Sam Kuhnert’s Story:
“I will not let your perception of my limits, limit my determination to crush your pity and replace it with your respect for my ability to compete.” Sam Kuhnert
Sam is the Co-Founder, Visionary and Head Coach of NubAbility Athletics Foundation. Sam is uncompensated for his work of passion with NubAbility. He has a servants heart and leads a team of like-minded volunteers.
Sam Kuhnert operates on the belief that God ordains all life and all life is created to be perfectly purposed in unique beauty and wonder from the inside out. Like all stories, Sam’s has a beginning.
It is said that Sam Kuhnert, was born with a ball in his only hand. Round, rosy and robust, Sam entered the world in 1992 born to Todd and Jana Kaye Kuhnert, in rural Southern Illinois. The second of three boys, Sam’s older brother Charlie and younger brother Tucker played pivotal roles in his life and continue to be his best friends today. Sam’s birth was not expected to be anything other than normal.
As sometimes happens, unexpected circumstances were born with Sam that day. Sam’s mom and dad were unable to count ten fingers and toes. He entered the world 5 points down….or so some thought.
Concerns or doubts about the potential physical ability of Sam soon set in with many, even his own father. Upon visiting a hand specialist, Sam’s dad asked the doctor how he could teach his son with one hand how to play various sports and overcome daily tasks that would become obstacles. Dr. Shecker, of Louisville, KY, was nationally noted and respected as having worked with thousands of limb-different children. Without hesitation Dr. Shecker responded, “he will show you.” And, “show them” he has.
At the young age of nine-months Kuhnert nearly gave his parents a heart attack when he scaled their 15-foot T.V. antenna without any assistance from or knowledge of others. That was just the beginning. The beginning of many examples where Sam not only rose to the challenge of something that was doubted he could do, but where he conquered with the heart of a champion those obstacles. As he grew, he would need that heart not only in sport, but also in life.
As a little boy Sam found love. Not a love for an individual but a love for the game, that game being baseball. Sam did play other sports throughout his childhood but baseball was clearly his favorite. As Sam’s older brother’s baseball team took the field it took everything in his mother to keep Sam off diamond. When his brother’s games ended and handshakes were made, Sam would run on the field and beg for the coach to pitch to him. Sam often drew a crowd. Even as a three year-old. As Sam grew older and his “game” got even better, the ballpark became his second home.
Even though Kuhnert had developed a talent in sports, competing with and against his two-handed peers, he was not immune from being bullied. Sam had his own seat in the principal’s office because when bullies taunted him about his limb difference he usually responded showing them how hard his nub was. It took a few years to understand there were other ways of handling mean kids. Ways that wouldn’t land him in a wooden seat all day or on early morning janitorial duty. Though Sam showed a tough exterior to kids at school when he got home he would cry himself to sleep begging God to grow him a hand overnight.
Sam’s parents picked up on his struggle with self-image and with the mean kids. Sam’s mom introduced Sam to God’s word. She would read him scripture every night until one day Sam decided that he was born exactly how God wanted him to be and he accepted that. He even began through the years to move beyond acceptance and dig his difference! During those elementary years as Sam accepted himself the bullying seemed to stop.
As often goes, new environments can lead to new problems. In the move to his middle school building, the bullying reappeared during Sam’s junior high years. Along with the bullying, Sam seemed to battle doubts from others, even those he had played with and against for years about his ability to compete. Many times teammates and opponents showed pity. Sam distasted that so much, he began to work even harder.
The challenges Sam faced were many. In the sixth-grade Sam missed his baseball tryouts due to an illness. He had played travel team ball since the first-grade with his teammates who tried out and made the team. All of them made it. There were ten. Sam was not given an opportunity to make up the tryout even though he was under a physician’s orders to miss it. He was sad, but quickly rebounded and more determined to work on baseball year-round. He cheered on his classmates from the stands as a fan, even though in his heart he knew he belonged on the ball field, especially on that mound.
Then came the bullies. His limb-difference, that had not defined who he was for several years prior, once again, became center stage in his world. He was born without an “extra hand”, only being given a right hand. His difference became the target of some pretty mean and ignorant kids, even some of his buddies on that team.
The degrees of bullying and incidents directed toward Sam that year varied. From his former teammates, there arose doubts. They doubted his ability to play on their level and compete with and against them for position play. Often times, just as the nature of middle school culture dictates, kids stick to their peer group or “clique” and perhaps not maliciously intended, they ostracize others not in that group. However “normal” that behavior is for the adolescent age group, as a result, Sam often felt left out.
God is good though, and Sam made his lifelong best friend during that time, which was not a ball player, someone who was able to appreciate Sam for being Sam. Sam’s mom always said, “want a friend, be a friend.”
After baseball season, Sam made the 6th grade school basketball team. So did his new best friend. Sam thrived on “TEAM”. The basketball team allowed him to re-connect with his former baseball teammates who also played hoops. It was during one of the last season games of hoops that Sam experienced one of his most heartbreaking and most memorable moments of bullying.
At the end of a game against his team’s cross county rivals, when the team lined-up to “shake hands”, several players on the other team refused to touch Sam’s nub. They said out loud things like “oooh gross!” or “I’m not touching that!” and then many of them laughed. Sam held his head high and acted like he didn’t hear the heart slashing remarks. He gathered his stuff in the locker room and decided to ride home with his family instead of the team bus.
Once in the vehicle, in the presence of unconditional love from his family, floods of emotion fell from his eyes. He was hurt so badly. He was hurt also that none of his teammates uttered a word in defense. He did the right thing. He talked. He talked to his mom and told her how badly his heart hurt. She encouraged him and reminded him who he was. That his difference didn’t define him. She told him those same boys would be bragging one day that they knew him. (she was right). But he was hurt that his teammates didn’t seem to notice the bullying, or so he thought….
City league baseball started up just a short time after that 6th grade basketball game. Sam was on a team with many of his school basketball teammates. One of them, a good buddy since pre-K, was on the mound. Sam’s team was playing once again, the cross county rivals. In the batter’s box was the kid who initiated the barrage of remarks and bullying behavior from during that “hand-shake” in the hoops season. Yep, Sam’s buddy on the mound sent a message. Maybe it’s not how we should teach our kids to be bully fighters, but in the end, the message was received. Sam never had trouble with any of those kids during 3 sports over the rest of his middle school and prep athletic career.
Sam also learned that others noticed the mean actions directed toward him and many of took it to heart. The following summer counted down the days to Sam’s 7th grade year and baseball tryouts. He was immersed in the joyful chaos of baseball games, workouts and open gyms in basketball. He also remained diligent to working on his passion for the mound. He trained with one of the most respected baseball coaches in the region. This man encouraged Sam. He mentored him as a “good” man, a “faithful” man during a difficult time. He told Sam several times, “Any coach would be nuts to not want you on their team and on their mound.”
Then it happened…again. Sam was “cut” from the team. This time it hurt deeply. He had been performing during summer ball equal to or better than the same boys that were kept on the team. He was striking them out. Out hitting them. Once again, the “doubts” crept in. Once again, without the words being spoken from the coach who cut Sam, he was left to infer what others his age and the coach of the school’s team were saying about his “limitations”. Again, from the stands, Sam was a fan. He never stopped supporting his “team”. He wrote his mantra, Philippians 4:13 on the inside of his ball cap, on the outside of his glove, on the sole of his shoes, across the top of his heart. He first asked for the strength of Christ to help him forgive those that doubted him, and those that seemed to deny him. He then asked for the strength of Christ to allow him to continue to work harder than ever on his passion of ball.
For most of that 7th grade year, Sam seemed to be “dealing” with the circumstances of rejection. He stayed active in the batting cages and in pitching instruction. He again played school basketball. He was controlling everything he could. Then, in school, where he should be safe, Sam was a victim of bullying from classmates.
A group of boys known to others as the as the “skaters” in school, ridiculed Sam and made fun of his nub for months. They followed him to and from the lunchroom everyday making mean comments. One day, in the hallway, Sam had enough. It was one on three, but Sam once again had a message sent on his behalf, this time by himself. This time, Sam didn’t talk. He hadn’t told a should what he had been enduring.
Immediately after the incident, he felt an enormous remorse that he lashed out and physically retaliated. Some may say his action was the right one. Perhaps. He did feel threatened. No one was aiding him. In hindsight though, Sam would have chosen differently the very first time the bullies bothered him. He wished he would have owned his difference, been proud of his uniqueness and to have relished in the fact he could do all things, just differently. It was this experience, this incident that engrained in the “Coach Sam” of NubAbility Athletics Foundation the passion to bolster other limb-different kids the same situations.
Seventh grade continued without incident and Sam became much more comfortable in his skin with the love and support of his parents, siblings, friends and teachers. His mom read scripture to him and encouraged him to read on his own. His dad encouraged him to keep battling in sports. He began to fuel his spirit with truth and used the doubts of others to fuel his athletic efforts.
Sam chose not to put himself in the same situation for a third time with 8th grade baseball. He didn’t try out, but he hadn’t given up on the game he loved. He continued to work hard. Then, the rejection Sam had experienced in his past and again for one more time, begin to burn in his belly a fuel of perseverance and dedication that led him to where he is to day. Before he tasted play at the level deserving of his ability he was also cut from the summer American Legion Jr. Team going in to his freshman year.
A few men, also in coaching that witnessed that Legion tryout, comforted Sam. They came to Sam and his dad afterward and told them simply that Sam should have made the cut. They said he out performed many on the team. Those men served a purpose, not by badmouthing the decision makers, but by encouraging a kid with a heart of a champion and a work ethic of an overcomer. Sam didn’t quit he began to work even harder. He never again let the doubts creep in about his difference and sport. He continued to write his mantra on his caps, his gloves, and his shoes.
Bullying came around a few years later, like an el’Nino weather system; it seemed to skip blocks of years. Sam as a senior was on the mound for his varsity baseball team. He was hurling heat and making some notorious hitters look silly. He always did a great job tuning out the crowd. This game was different though, because the umpire was noticing what was being yelled from behind the backstop by the fans of the opponent. Sam began to let the cackles about his nub work on his nerve, and then chose to draw strength and defeat the voices. Just like in the NubAbility #BeStrong Video on YouTube, Sam told himself this was his time to shine by showing up and showing off what years of work allowed him to do. He made batters look silly! There is no better way to shut a bully up.
Out of the 10 boys who played travel team baseball with Sam during his grade school years, he outlasted them all at playing college baseball. A few junior colleges and D2 schools recruited Sam. He chose to sign with Greenville College, a 4-year Christian university in Greenville IL. Due to a deadly-diagnosis and a serious injury that took a year to rehab, Sam left Greenville to catch up on his education at a JUCO.
Sam, rehabilitated back to health, was recruited to play as a captain for the Morthland College Patriots. He was intrigued by the opportunity to build a college baseball program from scratch. He became not only the team ERA leader but also of the conference. He led the Patriots to victory in their Sectional Play.
Sam again suffered an injury, this time, one that pulled him from the mound for good. He went on to become the teams pitch coach that same season of 2014-15. He was hired by the school to serve in that capacity for the 2015-16 season. Sam made one of the toughest decisions of his life his senior year of college. He walked away from that position and team. Let’s just say, the “bully” came back around and this time Sam was prepared to send it packing with courage, confidence and wisdom.
Sam is now taking his foundation into it’s 6th year and 6th season of camps and clinics for kids with limb-loss. He has built a team of over 60 mentor/coaches, like him, all accomplished limb-different athletes. They are not only changing the lives of kids playing the best with less, they are changing lives everywhere.
Sam graduated with a B.S. in Business Administration the summer of 2016. His plans are to continue to lead NubAbility Athletics Foundation, privately pitch coach in baseball, and travel presenting his motivational and inspirational talks as a professional speaker to audiences across the globe. Sam Kuhnert Empowers others to be Game Changers.