Healing Through Football: The Return of Hunt Sparks
“An outstanding player from the state of Oklahoma, big, strong, athletic kid,” said head coach Tim Murphy of Sparks. “[Hunt] loves the game of football and loves his teammates, a very high personality and someone who can lead… by his passion for football.”
As winter break approached and Sparks returned back home to his native Norman, Okla., he saw an opportunity to improve his fitness. But that was when things began to take a turn for the worst.
Two days prior to heading back to Boston, the then-sophomore experienced a 103-degree fever and prevailing problems with his kidney, forcing him to take a trip to the emergency room in Oklahoma City. While doctors were initially reluctant to allow him to return back to campus, he assured his medical team that he would line up necessary appointments with the team doctor and run the tests they requested.
Back on campus, though, Sparks struggled with his recovery and continuously felt fatigued. He labored heavily in making the half-mile walk from Adams House to the athletic facilities. Timing himself out of curiosity, the Norman, Okla., native realized it took him six-and-a-half minutes to make it down the five flights of stairs that lead to his room.
The following week, Sparks sat in the waiting room of Harvard University Health Services. He fulfilled the team doctor’s direction to get a chest x-ray. One of the nurse practitioners approached the lineman in a hurry and seemed agitated.
The X-ray showed spots covering Sparks’ lungs. Septic emboli, bacteria originating from a staph infection in the tricuspid valve in his heart, had spread throughout his entire chest. In his typical understated manner, Hunt described the alternative.
“Luckily, the tricuspid valve sends blood down your body and not up into your brain,” Sparks said. “I could have had a stroke.”
After more testing, he was admitted directly to the ICU at Mount Auburn Hospital. Head football coach Tim Murphy came as quickly as he could and stayed at Sparks’ side until his mother arrived on a red-eye from Oklahoma City.
“He went from 285 pounds to about 250 in about two weeks,” Murphy said. “It was really a scary time for his family, him, and for us. I went to see him every day and he would always be upbeat.”
Eight days in the ICU, 11 days in the step-down unit, and 60 pounds lighter, Sparks moved to Spaulding Rehab for two weeks.
“I couldn’t raise my arms above my head for three weeks,” Sparks recalled. “I couldn’t walk for a month. I had to relearn how to do everything.”
When he arrived at Spaulding, Sparks was unable to walk without the help of a walker, and left using a cane. His mother and father stayed with him on alternating weeks, overlapping on the weekends so the three of them could be together.
Returning to Oklahoma in March, Hunt continued his physical therapy. He started working out again, determined to return to Cambridge for the summer fitness program available to Harvard athletes who remain on campus.
“Everyone was talking to me like there was a possibility I’d never play again,” Sparks said.
This was a possibility he simply refused to accept. Although doctors were consistently surprised Sparks’ progress, his teammates quietly doubted his ability to pass the pre-season fitness test. Summer training was a struggle.
“I was finishing last on every sprint,” Sparks said. “By far the slowest at everything we did… I forced myself to come up here, forced myself to do the running and the workouts every morning.”
Head Coach Tim Murphy calls Hunt’s comeback “a pretty amazing story” and made sure to exercise utmost caution at every stage of his recovery process.
“[Sparks] just said ‘I’m fine’,” Murphy said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to hear that you are fine until the doctors say you are fine.’”
Without football and his summer routine, Sparks thinks he wouldn’t have recovered as quickly.
“I never would have pushed myself to get into the kind of cardio shape I needed, and I think that is what really made me have long term health again,” Sparks said.
As July stretched into August and pre-season football camp, Hunt finally saw progress. Sparks successfully completed Harvard Football’s full fitness test, the same test he ironically failed to pass at the start of sophomore year.
“The goal of just being healthy seemed kind of defeating sometimes because all you’re working to do is just live life,” the junior said. “Obviously, that was what I was doing in a way, but at the same time, I was trying to get back to the place where I knew I could be.”
Throughout his illness and recovery, one of Sparks’ most profound realizations was the strength of his Harvard community, especially the bond he shares with his teammates and the football program.
“The support of my whole team was crazy,” Sparks said. “Their support made it a completely different experience.”
Months later, Sparks has returned to the field. On September 27th, the 6’6 junior took his place on the Harvard Stadium turf, wearing Number 75, in a game the Crimson won handily by a 42-7 score over Brown.
The road back to the football field was a long one for Sparks, but a journey that tested his resolve, perseverance, and the fabric that ties the Harvard football team together.