Rivalry brings perspective for survivor

Leo Staudacher (right) and Marvin Sonne have enjoyed a cross-rivalry bond after Staudacher suffered a heart attack in 2011 at the Big House. Courtesy of Leo Staudacher

Leo Staudacher was getting a checkup in fall 2011 when a familiar question popped up again, this time from his doctor.

Do you root for Michigan or Notre Dame? Colleen Brennan-Martinez, a nurse practitioner at the University of Michigan medical center, asked.

Notre Dame is in his DNA, Staudacher replied, but he could never again pull himself to root against Michigan.

"She said you can tell people that Notre Dame is in your DNA, but Michigan is in your heart," Staudacher said. "So that's my answer."

Forgive Staudacher for the divided loyalties, especially with Notre Dame preparing for its final scheduled trip to the Big House Saturday. Game week has sparked nostalgia among the sentimentalists and debate between the programs over the rivalry's legitimacy. But for the 71-year-old Staudacher, the Fighting Irish's return to Ann Arbor marks a reminder of a near-fatal night two years ago, one capped by a comeback that would make Denard Robinson and Roy Roundtree jealous.

Staudacher, a lifelong Notre Dame fan, suffered a heart attack inside Michigan Stadium during the Sept. 10, 2011, contest. With the help of surrounding Wolverines fans, he survived and even got to watch the game's final minute from his hospital bed.

Another 8 p.m. ET start time this Saturday is late enough to keep Staudacher from making the trek this weekend for "Under The Lights II," as the game has been dubbed. But the Bay City, Mich., native will watch happily from home, content with whatever the outcome might be.

"I'm doing really great," Staudacher said. "I tell everybody that once I survived it, it's the best thing that ever happened to me. I lost about 25 pounds, it worked out, I'm alive and walking, so I feel great."

Staudacher was at the 2011 game with his three sons, among the NCAA-record 114,804 fans in attendance, enjoying the atmosphere that was the first night game in Michigan Stadium history. With Notre Dame taking a 14-0 lead into the second quarter, they could not be more thrilled.

Shortly after eating a bratwurst, though, Staudacher thought he had heartburn. Then his arms felt heavy. Tired, he sat down and closed his eyes.

And then he fell forward.

"Leo collapsed on my son's left shoulder and my right shoulder," said Marvin Sonne, a dentist who helped save Staudacher's life. "He just fell directly in between us, and I could tell instantly that he was in serious trouble. He was cold, his eyes were rolling back and he wasn't breathing. So a number of us dragged him from his row onto the bench sets."

Sonne and another nearby fan, Jan Tardiff, helped administer CPR. Emergency medical services arrived within minutes, shocking Staudacher four times with a defibrillator and bringing him back to consciousness.

Staudacher was taken to the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center, where doctors inserted a stent.

Awake but groggy, he heard plenty of commotion from the hospital workers. Back at the Big House, Tommy Rees had just thrown a touchdown pass to Theo Riddick with 30 seconds left in the game. Told by hospital staff members that his Irish were about to win, a half-interested Staudacher watched the game's thrilling finish, punctuated by Robinson's game-winning touchdown pass to Roundtree.

"Even the doctors said that probably wasn't the smart thing, to have a heart attack patient watch the game where his team loses in the last 20 seconds of the game," Sonne cracked. "But again, we can all laugh about it now because everything is going great."

Staudacher, who had no previous heart issues, was out of the hospital the following Thursday, and he was able to connect with Sonne and Tardiff, a now-retired nursing supervisor. Both were honored a month later with the Lifesaver Award at a local American Heart Association gala.

Staudacher and his wife, Marge, visited Sonne at his Farmington Hills, Mich., home two months after the incident. There, Sonne gave him a flag with a Michigan logo on one side and a Notre Dame logo on the other.

"I'm the guy who screwed up the football game for everybody around me," Staudacher said. "They are the heroes, and I think anything that's ever said about this should focus on those people and Huron Valley ambulance and U of M medical. That really is the story. It could've been anybody in the [114,000] people in the stadium, and it happened to be me that that happened to."

Staudacher's ties to the Irish go back to the 1920s, when his grandmother would take his father to games. Staudacher himself was initiated as a 10-year-old, when he took in Notre Dame's 1952 game against North Carolina.

He has kept that connection despite his proximity to the Big House, which he has visited only a handful of times. He would regularly go to Notre Dame Stadium for years, though he now saves most trips for the team's Senior Day, he says, "because it's football weather."

Still, there is always next year's Notre Dame-Michigan game, the final one for the foreseeable future. And Staudacher, a retired banker, will not rule out a trip to South Bend for the grand finale between his two favorite teams.

"They're two of the most iconic and best programs as far as overall, the morals of the programs, the integrity of the programs," Staudacher said. "When you see those two teams come out on the field together for the warm-ups, you've got to go, 'Wow. It doesn't get any better than this.' "