Paul Natzke was consistently upbeat.
He did not let obstacles stop his quest to attempt new adventures. Nothing could stymie his zest for life.
“He was an all-around sports kid,” his mother, Kathie Natzke, said. “He was always smiling and always positive. He was excited to try anything new. He never met a stranger. He called everyone a friend. He became friends quickly with his track teammates.”
A wheelchair was a constant companion for Paul Natzke, who was born with Spina Bifida — in which a developing baby’s spinal cord doesn’t develop correctly and leads to defects in the spinal cord.
That didn’t prevent him from participating in snow skiing, water skiing, basketball, swimming or his two favorites: sled hockey and track and field.
The red-haired Natzke was part of the Verona boys track and field team as a freshman in 2016-2017, competing in the 100-meter and shot put wheelchair events.
Wildcats boys track and field coach Joff Pedretti was impressed by his determination.
“There are a lot of kids who don’t come out for track,” Pedretti said. “A lot don’t come out because they are afraid they are going to get beat or they aren’t going to be as good as they think they are. Paul wasn’t like that.
“He competed at the state meet and was going against other kids who had a lot more experience than he had. He was competing in front of a crowd of 10,000 people and he was willing to put himself on the line in that setting.”
In his wheelchair events, Natzke finished seventh in the boys shot put with a toss of 9 feet, 4 inches and fifth in the boys 100 with a time of 31.39 seconds at the WIAA state track and field meet last June in La Crosse. Natzke’s first year in track had made Pedretti excited for what was to come.
Now, Natzke’s coach, teammates, friends and family are dealing with Natzke not being here.
Natzke, 15, who grew up in Belleville and Verona, passed away Aug. 19 at American Family Children’s Hospital. He died due to an accident, after he choked on food, Pedretti said.
“(The fact of Natzke’s passing) hasn’t settled in all the way,” Pedretti said. “That will be a big change, when you are expecting to have him all four years.”
Kathie Natzke said she worried about the day when Paul would ask, “Why me?” But he never did.
“I always dreaded that conversation: ‘How come I have to be in a wheelchair?’ ” Kathie Natzke said.
“He was happy with what he had. Obviously, he noticed. But he never complained about it. Paul wasn’t wired that way. And we didn’t believe in pity parties.”
When he was younger, he played wheelchair hockey at the Shell — pushed around the ice by University of Wisconsin women’s hockey players. That led to him forming a special bond with the women’s hockey team. He also enjoyed sled hockey, playing for about 10 years. He was one of the first members of the Wisconsin youth sled hockey team, currently called the Wisconsin Skeeters.
“I was proud of him,” Kathie Natzke said. “He never said, ‘I can’t do that because I’m in a wheelchair.’ He never was afraid to do anything because he would be limited by his physical disabilities. He took life by the horns.”
Pedretti said Paul Natzke didn’t complain, though getting all his wheelchairs and equipment to meets was a workout in itself.
“It was not easy,” Pedretti said. “That is part of the reason the guys on the team respected him. They saw he was going through all of this trouble just to get to the meet.”
His Verona teammates provided assistance with that and during practices. Luke Russell, the first WIAA wheelchair athlete to compete in Wisconsin, a state meet champion and a multi-event record-holder at Verona, served as a Wildcats assistant and coached Paul during the spring season.
“The track season was a really good experience,” Kathie Natzke said. “His teammates stepped up with all the stuff he needed.”
Almost 1,000 people came to Natzke’s recent celebration-of-life service. Sports attire was encouraged, because that’s the type of clothing Paul preferred. He loved sports — including the Badgers, Brewers and Packers.
In recent years, he was a patient representative for American Family Children’s Hospital at Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy’s fundraising golf outings and became friends with the Packers’ coach, Kathie Natzke said.
Kathie Natzke said her son, who donated his organs for others, would want people to live life, take risks and try new things. She said a friend’s child plans to start participating in wheelchair track and field events because of Paul.
“He made a difference,” Kathie Natzke said. “I am proud of the person he became. He lived his life to the fullest. Sports were big to him. Sports gave him a lot of opportunities.”