Chad Wurth was on a business trip to San Antonio, Texas in Feb. 2016 when he decided to take a stroll on the city’s Riverwalk. He was doing well as a sales representative for West Law, a web site that provided online research sources for attorneys.
His life took a turn for the worse that day when he fell over a railing and landed 20 feet below on his head. He was rushed to the city’s military medical center and admitted to the hospital as a civilian.
“I didn’t know what planet I was on. I don’t think I knew my own name. It was bad news,” said Wurth, who was hospitalized in Texas for two weeks before his condition was stable enough to be transported to a medical facility closer to his home in Chicago.
Other people in the same condition might not have been optimistic about what the future held for them, but not Wurth. The former Monona Grove High School athlete and star running back for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater football team had used sports his entire life to succeed in life and overcome its barriers. Wurth still requires periodic medical care, but he is living well in downtown Madison.
Since a military hospital came to rescue and saved his life, he now helps patients at the Veteran’s Affairs Hospital in Madison.
“A veteran will come in and talk about their traumatic brain injuries,” Wurth said. “It’s awesome for me to look at them and say, ‘I know what you are going through.’”
From Nebraska to Wisconsin
Wurth’s father was a college baseball player and two of his uncles played college football, so playing sports just came to him naturally.
“I was raised in that type of environment,” he said. “When I was a kid, I loved any sport that had a ball. It was also a great opportunity to hang out with your friends.”
Wurth was born in Omaha, Nebraska but moved to McFarland when he was six years old after his father accepted a position with American Family Insurance. The family came to Monona when Wurth was entering the seventh grade.
As a sophomore on the Silver Eagles football team in 1996, he and his teammates knew they had work to do in the weight room before they could turn Monona Grove into a competitive football team. He said a game against Badger South Conference powerhouse Monroe really opened his eyes.
“I’ll never forget walking on the field in Monroe and asking, ‘Who the hell are these guys?,’” he said. “Their offensive tackles were 6-foot-6, 300 pounds.”
The weight-lifting sessions paid off in 1997 as the Silver Eagles finished 5-4 overall and advanced to WIAA Division 2 tournament after beating Verona in the regular season finale.
“It was the hard work my teammates and I put in,” Wurth said. “Getting bigger and getting stronger. It showed its merit.”
The Silver Eagles were eliminated in the first round, but the team was hoping the momentum would carry the following year.
Yet, Wurth was injured much of the 1998 season and MG failed to return to the playoffs.
Wurth played a multitude of positions with the Silver Eagles. He returned kickoffs and punts, played defense, kicked field goals and extra points and was the team’s top running back.
“You couldn’t get me off the field. I wanted to make sure I could do everything possible to stay on the field and help my team win,” he said.
Today, Monona Grove is an annual contender for conference titles and often makes deep runs in the postseason.
“It’s amazing how Monona Grove football is now,” Wurth said. “If you get asked where you went to high school, and you say Monona Grove, that’s usually one of the things that pop out of their mouth: good football.”
Aside from his successes in football, Wurth also played on the 1998 MG basketball team that reached the state tournament under head coach Dan Zweifel. It was the first year that Kohl Center hosted the title games.
The Silver Eagles’ state semifinal opponent was New London, which had an overall record of 22-4. MG’s mark was 17-9, but it came very close to advancing to the finals.
Trailing 25-22 at halftime, MG came back to take a 33-32 advantage entering the fourth quarter. The game went into overtime after ending in a 41-41 regulation tie. Yet, two last-second free throws gave New London a 46-44 win. It was a disappointing defeat but Wurth still has fond memories of the week leading up to the game.
“Dan Zweifel is a phenomenal coach,” he said. “He made that whole experience such an awesome thing. Every day, we went to an elementary school to do a pep rally, and at night, he had dinners planned. It was a bonus to be the local team that made it with all the media coverage.”
Becoming a Warhawk
After graduating from MG in 1999, Wurth signed on to play baseball at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Since Wurth was born in Omaha, he still had family members that lived in the city. He played the fall baseball season of 1999, but transferred to UW-Whitewater at the end of the semester.
“Even though I loved baseball, it was eating away at me not to play football,” said Wurth, who joined the Warhawks in 2000. From there, he took over at running back and as the placekicker.
He rushed for 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore, and as a junior in 2002, he ran for 1,157 yards and six touchdowns, kicked 24-of-25 extra points and made 11-of-17 field goal attempts to finish with 95 points.
After two consecutive 5-5 seasons, the Warhawks improved to 7-3 overall and 5-2 in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) in 2002. Wurth led the way with 1,053 yards rushing and nine touchdowns, 12-of-20 field goals and 34-of-34 on extra points to finish with 124 points.
Whitewater would go on to be an NCAA Division III powerhouse and recorded six national titles between 2007-2014. During his senior year, Wurth said the incoming freshmen were a special bunch that would help turn Whitewater’s fortunes around. Among them was Derek Stanley, who later played pro football for the St. Louis Rams and Brian Kleppe, currently an assistant football coach at Monona Grove. The freshmen on the scout team also impressed Wurth.
“There were guys that were unblockable,” Wurth said. “I knew those guys really well. They were the ones tackling me in practice every day.”
He graduated in 2004 with a social studies teaching major, and landed his first teaching job in Little Chute, just north of Appleton. He relocated to Minneapolis/St. Paul but couldn’t find a teaching job. That’s when he worked with a recruiter to get his job with West Law.
“The recruiter told me, ‘If you are teaching history to high school kids, you’re a natural salesperson,” Wurth said. “I got into the business world for 10 years.”
After suffering his traumatic brain injury in San Antonio, Wurth was moved to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, which is ranked as one of the top rehabilitation facilities in the U.S. He joined a support group for people in a similar conditions, and that turned out to be another eye opener for him.
“When I saw the shape these other individuals were in, it really hit home how lucky I am. A lot of individuals don’t recover as well as I did,” Wurth said.
As Wurth’s condition improved, he volunteered to help disabled veterans at the Madison VA hospital.
“It was giving back to the military medical center in San Antonio, and it was my turn to pay it forward,” said Wurth, who was donating his time for nine months before he was offered a paid job at the hospital. He still makes periodic visits to see his neuro-physician, but he feels he’s getting better and stronger every day.
In 2018, Wurth was inducted into the UW Whitewater Athletics Hall of Fame, and once again, heard the adoring crowds that used to cheer for him on the football field.
He nearly died four years ago, but he is more alive than ever and very fortunate that everything fell into place.
“Being in sports and in competitive environments, everything is always a challenge, and it was just another challenge for me to get back to as normal as I could,” he said.
“Every day I wake up breathing, it’s is a good day.”