Pitt’s Junko back from the dead — and better than ever
His head was cradled in a pair of oversized hands, his face had turned gray and he had no pulse. His friends and fellow coaches were screaming at him to breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Just breathe.
Bob Junko was dead.
An annual Pitt golf outing with the football coaching staff hosted by prominent boosters suddenly turned funereal July 23 when Junko dropped near the 14th hole at the Pittsburgh Field Club in Fox Chapel.
The long-time assistant coach and ace recruiter had a history of heart trouble, which had forced him in 2006 into an administrative role as the Panthers’ director of football relations and program enhancement.
Now, Junko, 62, was in cardiac arrest, unresponsive and not breathing.
“Knowing his history,” Pitt director of football operations Chris LaSala said, “I was scared for him.”
What transpired next is one of the greatest comeback stories in Pitt football history, a medical marvel the Panthers revel in retelling.
‘Nothing we could do’
Fate intervened for Junko, who’s alive thanks largely to a confluence of coincidental circumstances.
One of the charms of playing the Field Club is walking the course with a caddie. This time, the golfers opted to use carts to ease the strain on Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt’s surgically repaired knee and make up time lost to a rainstorm.
When Junko fell ill, his playing partners reacted quickly. While John Ifft dialed 911 on his cell phone to alert the Foxwall Emergency Medical Service, secondary coach Jeff Hafley took off running.
“It was scary,” said Hafley, 29. “I’d never seen anything like it. I felt helpless at the time. We looked around and said, ‘We’ve got to get help.’ ”
Hafley sprinted to the 14th tee and waved down a foursome that included LaSala and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. They drove carts to the group behind them, where LaSala picked up Wannstedt, and Cavanaugh found Dr. Mike Casey, an orthopedic surgeon and one of the outing’s hosts.
As Casey performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation — for the first time in years — on Junko, the Pitt coaches tried to help. Assistant strength coach Sam Clancy, the former Pitt basketball star and NFL player, held Junko’s head in his hands, as the others yelled at Junko to fight for his life.
“It’s all instinctive at that point,” said Casey, a spine specialist with Greater Pittsburgh Orthopedic Associates in Shadyside. “A couple coaches were yelling at Junk, just like coaches do, to get going.”
It lasted only minutes but seemed like an hour.
“Everybody was so scared, and there was really nothing we could do except to be coaches,” Wannstedt said. “Coaches scream and encourage.”
‘Remote and inaccessible’
Foxwall, a private EMS consisting of volunteers, is located on Squaw Run Road, just across from the Field Club’s rear entrance. The 14th hole, however, is at the furthest point from the clubhouse.
“That’s probably the worst place on the golf course to need an ambulance,” said Foxwall executive director Rick Duffy, one of seven paramedics to respond to the scene. “It’s remote and inaccessible.”
Fortunately, the hole is near Shady Side Academy’s campus, and LaSala instructed the ambulances to come through its football field. Unbeknownst to any of them, the field was under construction. A paramedic was then led through the woods to Junko, who had been down for about seven minutes, while a second ambulance used an access road to get to the green.
LaSala watched as paramedics tried to pump oxygen into Junko’s lungs. They found a faint pulse and got him to take a breath, a sign of hope.
“I saw the bag go up once and thought, ‘Yes, he’s OK,’ ” LaSala said. “Then, it went down and didn’t go back up. That’s not something you want to see when one of your best friends in the world is lying there.”
Three times, Junko was shocked with defibrillator paddles. Eventually, paramedics were able to reverse the arrhythmia into a viable heartbeat.
Bob Junko was alive again.
‘Get here right away’
Judy Junko had just returned home from work when she received a call from LaSala’s wife, Dana, telling her that Bob “went down on the golf course” with instructions to call Chris immediately.
“All I can tell you,” Chris LaSala warned Judy, “is he’s breathing and in the ambulance, and you have to get here right away.”
Judy Junko was standing in the kitchen of her Upper St. Clair home wondering how in the world she was going to get across town to Fox Chapel at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.
“It’s rush hour,” she thought. “There is no right away.”
She called their son, Mike, who lives nearby and brought his two young children. She called another son, Jay, who was celebrating his birthday at The Waterfront in Homestead. He called a friend who is a resident at UPMC and whose wife works at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Fox Chapel. She reported that Junko was responsive and being stabilized.
When they arrived, he was being taken to an ambulance to be transferred to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, where he spent the next few days before being released.
“I had no idea how dire his circumstance actually was until it was all over,” Judy Junko said. “Then, we hear the statistics: that 5 percent who have a heart attack outside of a hospital survive; of that group, only maybe half of that 5 percent survive with no brain damage. He was blessed beyond blessing in this tiny minority of people to come out of this OK.
“There has to be a mission. Maybe it’s to get the word out that defibrillators are needed everywhere, and that they can save lives.”
Bob Junko is thankful to be back from the dead. And, make no mistake, this wasn’t a near-death experience.
“He didn’t almost die,” Foxwall’s Duffy said. “He was clinically dead. If it wasn’t for Mike Casey and our EMS team and their interventions, they would have had a funeral.”
Junko has contemplated the series of coincidences that saved his life: the golf carts, the presence of a doctor, the proximity of the EMS, the quick thinking of everyone involved. But he’s not alone in wondering if there was divine intervention.
“If we were walking,” LaSala said, “I don’t know that we’re as close to him or that Doc Casey is as close to us. I don’t know if we make it without the carts.”
How grateful is Junko to be alive?
“Every day is precious now,” he says, his voice breaking and eyes welling with tears.
Junko stops, removes his glasses and wipes his face.
He takes a breath, a long pause, and continues by praising the work of Casey and Foxwall paramedics Duffy, Gordon Fisher, Charlie West, Will Bookwalter, Barb Double, Rebecca Cooper and Duncan Phillips and St. Margaret’s paramedic Ken Cortese.
Junko also counts his blessings to have more time with Judy, their three sons and six grandchildren.
“I’m so lucky that I’m doing what I enjoy at a great university,” Junko said. “And I’ve got a great family.”
‘As valuable as anybody’
Junko returned to work for the start of Pitt’s training camp less than two weeks later. He arrives before dawn every day, taking roll call at breakfast. He doesn’t leave until after dark. It’s what keeps him going.
And Judy Junko is thankful her husband is back, where he is surrounded by medical staff, instead of home alone during the day.
Unbelievably, Junko’s memory loss is minimal, which he downplays with an aw-shucks sense of humor.
“That’s because I probably had brain damage before,” Junko jokes. “Whatever I lost didn’t amount to much.”
His heart problems date to February 2006, when Junko had a double bypass and then required another surgery within 24 hours. The latest episode occurred when a lack of electrolytes caused his heart to shut down. Doctors have since inserted a defibrillator, Junko said, “so that if it happens again, I’ll jump-start myself.”
Those close to Pitt football know just how important Junko is to the Panthers.
The defensive coordinator from 1982-85 under Foge Fazio, he returned in ’97 under Walt Harris, was assistant head coach from 2000-06 and now serves as the program’s liaison to players and coaches, alums and boosters, high school coaches and prospects alike.
“Bob Junko is as valuable to our football program as anybody,” Wannstedt said. “Him and I have conversations every day about players, recruiting, academics. There is not anything that happens around here that I don’t run by him. I respect his opinion that much.”
Not only is Junko back from the dead — he claims his health has actually improved.
“Only someone with his personality could convince somebody that a near-death experience could make him healthier,” said Pitt assistant director of football operations Mike Antonoplos, who considers Junko a father figure. “He can convince anybody of anything. But to be healthier after dying is his best sales pitch yet.”
It’s one Bob Junko is all too happy to tell until his next last breath.