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NORTHERN IOWA GOLF

'I can feel again': Inside Clear Lake grad Thomas Storbeck's journey back to golf

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He knew he was in pain. He knew that something was wrong with his flexibility. He knew this wasn't normal.

Thomas Storbeck swinging

Northern Iowa golfer Thomas Storbeck hits his tee shot during a tournament. Storbeck, a Clear Lake grad, is one of the top golfers for the Panthers in his second year in the program.

Yet, Thomas Storbeck didn't want to get an MRI. After a push from someone super close to him, he got the MRI.

All it took was one glance to come to the following conclusion:

"There's like a big dot in my spinal cord," Storbeck said. "I thought the MRI was off. I was so confused. It was 100 percent denial, but I was like 'That's not correct.'"

It was correct. It was something that wasn't a one-time situation that suddenly turned Storbeck's life upside down in 2019.

The buildup was five years in the making, all culminating on one fateful Super Bowl Sunday that changed the course of Storbeck's collegiate golf journey and his life. It led to uncertainty and fear.

Storbeck MRI

This is the photo of the MRI taken on Thomas Storbeck's spine. The two green lines shows where doctors had to remove the T-11, T-12, L-1 and L-2 vertebrae's. The procedure is called a laminectomy. 

Storbeck had a rare spinal cord issue – which led to a laminectomy – that forced the removal of the T-11 and T-12, plus the L-1 and L-2 vertebrae. There was a chance it could have been cancer; there was a possibility he was going to be paralyzed due to the danger of the operation.

He had a 10 percent to 15 percent chance of being in a wheelchair. 

"I was really confused on what to do," Storbeck said. "I'm trying to figure out what do I do from here. It felt not real. I didn't really process it."

To the people that have been around Storbeck throughout his time growing up in Ventura, to his teammates and coaches at Clear Lake High School in multiple sports and to his college coaches, there is one thing that sticks out.

He possesses a work ethic unlike any of them have ever seen.

Thomas Storbeck during rehab

Thomas Storbeck (middle) walks for the first time since the laminectomy with assistance from two doctors as he continued his rehab in 2019.

"His desire to get better and be as good as he can be was a big part of it," Sandhills Community College men's golf coach Gus Ulrich said.

There were times of hardship over the last three years. Golf was far from a focus for a stretch of time. And when the sport was beginning to welcome Storbeck back with open arms, outside circumstances got in the way.

For Storbeck, it was all fuel to the fire.

"That was part of my main motivating focus to get back," he said. "Some (people) have told me if you want to have a normal life by the time you're 30, you stop playing golf. Some are like do it, it is awesome."

Standout on the course

Eric Perry has been Clear Lake's boys golf coach for nearly two decades. He has fond memories of the type of golfer Storbeck was during his prep days.

"He was one of the better competitors that I've coached," Perry said. "He wanted to win at everything he did."

Golf was a sport that Storbeck enjoyed playing, but he was a multi-sport standout. He was the quarterback of Clear Lake's football team and a prominent piece of the basketball squad.

The spring season in 2017 was Storbeck's crowing achievement on the golf course.

Thomas Storbeck UNI cold

Northern Iowa golfer Thomas Storbeck embraces the cold weather during a tournament for the Panthers.

The Lions won the Class 2A team state championship and Storbeck carded a 74 in the final round after recording an opening round total of 73 to finish tied for 10th on the leader board.

Still, Perry felt like there was something that ate at Storbeck.

"He wanted to win an individual state title his senior year," Perry said. "I think there was more in the tank."

Conversations with his parents, Bob and Rebecca, about what sport he would play at the next level were fluid.

"He really loved basketball, but I think he also loved golf and I think those were the two sports that were kind of in his heart," Bob said. "I think he felt like he had a larger upside with golf."

Thomas signed with Concordia University, a Division II program in St. Paul, Minnesota. His stay up north did not last very long. He played in nearly every match, but wanted something different.

Ulrich's program, Sandhills CC, was located in the warmer North Carolina climate near the Pinehurst area, which allowed Thomas to golf year-round, hone in his craft and make an impact on a rising JUCO program.

It seemed like the perfect fit. 

He credited Ulrich in being one of his biggest mentors in growing his game.

"I felt like as a player, I needed to learn the game," Thomas said. "I had no idea what to expect. Gus taught me pretty much everything I know about golf right now."

A painful journey

February 3, 2019. The day that changed everything.

Thomas was coming back from Myrtle Beach with a friend after watching Super Bowl LIII. He began to feel a growing sense of pain in both of his legs. This wasn't the first time.

For periods throughout his high school days, Thomas felt like he was getting less flexible. No one felt like there was any growing concern.

"I would do like sit and reach or I just keep my legs straight and it was the worst pain ever," Thomas said. "I was like 'Geez, I really need to work on my flexibility' and it got to the point where it was burning."

This pain got to the point where Thomas couldn't sit down. He called the intensity "10 out of 10."

He immediately called a doctor. After an X-ray was taken, the initial diagnosis was scoliosis. After a couple of weeks of doing physical therapy, the question of getting an MRI was brought to the forefront.

Bob was the person that pushed Thomas into doing it.

"I'm not sure he understood exactly what the MRI would be able to show," Bob said. "Thomas is a kid that doesn't complain about pain much and so for him to get to that point, we knew something was wrong."

The scan was then sent to clinics in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Rochester delivered the Storbeck family the news.

Thomas would need spinal cord surgery. 

"They diagnosed it as a grade-one tumor, which ended up being a cyst," Thomas said. "Everything took a wild turn to me, you're not expecting that."

Darren Lovick, a family friend to Bob and Rebecca and respected neurosurgeon, preached to them the severity of what their son was going through. Lovick told them that Mayo Clinic is one of few places that would touch this type of spinal cord problem.

"He said this is a very unique situation," Rebecca said. " We knew we were in a serious situation."

The journey to get to Mayo Clinic for the surgery was far from simple.

Sense of urgency

North Carolina is still where Thomas was living during this discovery period. There was no immediate date for surgery, which required some workaround.

This left Thomas needing to get onto a flight to head back to Iowa only then to sit in the passenger seat of his dad's car and drive the two-plus hours to Rochester.

All Thomas packed was a couple changes of clothes, leaving the most of his stuff in North Carolina. He also wanted to get back into town in order to watch his younger brother, Tate, and the Lions play in the Class 3A substate title game against Charles City at Mason City High School on Feb. 26.

The appointment was soon after that game. Mother Nature had other plans with a blizzard that shut down all of I-90 and parts of I-35. It led to Bob having to drive in back roads to get to Mayo Clinic.

That two hour drive turned into five hours.

"It was one of the longest weekends we lived," Rebecca said.

The surgery was successful. What came next was the recovery, one of two things that transpired over the next 12 months where Thomas was told one thing, then relayed an entirely different message later on.

'Soul-searching time'

The initial timetable for a recovery was two to four weeks. Due to some extra things needed to be done during the surgery to get Thomas to 100 percent health, that timeline was bumped up to three to six months.

Thomas was immobile for the first four to six weeks post-surgery and relied on his parents to help him do daily tasks.

"I was having a hard time tying my shoes, it was really sad and frustrating, too," Thomas said. "My very first exercise there was a chair and all I had to was sit down and stand up. I could hardly do it on my own."

Mentally, it was draining.

Thomas was not the same person he was at this point a year ago. His parents noticed changes in his mood immediately.

"It was a very lonely time and a very soul-searching time," Rebecca said.

Slowly but surely, Thomas started to function like the person he was. It started with walking, then he progressed to swinging a club. Still, Bob and Rebecca were primarily focused on getting Thomas back to normal.

"We just wanted to make sure he can walk again without pain," Bob said.

Dr. Michelle Clarke, one of the premier neurosurgeons at Mayo Clinic who specializes in complex spine surgery, planted the seed that as long as Thomas continues to rehab effectively, golf was not out of the question.

It was a competitive push for Thomas to get back onto the golf course.

Thomas went back to North Carolina expecting to be able to get in a full year of collegiate golf. That was not the case.

Sand Hills CC Director of Athletics Ryan Riggan told Thomas a week prior to the first fall meet of the season there was some confusion in his eligibility and that he only had one semester left, rather than two. Thomas would be eligible for the championship spring semester, but not the fall.

The reasoning did not sit well with Thomas.

"I was really upset, honestly I was very angry," he said. "I called my parents, my inner circle and talk to them. It was so hard for me. My drive was to get back and compete."

Riggan had a different emotional state.

"I felt terrible for Thomas," Riggan said. "That was my first year being in that role and I had never dealt with a hardship form. I really felt like I let him down. Everything he heard from me was what I was hearing from everyone else."

Thomas took a breather and accepted reality. He would work on his game in the fall, then prepare himself for the spring season.

That didn't happen, either.

COVID-19 canceled the spring season, marking 2 1/2 years that Thomas could not participate in a collegiate tournament.

"It was like one strike after another," he said.  "It sucked, but I was having the perspective of I'm able to play golf. I'm complaining about not being able to play in a golf tournament versus I could be in a wheelchair."

UNI connection

John Bermel came to the rescue.

Thomas and Bermel connected during the former's days at Clear Lake. That connection remained strong, and in 2019, that led to Thomas giving Bermel and the Northern Iowa men's golf program a verbal commitment.

His signing was made public in November 2019.

The campus in the Waterloo and Cedar Falls area is one of comfort for the Storbecks. Tanner Storbeck, another brother of Thomas, is a recent UNI grad, and his younger brother, Tate, is currently attending. Bob was a linebacker for the Panthers in the mid-1980s.

"I applied to UNI just to go for school and then part of me wanted to see if I can maybe make a comeback at golf," Thomas said. "It is so crazy how the timing works."

Since there are no scholarships for the Panthers, there are no guaranteed spots.

Thomas did not travel last season in his first year playing Division I golf. Bermel stated that the player he was a season ago was not to the level he is now.

"I don't think he (would have) been in the top-7 (last year), so that is a real credit to him since last spring," Bermel said. "His scores are really good. He was out on the driving range trying to get better."

Thomas has been either the best or second best golfer for Northern Iowa in three tournaments this season.

"I qualified as the fifth spot," Thomas said. "It was something I just tried to keep building on."

'He's a fighter'

When Thomas stood on the tee at the 10th hole during the first round of the Gene Miranda Falcon Invitational in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last month, it marked the first collegiate tournament he was a part of in three years.

"I was so nervous," Thomas said.

From not knowing if he was going to play again after a horrific spinal cord scare, to donning the purple and gold in his home state, life was rewarding Thomas for the first time in a while.

No one is surprised by this.

"He's a fighter, he's a competitor," Bob said. "This has taught all of us don't give up on your dreams."

Thomas could have an additional year of eligibility through the COVID-19 relief year. He is unsure if that is the path he will take. A finance major, Thomas also has his certificate to be a coach.

To this day, Thomas goes to the gym at least three times a week. If he is not active and moving, his body does not react well. His left leg and butt cheek remain numb.

Rebecca is thankful every day that her middle son can still be the person he is despite the obstacles he's had to overcome.

"Honestly, it was a miracle," she said. "He said 'I can feel again' and to me, that was, oh my gosh, we're going to get through this. He was determined."

As for Thomas, he looks back over the last three years as a time of tribulation, yet in the end, a rewarding experience that he believes has made him stronger than ever.

He understands life cannot be taken for granted.

"I struggled when I was recovering, how do I handle it?" Thomas said. "If this hadn't happened, I don't know where I would be at. From the perspective of life in general, it is so easy to get caught up in I have to do this, this is bad, basically react to situations.

"Being able to say OK, I'm grateful I'm here. My circumstances (won't) determine my attitude. If I'm grateful for what I have right now, it doesn't matter how bad things are."

Zach Martin is a sports reporter for the Globe Gazette. Reach him via email at zachary.martin@globegazette.com and follow him on Twitter @zach_martin95.

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