Brogan Brunker photo

Middleton's Brogan Brunker had hoped to play football in college but now probably won’t return this season. He hopes to play basketball this winter.

MIDDLETON — At the moment his hand touched the turf, Middleton senior Brogan Brunker’s disappointment was palpable.

The 6-foot-4, 205-pound receiver had turned a grab on a simple hitch route into a 20-yard gain in the August scrimmage. But when he went to brace himself for landing after being tackled, his left wrist snapped on the ground. Bones were broken and dislocated in his hand and wrist, ligaments were torn.

A difference-making player who Cardinals football coach Tim Simon expected to play full time on offense and potentially take 50 percent of the snaps as a defensive back this season suddenly was out indefinitely, his left wrist needing to be put in a cast.

But after taking time to reflect on the injury and the events of the previous year, the 17-year-old Brunker told Simon: “Compared to last year, this is nothing.”

Simon knew how true that was.

“He cheated death,” Simon said.

A year ago, Brunker was stricken with the extremely rare Lemierre’s syndrome, needed to have his rapidly beating and out-of-control heart paddled and re-started, had a fluid buildup in his lung and lost almost 50 pounds, which led to his friends calling him “Slinky.”

That he nearly died in August of 2016 and spent a year recovering and regaining his strength gave him a perspective unlike most of his high school mates.

“I worked incredibly hard to get back to where I am now,” Brunker said, standing on the artificial surface at Middleton’s Breitenbach Stadium during a recent practice. “But I’m just blessed to come out here again, to be honest. Going from lying on my deathbed, really, to the football field is a dream come true.

“I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if I could make it back. But I never gave up. I kept going.”

His mother, Melissa LeGrand, helped instill that attitude in him. She said it took her son the better part of a year to resume a normal life.

“When he broke his wrist at that scrimmage, I was devastated,” LeGrand said. “He had battled so hard to get back on the football field, only to break his wrist — after nearly passing away, then embracing the challenge. I am proud of him stepping up as a positive leader, working with and encouraging young kids on the team he didn’t know.”

‘Just lucky to be here’

The summer of 2016 began innocently enough for Brunker. He sprained his ankle playing basketball in a summer league game in Sun Prairie. One night, however, the ankle swelled — “it blew up,” he said — to the extent it had to be cut open in two spots and drained of fluid. A staph infection was the cause, requiring intravenous antibiotic treatment, he said.

He got beyond that and readied for football season, but then felt poorly due to a sore throat and intense chest pain. He coughed up blood and had to sit in a chair while trying to sleep. “It felt like a knife was sitting in me,” he said. “If I moved any sort of way, it would hurt.”

Initial medical visits and tests didn’t produce any solutions. But his temperature skyrocketed and his condition worsened to the point where the next visit to the emergency room led to him being rushed into the intensive care unit at American Family Children’s Hospital in mid-August.

IVs covered his body, inserted in his legs, chest, groin. He wore a breathing mask.

He spent the first half of his two-week hospital stay in ICU as doctors attempted to determine why fluid had built up in his lung and become infected. Sepsis had become a life-threatening complication from the infection.

“My body was killing itself for two days,” said Brunker, who had to have the lung drained.

By the morning after he was admitted, his heart rate was three times what it should be.

“My heart started beating out of my chest,” he said. “It was like 220 beats a minute. All these doctors came racing in. They had to shock it. That was my last option. I could have gone into cardiac arrest. They said it was like a 20 to 30 percent chance of success. I’m just lucky to be here.

“They had prepared me the night before (for what might need to be done). I was like, ‘This isn’t real life. What is going on?’ It was almost like a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from.”

With his parents— LeGrand and Wade Brunker — nearby, Brogan Brunker said his heart was paddled and re-started.

“They stopped his heart for four seconds. … I was like, ‘Wow,’ this is unfolding right before your eyes. To see your kid there …” LeGrand said, her voice trailing off. “It’s a moment I won’t forget.”

Near-death experience

It left Brunker with a near-death experience that “felt like forever” and took him into “Star Wars” imagery.

“I was way out of it,” he said. “I was seeing everything. … Everything flashed before me. I can’t explain it — it was like everything in my life came back to me. It’s weird. Metaphorically, I was talking to some guy and he said, ‘You’re not supposed to be here.’ Take it how you want it, but it seems pretty real to me.”

His condition was diagnosed as Lemierre’s syndrome, which often is called the “forgotten disease,” but certainly won’t be known as that to Brunker or his family.

It usually begins with a sore throat and throat infection, but is a disease that normally only strikes one in 1,000,000 people. The mortality rate is 4 to 12 percent for the disease, which can lead to blood clots in a person’s veins and arteries and sometimes to infected abscesses in the lungs and septic shock.

Brunker wore a breathing mask, which he said meant he couldn’t eat or drink — or ask questions of the medical personnel, who at times wore protective gowns and masks because they didn’t know if he had an infectious disease.

“I went in 205 pounds and after the 14 days, lying in my bed with tubes in my back and doing nothing, I lost everything,” said Brunker, whose weight decreased to 158 pounds. “I was just trying to stay alive.”

After being discharged, he continued on blood thinners to combat the clotting and said he “felt awful for months,” feeling fatigued and sleeping 18 hours a day in the fall. That limited his schooling in the first semester and caused him to miss the football season and the beginning of the basketball season.

Brunker, a good student, said he worked with school staff — including Antonio Hoye and Mike Kusch — to get his academics on track in the second semester. He returned for the latter stages of the basketball season, though he said he didn’t have his usual stamina.

Back to normal

That process of returning to normalcy took him into this summer, when he believed he had regained his physical form and was eager to play and take on a leadership role for the Cardinals.

“My mom always told me that I can feel sorry for myself or I can go out and give it my all,” Brunker said.

He chose to give it his all, only to suffer the wrist injury, which has sidetracked another football season for Brunker. He had hoped to play the sport in college but now probably won’t return this season unless Middleton makes a long postseason run. He hopes to play basketball this winter.

“It’s a big loss for the team because he’s such a talented individual, but that pales in comparison to what he’s dealing with as a young man, going through what he did last year, and then dealing with this,” said Simon, whose team is 3-1 entering tonight’s game at Verona. “I feel for the team because we are a better team with him. But I feel so much more for him as a young individual trying to deal with these things. .. Right now, I just want him to get healthy. That’s the most important thing.”

Simon praised Brunker for the leadership he’s shown working with teammates and the positive approach he’s maintained.

“This tells you that you have to count your blessings and don’t take for granted the good health you have,” Simon said.

LeGrand said Brunker has learned lessons high school students — some who think they are invincible, she said — cannot comprehend. He definitely doesn’t feel sorry for himself due to the latest setback.

“Whether it is something negative or positive you can learn something from it,” Brunker said, tears filling his eyes and his voice cracking. “It’s just how you look at it and if you are willing to take something out of it. (Last year) definitely changed me. Before, I had the same mindset — my mom raised me well and my dad raised me well. But it definitely taught me to take nothing for granted.”

Contact Jon Masson at jmasson@madison.com.

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Jon Masson covers high school sports for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has covered a variety of sports — including the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin men's and women's basketball and volleyball — since he first came to the State Journal in 1999.