Disabled by cancer when he was a standout athlete at Cedar Grove-Belgium High School, Nate Hinze applied his competitive drive and athleticism to a new sport and won a Paralympic medal
In what should be one of the most invigorating times of a young adult’s life, Nate Hinze was bored. Freshman orientation at college wasn’t the same after the athlete lost part of his leg to cancer within the past year.
Hinze, however, knew the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater had a wheelchair basketball team. He went to the coach’s office where a player was manning the desk and asked about joining the team as a manager and maybe a player.
His future teammate couldn’t see Hinze’s scar so the 6-foot, 3-inch four-sport athlete from Cedar Grove-Belgium High School shared his story.
“The first thing he did is pick up the phone and called the coach. ‘You’ve got to see what just walked into your office,’” Hinze said.
The coach agreed to let Hinze serve as manager. Within 24 hours, he changed his mind and wanted him to play.
The cliché that the rest is history applies, and this journey of an inspirational Olympian and physical education teacher involves a veterinarian’s X-ray, the Final Four and world travels.
Hinze continues to make history today. He’s hoping to make his second U.S. Paralympic team after taking bronze in London in 2012.
Personally, he reached a more important milestone. On Feb. 12, Hinze had his 10-year appointment and is officially free from the osteosarcoma that took part of his leg.
“Once you hit that, they’re as confident as they can ever be that it doesn’t come back,” he said. “It’s definitely a relief.”
Hinze’s diagnosis came in high school. In fall of 2004, the quarterback said he had pain in his leg. His father, a veterinarian at Cedar Grove Veterinary Services, chalked it up to being tackled like any other football player.
During winter, as the sixth man on a conference title-winning basketball team, Hinze said it was painful to run up and down the court.
The discomfort didn’t go away, and in February his dad took him to his clinic for an X-ray. Five veterinarians noticed something peculiar. They had seen osteosarcoma in dogs before.
That sparked a trip to a clinic for humans. An X-ray there didn’t show anything, but then Dr. Ron Hinze pulled out his own photos. An MRI was ordered, and the teen was put on chemotherapy within days.
“That rocks your life just a little bit,” Dr. Hinze said.
Surgery took place Aug. 1 at Children’s Hospital. After removing the tumor and Hinze’s knee, surgeons tried to put in a cadaver bone, but it wasn’t quite the right shape. The family had been advised amputation was a possibility.
The surgeon, Dr. Donald Hackbarth, who had a son about the same age as Nate, asked the Hinzes what they wanted to do.
“I just told him, ‘Do what you would do on your son,’” Dr. Hinze said.
A titatanium rod was connected to Hinze’s femur bone, and an artificial knee was installed during the 14-hour surgery.
Hinze returned to high school but couldn’t do what he loved during his senior year. Fortunately, he had help.
“It was definitely tough not being able to participate in sports,” he said. “My friends are awesome. They did a good job of keeping me involved and supporting me.”
So did the teachers at Cedar Grove-Belgium High School, some of whom Hinze knew for years from his older brother and sister.
“It’s like having an extended family, really,” he said. “Everybody is so close knit. They all support you. They were willing to give me extra help, extra time.”
Hinze was introduced to wheelchair basketball through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He chose to go to the Final Four in 2006 in Indianapolis, where he saw an exhibition of wheelchair basketball.
“It stuck in the back of my mind,” he said.
At UW-Whitewater, known for its wheelchair basketball team, Hinze was stuck behind a couple of obstacles. To his parents’ surprise, competitive wheelchairs cost $3,500, but the school helped pay for one.
The next challenge was learning to play a different game. Known for his defense and rebounding, Hinze at 6-3 is tall for a wheelchair basketball player, but he wasn’t yet skilled.
“I was terrible for the first, probably two years. It definitely gave me something to focus on,” he said.
After training and practicing hard, Hinze became a starter in his third year. The team won the college championship in 2007 and 2009.
“I just got addicted to it,” he said. “I don’t like being bad at things.”
Given his size, Hinze knows his role on the team.
“I’m a big guy. I don’t shoot any threes,” he said. “I’m strictly in the paint.”
Being a scorer is a new role for Hinze, but he said one part of his game has remained consistent.
“I wasn’t a good free throw shooter in high school and I’m not now, so that definitely transitioned over,” he said with a laugh.
His high school coach, Jim Meinen, remembers Hinze was coming along offensively as he played through some minor pain. Losing Hinze was a big blow to the team.
“After finding out what it really was, it speaks to his ability to play through pain,” Meinen said.
The coach is proud of his former player and will share his inspirational story with his team.
“It’s awesome. If anybody ever told me we’d have an Olympic basketball player, I would look at him a little funny,” he said. “He’s chosen to use what God has given him and make it a positive so that’s nice to see.”
For Hinze, it’s a comeback story from what he thought he lost forever in high school.
“The biggest thing for me is I was injured. I was very athletic, very competitive. I really miss that part of my life,” he said. “Once I found wheelchair basketball, it definitely filled that void. I never thought I’d be able to do that stuff again. Now I’m doing it probably the best I ever have. It has given me back what I lost and more.”
Through wheelchair basketball, Hinze has been able to travel to Australia, South Korea, Germany, Belgium, England, Mexico and Canada.
“Hopefully, we can add Brazil to the list,” he said.
Hinze made the first Olympic trials cut from 26 to 16. One more cut in May takes the team to the required 12 players.
The Paralympics will be held in Rio de Janeiro a few weeks after the able-bodied Olympics this summer. Hinze would miss some school, but he said Ripon has been cooperative with his schedule.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work in a school district that’s supported me really well,” he said.
Hinze, who walks with a slight limp and only uses his chair when he is with his teammates, said he loves sharing his experiences with his physical education students.
“The students are great and probably my favorite part,” he said. “Every year I get a new group of sixth-graders I get to explain my story to.”
In addition, Hinze plays for the Milwaukee Wheelchair Bucks in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. The team is undefeated this season and ranked No. 2 in the country, and will again qualify for the 16-team national tournament this spring.
Hinze was also a member of the gold medal-winning wheelchair basketball team at U.S. Parapan American Games last year.
Hinze returned to the Final Four in 2011 in Houston, this time as a member of that same exhibition team that piqued his interest five years before. He got to meet Christian Laettner and Dick Vitale while perhaps introducing the sport to a next national star.
Wheelchair basketball is different than able-bodied basketball in a few ways, Hinze said. One, players may physically stop someone from moving by getting in their way without a blocking foul being called.
In ball handling, players may take two pushes with their chairs before having to dribble at least once, he said.
In the lane, where Hinze does most of his damage, players may pin opponents and try to get a three-second call. But it’s not a violation if the player makes an attempt to get out of the lane.
“It’s more of a judgment call like able-bodied basketball. What’s an attempt?” Hinze said.
Another similarity, one many people don’t understand, he said, is the competitive nature of the game.
“Just because we’re in wheelchairs playing basketball doesn’t mean we’re nice and don’t talk trash or anything like that,” Hinze said. “It’s a more physical game than people expect. There’s a lot of chair contact, and people fall over in their wheelchairs and get back up. It’s a pretty intense sport if you’ve never seen it before.”
Hinze experienced a different type of excitement in the past year as he and his wife Ashley, a special education teacher at Ripon, welcomed a daughter. Reese turns 1 on March 1.
Dr. Hinze said his son is making the most of his once life-threatening situation.
“It’s a blessing. It’s an opportunity,” he said. “You’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Hinze, who lives in Oshkosh, follows the local support for his basketball career through social media and his parents.
“I appreciate it and it doesn’t go unrecognized,” he said. “It just feels good.”
Photo Credit: Cedar Grove-Belgium graduate Nate Hinze looked to pass or score in a wheelchair basketball game on Saturday in Brookfield. Hinze, who lost part of his leg to cancer in high school, has won a bronze medal in the 2012 paralympics and is training to go to the games in Rio de Janeiro this summer. Photo by Sam Arendt