As Clay Cundiff and his mother, Sarah Kriwiel, rode back to their hotel in Madison last October — on a high after the three-star tight end committed to the University of Wisconsin — a reminder from a Badgers staff member briefly brought the pair back to earth.
Leaving Kansas’ 2019 recruiting class became Cundiff’s first responsibility as a member of UW’s. The Wichita native’s call to then-Jayhawks coach David Beaty was never returned, but dialing the number proved difficult enough.
Cundiff once believed he could be part of a seismic turnaround at the in-state program. A 2-4 start to the season, however, left the Bishop Carroll High star contemplating whether or not Beaty and the rest of the coaching staff he’d built relationships with would still be around when he arrived in Lawrence the following year.
Less than a month later, Kansas opted not to retain Beaty following the 2018 season.
“I think a lot of people understood where I was coming from,” Cundiff said.
Still, he wouldn’t have left an opportunity 160 miles from Wichita for just anywhere.
Staying close to home brought more appeal than it would for most high school seniors. He’d see his mother and 13-year-old sister, Julianna, much more often — something he certainly doesn’t take for granted after Julianna was diagnosed with aplastic anemia four years ago.
The disease, which St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital says occurs in about one or two people per million each year in the U.S., prevents the bone marrow’s stem cells from producing enough new blood cells.
Cundiff and Kriwiel could sense a family-like vibe from the Badgers’ football program when visiting Madison last year. Wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore and fellow 2019 recruit Graham Mertz even visited Julianna during a month-long hospital stay in Kansas City earlier this summer.
“Family is very important to Clay,” Bishop Carroll coach Dusty Trail said. “He’s very family-oriented, and I think that’s really what drew him to Wisconsin and the staff up there.
“I know for (Cundiff’s) mom, it was very important for her to get to a place where she found the coaches and the university were going to take care of him in all aspects of his life, not just the football aspect. … I think that really helped mom because she felt like she was going to have to give a lot of support to his sister.”
‘You can’t prepare for that’
Cundiff received a chilling text during the second hour of school May 8 — one that immediately sent him running to the office for an early checkout.
Julianna, already at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City with Kriwiel due to fevers and a low white blood cell count, had complained of severe headaches the night before. That morning, her eyes rolled back in her head, she slipped into a coma and experienced a two-and-a-half hour seizure.
The eventual diagnosis — posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome — may have been caused by the swelling of her brain.
“(Clay) walked into the room and saw her — she had a feeding tube, she had wires coming out all over her head and body,” Kriwiel said. “He just got next to her, held her hand and cried.
“I was overcome with emotion. To see him, you can’t prepare for that. You just can’t. It’s been hard on him.”
Cundiff missed his final two days of high school, and Bishop Carroll excused him from the following week’s finals so he could stay in Kansas City.
Julianna came out of the coma after two days and her white blood cell count increased from zero to 20,000 overnight. She was released from the hospital May 18, just in time to attend Cundiff’s graduation the following day — a welcome surprise after Julianna and Kriwiel previously missed Cundiff’s prom and catholic confirmation.
Julianna’s issues this summer were only her latest setbacks.
After her diagnosis in July 2015, she successfully fought the disease through drug therapy. She relapsed around Christmas of 2017, however, and began receiving blood transfusions. The following April, she underwent a bone marrow transplant, which — combined with anti-rejection medication — worked to help her produce enough blood cells until her most recent hospital visit this summer.
Kriwiel said her son needed to “raise himself” in many ways over the past four years, as he’s sometimes on his own when Julianna’s forced into a long hospital stay. Kriwiel simply makes sure there’s money in his account “so he can buy food and laundry detergent.”
“There was definitely anxiety there, and feeling alone to a certain degree at times,” Trail said. “You could see the stresses. But he’s a mature young man and I thought handled it very well.”
While Kriwiel spends every hour with Julianna in the hospital, it’s Cundiff who can somewhat relate to his sister’s struggles.
Earlier in his teenage years, Cundiff spent about three weeks in the hospital on two separate occasions — once for Henoch-Schonlein purpura, a disease involving the inflammation of blood vessels, and again for MRSA, a type of staph infection.
“Since he went through hospitalization, he kind of understood what I was going through,” Julianna said. “So I think that helped a lot because he could tell me how to get through it.
“He also said I could squeeze his hand as hard as I wanted to whenever I was getting an IV, which that helped a lot. It was kind of nice when he could talk me through what was going on.”
‘I just want to make sure she’s OK’
Even with frequent hospital visits, Julianna estimates she only missed two games of her brother’s high school football career. She said he inspires her to work harder because she knows “he tries his best all the time and it always works out.”
For Cundiff, that motivation comes from a different family member. He wore No. 83 during his high school career to honor his grandmother, who died three years ago at age 83.
She didn’t speak for the last 16 days of her life while in hospice care, but the last thing Cundiff remembers her telling him was, “Play hard for me.” The hashtag “#PH4M” now resides on the bios of his social media accounts.
Incoming cornerback Dean Engram dedicated his last season in high school to his sister, Bobbi, who passed away from sickle cell disease.
He’ll hope for a healthier track record of his own while in Madison. Along with the two aforementioned lengthy hospital visits, Cundiff missed time with Bishop Carroll as a sophomore due to hand-foot-and-mouth disease. He then broke his collar bone as a junior and suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his foot as a senior.
Cundiff could fit in well at UW, which enters the fall a bit thin at tight end. He’s physical and takes pride in blocking — essentially a requirement to play tight end for the Badgers.
“That’s a huge thing to have, a huge skill-set to have coming into Wisconsin and Big Ten football,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play in the Big Ten. … It just fits my style of play.”
His transition to major college football may not be all that easy, however, without his family nearby.
On June 13, after just four days of being home without her brother, Julianna said she could already feel his absence — even when it came to minor details like the small amount of food her and Kriwiel bought during their first grocery store trip after he left.
Cundiff had also become his sister’s go-to person for stretching out her legs to manage a tremor that developed from the brain trauma Julianna suffered earlier in the summer.
“I just want to make sure she’s OK,” Cundiff said. “She’s been through a lot. … For those two days where she was out of it, it was just really scary.
“It’s kind of made me step up to be a bigger man than I was and to kind of grow up — face that this is life and you just have to accept what happens and try to look for the positives in everything.”
Kriwiel described Julianna as having an amazing attitude despite her recent misfortunate. She’s currently on a medication list that spans multiple pages, including steroids, anti-seizure, anti-fungal, anti-bacteria and anti-rejection medicine, as her body continues to try to accept the donor cells from her bone marrow transplant last April.
Kriwiel and Julianna will, of course, travel to Madison for games as often as possible, and the family still holds plenty of hope that these complications won’t be a lifelong struggle.
“It’s just one thing after another,” Kriwiel said. “We’re just fighting it. We’re always, always, always believing that she’s going to live a great, healthy life at some point."