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The life Steve Klemz knew changed 40 years ago

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Steve KlemzThe dreams always return in October, just before the anniversary.

They’re vivid. They’re graphic.

They’re always the same.

Steve Klemz is 17 again. He’s playing football. He’s playing hockey.

He’s running free. And then he’s not.

“What happens is when I run down the football field, my legs turn to rubber,” Klemz said. “If I jump over the boards and start skating, my legs turn to rubber.

“I can’t get going. It’s very weird. The dreams are always frustrating. They piss you off.”

Almost 40 years ago — on Oct. 25, 1974 — St. Cloud Technical High School running back Steve Klemz broke his neck in the final minutes of the Tech-Apollo football game at Clark Field.

He’s been a quadriplegic ever since. But he’s also been so many other things.

He’s been challenged, and challenging.

He’s been angry, and depressed.

He’s been a counselor, and a comfort to countless others.

He’s been a character, and sometimes a smartass.

He’s been an inspiration, even though he doesn’t necessarily want to be.

“People say, ‘Well, you’ve done so well. You’ve accepted. You’ve moved on.’ I didn’t accept anything,” said Klemz, now 57, from his home in Tampa, Florida. “Every day’s a challenge for me.

“I’m just doing what’s in my blood — work ethic. To be disabled was never an option. Never.”

Klemz has been outside of his body, then trapped back inside of it.

He’s railed against that reality, then come to terms with it.

“I’ve had my last rites three times. I had an out-of-body experience,” Klemz said.

“I’ve met Moses. I once played poker with God, and lost.

“You know what he said? ‘Turn your ass around and get back. We’re not ready for you yet.’

Through it all, Klemz has been … alive.

Forty years ago, that wasn’t a given.

A sense of purpose

Since 1986, Klemz has been a rehabilitation counselor at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida. He works primarily with Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans as they rehabilitate from traumatic brain injuries, and with their families.

“I think for a guy like that — and I haven’t been in a wheelchair for 40 years — but it gives him some purpose,” said Tom Luckemeyer, Klemz’s high school football teammate and lifelong friend. “He’s given back to society.”

“They’re all snowflakes: There’s no two that are alike,” Klemz said of his patients. “They had their last rites. Then the respirator came off, and now they’re here.

“It’s pretty rewarding. The families that come to group (counseling) are desperate. And then they hear from someone else.

“A lot of families will start crying, because they haven’t met anybody before like that.”

It’s fairly safe to say they’ve never met anybody like Klemz, either. He’s been confined to a wheelchair for four decades, but his dynamic personality hasn’t.

“He’s quite a talker,” said Ann Klemz, Steve’s mother, who lives in Waite Park. (His father, Dayle Klemz, died in 2006.) “He doesn’t run out of words.”

Klemz has some feeling in his forefingers and thumbs, giving him limited use of his hands.

“I can wrap my hand around a phone, or a beer, or a bottle of water,” he said. “I wrap my fingers around, I pull my wrist back and it tightens around whatever I’m grabbing.

“I can grab a fork. I can grab a can. I can drive a vehicle. I live pretty much independently.”

“We’ve lived with that. It’s something you never forget,” Ann Klemz said. “It hurts, but you have to be proud of him for what he’s accomplished.”

That type of career wasn’t on Klemz’s radar in fall 1974. Neither was that type of physical reality.

But then came the fateful play at Clark Field, and everything changed.

The final run

Klemz was a senior at Tech, the captain of the hockey team and the star running back of the football team, among other things.

“This guy was always the guy,” Luckemeyer said. “He dated the homecoming queen. He was always a ladies’ guy.”

“I got away with a lot of (stuff) from being captain of the hockey team, and from getting headlines in the newspaper from football,” Klemz said with a laugh. “I had a lot of fun.”

He was having fun on Oct. 25, 1974, too, in the crosstown rivalry game against Apollo.

“He was having the game of his life,” said Luckemeyer, who came home that night from the University of Minnesota to watch the Tigers play the Eagles. “It was the last football game he was ever going to play.”

“Fourth quarter, 3-4 minutes left,” recalled Klemz, who took a handoff and then spun away from initial contact, lunging ahead for extra yardage. “They always said put your head down.

“I put my head down and hit a linebacker head-on. It was like two rams hitting each other.

“Something had to give out.”

Something did.

“I was standing on the sideline when he got hit,” said Luckemeyer, who played four years of college football as a Gophers defensive back. “He went limp, and I thought, ‘That’s not good.’ ”

Klemz had broken his fifth and sixth vertebrae. Medical personnel stabilized his neck with a board, and he initially was taken to St. Cloud Hospital.

“I got to the hospital, and I’m getting my last rites,” Klemz said. “And I’m going, ‘Whaaat?’

“I’ve got a date with the homecoming queen. I’ve got my parents’ Cadillac.

“And now they get a saw, and they start cutting off my uniform. They cut my helmet off and the whole thing,” he said. “And I’m going, ‘Wow, what’s up?’ Because I’m awake during this whole ordeal.”

The decision was made to transfer Klemz to the University of Minnesota Hospital. It was on the ambulance ride down U.S. Highway 10 that the reality — and the pain — began to sink in.

“We hit the railroad tracks, I think in Big Lake, and I screamed bloody murder,” Klemz said. “Finally, I felt pain.

“They were sticking pins in my toes, and I couldn’t feel nothing. And I couldn’t see anything. When we hit (the tracks), the pain hit so hard in my neck.”

Once Klemz got to the hospital in Minneapolis, something hit even harder.

“The resident comes up and says, ‘I’m doctor so-and-so. And I’ve just gotta let you know, you broke your neck. You have a spinal cord injury,” Klemz said.

“And then he said, ‘You’re never going to move anything below your chin for the rest of your life.’

About a month later, Klemz was named to the All-State football team.

He was lying in a U of M Hospital bed at the time, a tube down his throat, able to communicate only by blinking his eyes.

He turned 18 in that same bed in December. It was Friday the 13th.

Grim reality

Other doctors at the hospital echoed the initially grim prognosis.

“When he broke his neck, the doctor told him he probably wouldn’t live to 40 years old,” Ann Klemz said. “They were very blunt. We were in such shock.”

“I’d go visit him almost every day, to the point where he almost didn’t want to see me,” Luckemeyer said.

Klemz didn’t want to see anybody.

Not in that state — flat on his back, tubes protruding from his body, unable to speak. He could communicate only with his eyes: One blink meant yes, two meant no.

“I didn’t want anybody to see me like that,” Klemz said. “I was a mess. It was gross.”

“He almost checked out on us a few times,” Ann Klemz said. “It was very traumatic.”

Klemz’s dad was with Steve 24/7 for his first 25 days at the U of M Hospital, then finally went home.

Klemz very nearly did the same.

“They get a call — Steve’s taken a turn for the worse,” Klemz said. “I went out.

“I just had an out-of-body experience. I was out of my body. I was above, looking up. And I could see everything.

“And then the Code Blue team came in and woke me up,” he said. “And I was never so pissed off in my life.”

It was an experience that helped shape Klemz’s future, from that moment to this very day.

“That’s why I’m not afraid to die,” he said. “There’s no pressure. There’s no pain. There’s no struggling. There’s nothing.

“I didn’t panic. You just float up and it’s beautiful. It’s great. No pain at all.

“Then they brought me back, and I was one pissed-off person. That’s where I say I played poker with God and lost.

“At that point, I wanted to die,” Klemz said. “I wanted to go back where I was.”

Eventually, he came home to St. Cloud instead. It was time to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

A new direction

Klemz finished his senior year at Tech, but most of his focus was on his situation.

“You’re thinking it’s a dream, kinda,” he said. “The depression and the denial — the denial went away.

“But reality slapped you in the face, whether you wanted it or not.”

His turnaround started by enrolling in classes at St. Cloud State University. Getting an electric wheelchair was another big step.

“Once I got an electric wheelchair, I could go and do anything,” Klemz said. “And then when I got my van and was free to drive — that really gave me freedom, big time.”

Still, it was difficult for Klemz to deal with life’s new realities.

It’s still difficult.

“By far the hardest thing I had to deal with in my whole life is body image,” he said. “I couldn’t accept it. It was just so hard after being a strong, muscular (athlete).

“Now all of a sudden you have to ask people to drain your leg bag. It was just so hard to ask for help — it was the hardest thing I ever did.

“I would go down dark alleys, full of potholes, when it’s 15-20 below,” Klemz said. “I could have just asked someone, ‘Can you walk me to my van?’

“Wouldn’t ask. Wouldn’t ask for help. So stupid.”

There were many times when Klemz was tempted to quit. But he didn’t, finishing his undergraduate degree and then earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology at St. Cloud State University in 1982.

“He’s a big thinker,” Luckemeyer said. “He’s a bigger thinker than he’d ever have been if he didn’t get hurt.”

“He’s done so much in his lifetime,” Ann Klemz said. “It wasn’t all easy.

“He could’ve sat back and said, ‘I’m handicapped. Take care of me.’ But he chose not to do that.”

Instead, Klemz worked at the St. Cloud VA until 1986, when he was offered the job in Tampa. It meant leaving his support system, but he did it.

He had to. He had to keep moving forward.

Making a difference

Klemz has been lauded by an array of famous people during his 28 years in Tampa.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf gave Klemz his Army jacket. Gen. Tommy Franks and Gen. David Petraeus gave him sets of their dog tags. Klemz met President Bill Clinton, and NFL coach Tony Dungy (a college teammate of Luckemeyer’s).

But his biggest impact has been on people you’ve never heard of — patients and their families, all trying to reclaim their lives after suffering traumatic injuries.

St. Cloud native Steve Klemz (right) consults with Dr. Steven Scott, D.O., chief of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Florida (Photo: Photo courtesy of James A. Haley Veterans Hospital )
St. Cloud native Steve Klemz (right) consults with Dr. Steven Scott, D.O., chief of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Florida
(Photo: Photo courtesy of James A. Haley Veterans Hospital )

Sometimes, that means emotional family counseling sessions.

Sometimes, that means something more confrontational.

“Every once in a while,” Klemz said, “when I have a bad hair day.

“You always have some guy who doesn’t want to participate in therapy because of whatever reason. It can be anything — ‘You don’t know what I’m going through, I’m in pain.’ I’ve heard it all.”

On this particular day, a patient had his arms strapped to a pull-down barbell above his head. He wasn’t pulling.

“I got side by side by him, and I go, ‘It’s time to get to work, soldier.’ And you don’t call a Marine a soldier. They hate that,” Klemz said.

“He goes, ‘I’m not a (expletive) soldier. I’m a Marine.’

“And I said, ‘You know what? You remind me of a little girl at the bus stop I saw this morning. It’s time to drop your skirt and pull up your pants, you big pussy.’

“I’m nose-to-nose. He had muscles. He could have killed me.

“And he goes, ‘You have no (expletive) idea what I’m going through.’

“And I said, ‘You couldn’t carry my (expletive) jock strap for one goddamn day.’

“I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to give you, Marine, two weeks to grieve. And if I come down here one more time, and you aren’t working, I’m going to set off a spasm in your ass.’

“And I left.”

Sometimes, tough love works best. Klemz has seen it.

“I’ve had a bunch of guys come up to me and say, ‘You know, I hated your guts. I hated you so much. But had it not been for you …’ ” he said.

One of those ex-patients pulled up next to Klemz recently in his van. Inside with him was his new family.

“He said, ‘I want to thank you so much. This is my wife,” Klemz said. “And then he showed me his child — 1 year old.

“I got almost teary-eyed.”

But really, Klemz was just using the same reverse psychology he heard from the U of M doctor who told him he’d never move anything below his chin.

Klemz met that doctor again the year after his injury.

“I said, ‘Doctor, I can move my shoulders and my arms,’ ” Klemz said. “And he goes, ‘You know why I told you that? I told you that because look at you. You’re coming across as a smartass and you’re smiling.

“ ‘It looks like you’re happy because you showed me up. If I’d said there’s a chance you might walk, we don’t know, you would have been depressed.

“ ‘So I made it sound like the worst scenario. But I knew inside that there’s a good chance you’re going to be able to move partially.’

“That was kind of a trick thing.”

Living with a purpose

Klemz’s support system starts with his family: his mother, Ann, and sisters Diane (Lommel), Lori (Albers) and Brenda (Boese).

It includes close friend Sheila Moree, who helps Klemz around his home and is a frequent travel companion.

It also includes Pat and Vickie Sufka, childhood friends and St. Cloud transplants who live 10 minutes away in Tampa. They’ve become Klemz’s surrogate Florida family.

“Every holiday, it’s mandatory attendance that I go to the Sufkas,” he said. “This Sufka thing has kept me going.”

“He’s had some great people,” Luckemeyer said. “He wasn’t always the perfect patient, and he wasn’t always smiley and bubbly.

“But he can drive. He can drink. He can talk smart.”

Still, life is never easy for Klemz. It’s never going to be.

He knows that. And he’s tired of being told how inspirational he is.

“Every day, something’s happening in my life, whether my wheelchair stops, or I tip over, or I get stuck in my van,” he said. “Every day’s a challenge. A lot of times when people see me, I’ll put a mask on.

“I just want to work and be independent and live alone. And I’m doing that. From a personal and a professional perspective, I know what works, and what works for me in my life.”

What works is making a positive impact, in countless lives. Unquestionably, Klemz has done exactly that.

“Klemz just motors on. He’s really something,” Luckemeyer said. “He made the best out of it.”

But then along comes October, and the dreams start all over again.

Living the dream

Forty years after those helmets collided at Clark Field, the memory still seems fresh.

“I can’t believe 40 years have passed,” Ann Klemz said. “It still seems fairly new.”

So do the dreams. They’re classic post-traumatic stress disorder, something that Klemz — a certified PTSD counselor — sees all the time in his patients.

“They come every year. Every year in October,” he said. “And then they can come intermittently — something can trigger them. Just from doing this article, guess what happened to me? I started having those dreams.

“I didn’t want to tell anyone. I didn’t want it diagnosed. I’m not suicidal or anything. But it really makes you crazy.”

And they’re always the same.

He’s running. He’s skating.

His legs turn to rubber.

“I’ve actually broken down and gone, ‘Geez, I just can’t take it,’ ” Klemz said. “There’s nothing I can do about it. You’re helpless. It has to do with something physical that I can’t do. The dreams are so real.

“The next day I always move on. But it’s the ‘what ifs’ — what if Steve would be walking? What if?

“There’s no conclusion to these dreams. You’re always left hanging,” he said. “I want to go back in the dream and finish it. But I can’t. It was just severed, just cut off.”

So, Klemz lives with it. He moves on.

The dreams are a facet of who he is, merely part of his life story.

“My life, as of this date, is like a damn good book,” Klemz said. “Every once in a while, I take that book down and read one chapter, two chapters, three chapters.

“It starts with my losses, and what I can’t do, and it makes me angry. Then I get depressed and I get sad. So I put the book up on the shelf for another day.

“And then some other day I’ll take the book down — next day, or next year, six months, and read a couple more chapters.

“I have a good book. That’s it. I look at it every once in a while, and I put it away.”

It’s never an easy read. But Klemz has lived it for a lot longer than anybody could have expected on that October night in 1974.

“It kind of scares me,” Klemz said. “The doctors I talk to say, ‘Forty years — man, I’ve never seen a guy that’s made it 40 years.’

“What am I supposed to do? Dig a hole and jump in the casket?”

That would have been the easy way out.

Steve Klemz chose to live instead.

By Dave DeLand
SC Times Columnist


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