kunkel was a three-sport athlete her freshman year at RBHS, competing in cross-country, basketball and track. She was set to do all three sports again last season but started having chest pains and shortness of breath.
At first she thought it was the result of scar tissue from the cancer surgery. Doctors suspected asthma but as a precaution sent her to a cardiologist, who also thought it was asthma. But tests revealed a congenital heart defect so rare that it doesn’t have an official name.
The diagnosis stunned Kunkel, who had no family history of the disease. The condition is so deadly that the first symptom often is sudden death. Kunkel could easily have dropped dead at any time.
So on Feb. 4, 2013, Kunkel underwent open-heart surgery at Christ Hospital. As she was prepped for the operation, she knew there was a chance she wouldn’t wake up but maintained an upbeat attitude.
“My family was there supporting me and I knew I had to stay positive,” Kunkel said. “I was like, ‘okay, I’ll see you in two hours.’
“But I knew [it was serious]. The surgeons were like, ‘okay, we can’t tell you there isn’t a risk that you might not survive the operation.’ I know of another basketball player, a boy, who had the same condition and he died.”
But the operation, and the several months of cardiac rehab that followed, were a success and today Kunkel, who has to take medication for life to replace her thyroid function, has no dietary restrictions and takes no heart medication. She sees the cardiologist every six months.
Though she missed over a year of athletics, including off-season basketball workouts, Kunkel made the varsity for the first time.
“Coming back to sports is something that I really wanted to do,” Kunkel said. “The doctors told me do what you can but be careful. If I have chest pain or shortness of breath I need to stop. So my parents are at every game, making sure I’m okay.”
Kunkel still has shortness of breath after prolonged exercise, so she needs frequent breaks and RBHS coach Dallas Till watches her like a hawk.
“I definitely watch her minutes,” Till said. “We have an understanding that she is to tell me when it’s time to come out, and if I see her laboring and I know she wants to fight through it, I say ‘hey, are you okay?’ That’s a conversation we have when she’s on the floor.”
Till knows Kunkel’s family well. Her parents, Bob and Eva, are active in the boosters and all of their four children participated in sports at RBHS. Kunkel’s brother, Kevin, 23, and sister Rachel, 21, ran cross-country and her twin brother, Jimmy, is a football player.
“Just knowing her as a person more than a player, the fact that she was going through that was really traumatic for all of us,” Till said. “We just tried to rally around her and support her. We got sweatshirts with her number on the side.”
While most kids would be happy just to be alive, Till knew Kunkel would do everything possible to return to the court.
“I’m not surprised because it’s Renee,” Till said. “I knew that she loves basketball and loves being part of the team and really wanted to be out there with her teammates.
“I expected her to be back, I just didn’t know at what capacity. The capacity that she’s giving us is more than I expected.”
Kunkel averages about three points per game for the Bulldogs, who are off to a 22-5 start. More importantly, she is an emotional anchor for a young team.
“I’m so happy to be a part of this team,” Kunkel said. “Everyone’s so supportive of each other, no matter if you’re the first person off the bench or the last person off the bench.
“Everyone just tries to stay positive, [no matter] if we’re up or we’re down. I like to see that because I can relate it to personal things in my life or share things that I’ve had to go through and try to boost the morale.
“Basketball is important for everybody on this team and it’s like I want to give everyone that little extra mental edge that most of the other teams don’t have. Mentally we’re a sound, focused team.”
Her value to the team goes well beyond box scores and scoreboards.
“Renee always stays so positive mentally,” RBHS senior guard Caroline Waas said. “Her effort and strength is astounding. I don’t know if I could play basketball if I was in her situation. She’s an inspiration to everybody on our team.”
On Feb. 4, the Bulldogs lost 66-47 to Glenbard South which essentially clinched the Metro Suburban Conference title for the Raiders who lead RBHS by two full games in the standings. More importantly, that date marked the one-year anniversary of Kunkel’s heart surgery, the biggest day of the year in her perspective-filled estimation. Kunkel’s parents treated the team to sub sandwiches from Renee’s favorite place, Alpine in Elmwood Park, and her teammates also gave her a card. Till deemed the memorable day simply a celebration of Kunkel’s life.
“I reminisced from where I was a year ago and how far I’ve come since [the surgery],” Kunkel said. “I didn’t want to the day to be all about me. We lost the game, but no matter the outcome we showed great heart. I’m so grateful for my family, friends, teammates, coaches and the entire RB community for their support. The whole day was very special.”
But every day that she is breathing is a good day for Kunkel, who has learned a lot about life and herself through her ordeal. She is above all a realist.
“I’ve learned so many lessons – I have a little journal of them,” said Kunkel, an honor roll student. “I would say a positive attitude is No. 1. I don’t think I would have gotten through what I have without a positive attitude.
“I never like to show that something is bothering me. I never let it get me down. Like, okay, I have to have open-heart surgery, I’ll make the best of it. We’ll get through this and make it a learning experience.”
Kunkel hopes to play a bigger role next season and is thinking about a career in the medical field, a lifelong interest that has been piqued by her health problems.
Overcoming those problems will ultimately be the legacy Kunkel leaves for her younger teammates.
“It is the contribution she gives us emotionally and the fact that I think the other girls see her out there battling and getting after it and not making a charity case out of herself,” Till said. “It’s like, ‘when I’m feeling bad about myself, think about this kid.’ She’s out there pushing it to the max every single minute that she can. That’s going to push her teammates to do the same.
“I’m really proud of her,” Till added. “I have two kids at home and as they grow up I want them to be like Renee Kunkel.”