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Christian Kuntz a story of perseverance

In the opening hours of the 2024 free agency period, the Steelers announced a low-key signing that didn't garner the headlines of some of the other big deals that were getting done around the league.

That doesn't mean, however, that it wasn't impactful.

Four years ago, long-snapper Christian Kuntz was happy just to be getting an opportunity – any opportunity – to show that he belonged in the NFL. Kuntz signed a three-year deal to stay with the Steelers March 14, meaning he not only has a home in the NFL, he has one in his hometown.

A graduate of Chartiers Valley High School in suburban Pittsburgh and Duquesne University, which is located in downtown Pittsburgh, it seems like Kuntz' destiny always meant for him to be here.

But a more in-depth look at his past shows a meandering path that brought him to this point.

"It doesn't surprise me one bit to see where he's at, because I knew he had the mindset, the work ethic, the attitude," said former Chartiers Valley basketball coach Tim McConnell of Kuntz. "He wasn't going to take no for an answer. He got shut down a few times, but it didn't discourage him to say, 'OK, I'm going to move on with my life's work.' He worked harder to prove to people he could still make it to the NFL."

What does Kuntz' high school basketball coach know about his desire and determination? Plenty.

As a senior at Chartiers Valley, Kuntz was just a few days away from the start of his senior season in 2011 when disaster struck.

"I tackled some guy on the second-to-last day of training camp and fell on his heel I think or hit the ground weird and I rolled over and was nauseous," Kuntz recalled. "They said I was really pale. I started spitting up blood. And then pain kind of went away after they took me in the training room. I was like, 'Oh, I'm good.' The trainer, she wanted to call the ambulance. I said, 'We don't need to call the ambulance, I'll be alright.'

"So Wayne Capers took me home. I guess on the way home, the trainer called my mom and let her know, 'Hey, something happened where he was spitting blood, but he said he was OK. Maybe you should take him in.' My mom said let's just go to be safe. We went and I got a CT scan and the doctors were like, 'Hey, you're bleeding internally, we've got to stitch of your spleen.'"

Doctors told Kuntz he would not only miss his entire senior season in football, but in basketball, as well.

"They had never seen it in football. A ruptured spleen, yeah. But lacerated? No," Kuntz said. "It is something that happens in car accidents when the steering wheel goes underneath your ribs. Nuts."

It was a huge blow to Chartiers Valley's football team.

Then-head coach Chris Saluga knew the Colts couldn't make up for the loss of one of their senior captains.

"It took the heart out of the team. He was the heart of the program," said Saluga. "It was devastating. We felt a great loss as a team. But we were more upset for him, the fact he had to miss out on that senior season that everyone looks forward to so much. But he was a team leader, our all-around best player. He could have played all 22 positions with some degree of success. He could do pretty much anything. You don't recover from a loss like that. It definitely hurt us."

It hurt Kuntz tremendously, as well.

He had dreams of playing football in college. But with no season from which coaches could see him play, that dream seemed to be over.

Kuntz immediately reached out to McConnell.

"I actually texted Coach McConnell when they told me I was done with the football season, when I found out I had a chance to come back for basketball, my exact words were, 'Can you get me a basketball scholarship?'" Kuntz said. "He said yeah. We went into the gym and I started working on my shooting form, everything. It didn't help much, but that was what I texted him because I thought football was done."

McConnell felt for the senior, who was close friends with his son T.J., who had graduated the previous year and now plays for the NBA's Indiana Pacers.

"I'll be totally honest, he wasn't a great basketball player," McConnell said with a laugh. "But he worked so hard that it made up for his lack of skill. He defended. He rebounded. He knew his role. He screened. He made the right pass. Before he got hurt, he wasn't a very good shooter. Once he got hurt, he started working on his shot, so he shot a little bit better. But he just knew his role and knew he wasn't going to be playing Division I basketball, so he did what he could to make the team successful. He did all of the things that didn't show up in the stat sheet."

But would he play? There was still some question if that would happen.

For Kuntz, there was no question.

"They told me I wasn't going to be able to play football that year and most likely I wasn't going to play basketball," Kuntz said. "It was a shot to the gut, for sure. But I ended up making it back for basketball.

"I wore a kevlar vest, so if I did take any impact there, it was a little extra protected. I tried to clean up my diet a little bit and eat healthier, which was hard because I was in high school. I could eat whatever I wanted."

McConnell wanted the senior back on the team, but he had some trepidation about Kuntz playing with the vest and being able to protect himself.

"At first, I was really worried because of how hard he played. He's not a guy that's going to stick his nose in there when there's a loose ball or box out," McConnell said. "So at first, I was really concerned. As it went on, I was less concerned because he knew what he could and couldn't do. He still sometimes played a little reckless, but he was just a guy that knew what to do and how to do it."

Kuntz would average 8.6 points per game and lead the Colts, who went 20-3, in assists and steals. He was a glue player.

But college basketball? That wasn't in the cards.

"I didn't get a basketball scholarship," Kuntz said with a grin.

What he did eventually get was a football scholarship.

Duquesne University coach Jerry Schmitt knew several of the coaches at Chartiers Valley, Saluga and McConnell among them.

And despite there not being any football tape from which to recruit Kuntz, everyone kept asking Schmitt to give the gritty guard a chance.

Schmitt finally gave in and went to watch Kuntz play basketball.

"He wasn't necessarily high on our list," Schmitt recalled. "He played safety and was a good football player. But that wasn't going to be his position in college. It was difficult to project what he would be in college. The fact he had an injury and didn't have film his senior year, we initially didn't have him high on our recruiting board.

"Moving into the recruiting period, I just kept hearing about this kid and he had an interest in being at Duquesne. He wanted to stay close to home. I tease him all the time. I had to go to a few basketball games to scout him. I told him, 'I spent a ton of money on popcorn watching you play basketball.' He's that type of kid to joke around with."

Schmitt saw enough that he offered Kuntz the opportunity to join Duquesne – as a walk-on.

Kuntz accepted, but was in for a surprise.

"He played safety and was a good football player," Schmitt said. "But that wasn't his position in college. It was difficult to project what he would be in college. The fact he had an injury and didn't have film his senior year, we initially didn't have him high on our recruiting board."

Kuntz saw the writing on the wall when he saw the number he was given.

"I thought I was coming in as a safety to Duquesne, and I get there and I'm wearing No. 50," said Kuntz,w who would eventually get his number changed to 43 (what else for a Pittsburgh kid?). "I realized quickly they wanted me to play outside backer."

Saluga's feeling that Kuntz could play anywhere was going to be put to the test. At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, Kuntz would be wrestling with offensive tackles.

But the general feeling was that he would have some time to build his body and see how things progressed.

Fate, however, had different plans.

The Dukes were set to open at FCS power Old Dominion and future NFL quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Injuries pushed Kuntz into the starting lineup as a true freshman at a position he hadn't played in a game he hadn't played in nearly two years.

"We're way over our heads in this game," Schmitt said. "We were just barely into (having) scholarships then. We didn't have a lot. We had a lot of non-scholarship kids on our team. We're going into a stadium with 20,000 people. Early in the game, he's rushing Taylor Heinicke, who's still playing (in the NFL). Heinicke throws a pass and Kuntz, coming off the edge, jumps up, grabs it with two hands for an interception and runs into the end zone."

Kuntz remembers it well.

"I played well. We were up 20-10 at halftime," Kuntz said. "And then we ended up getting blown out in the second half because of the wear and tear. When I see Taylor, I remind him. When we played Carolina in the preseason, I went up to him and was sure to remind him, 'Hey, remember that Duquesne game back in 2012?' He was like, 'Oh my gosh!' It was funny."

Duquesne went on to lose that game, 53-27, but Schmitt learned something about his non-scholarship freshman. He appeared in all 11 games that season and moved into the starting lineup in his second season, leading the nation in tackles for a loss at 1.8 per game while also recording 9 sacks to earn All-America status.

Schmitt put him on scholarship.

Things were finally right again in the world until basketball, the sport that had helped him earn his chance at college football, was nearly his downfall.

While playing in an intramural basketball game, Kuntz landed awkwardly on a rebound and tore his ACL.

"He walked into my office with his head down," Schmitt said. "He did it playing intramural basketball. I'm not a big fan. I always tell them, if you're going to go do that, stand outside and shoot so you don't put yourself in a situation because you're playing pickup with some guys who are non-athletes. He knew it. He came in with his head down and told me. He knew I was upset about it."

Maybe not as upset as Kuntz.

"I think I was teary eyed," he said of his meeting with Schmitt. "It was right after I had a pretty good sophomore season. I was an All-American. He put me on full scholarship at that point. I was competitive playing in those intramural games and I went up for a rebound and a guy clipped my knee when I landed. I missed that 2014 season."

But, in typical Kuntz fashion, he turned a negative into a positive.

He used that season off from football to continue building his body. He went from 210 pounds up to 215. And he watched. And he learned.

"He worked his tail off. It probably helped him," Schmitt said. "It gave him another year to develop his upper body, watch the game."

Two more All-America seasons would follow. And by the time he was done at Duquesne, he had set the program and Northeast Conference record with 30.5 sacks.

But Kuntz wasn't going to go to the NFL as a linebacker – though he did get some initial looks. His NFL shot would come snapping the ball.

"Coach Schmitt was on me my entire career about long-snapping," Kuntz said. "We had our guy and we were looking for a backup. He'd say, 'Whoever can long-snap, get on the line.' He narrowed it down and I was the last one left. He said, 'I think you should get serious about this.' I was like, 'I'm not getting serious about this.'

"My fifth year, my senior year, our guy didn't come back and I had to do it. Coach Schmitt, he loved that I had to be the long-snapper and play linebacker. He loved the fact that I was running downfield and making half the plays on punt team. Then, after, he told me I should be ready to snap on my pro day. I was about as ready as I could have been. But he was right."

It took a while for NFL teams to catch onto the idea.

Kuntz had tryouts in New England, Denver, Green Bay, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh among others. Some teams wanted him as a linebacker who also could long-snap, something that might be valuable.

In the 2019 preseason, Kuntz even had a fourth quarter sack for the Steelers in their preseason finale at Carolina.

"Will Grier," he said with a laugh. "I still have that film. I still show (Steelers head coach Mike) Tomlin. I showed Nick Herbig. T.J. (Watt) knows about it. Everybody knows about it. I make sure to remind them."

But he wasn't a good enough linebacker at that point – or long-snapper – to entice anyone to sign him.

While at a tryout in Green Bay, one of the coaches told Kuntz he should focus strictly on snapping.

He took that suggestion to heart and began focusing solely on snapping.

"I was fully committed to long snapping," Kuntz said. "I was shocked when they said they wanted to bring me in as a linebacker. Now that I've been around, I realize that some of the guys get hurt and in training camp they needed somebody at Saint Vincent immediately and I was here. It worked out. They got eyes on me. I begged Danny Smith to let me snap. We were on Field 3 at Saint Vincent. He said, 'Get down and snap that.' I did and he said, 'Alright, I'm going to give you the second half of the Tennessee game.' We played Kansas City and I played linebacker like the last two series. And then we played Tennessee and didn't think I was going to be around for that game. Somehow, I made it through the whole week. I snapped the second half against Tennessee. They wanted to rest Cam and the starters and they told me I was getting a full Carolina game. They needed a body and I was there."

But it had taken a lot of work to get there.

He snapped in the morning. He snapped at night. He snapped wherever he could get on a field.

"It was just a battle," said Saluga. "I would see him when I was coaching at Mt. Lebanon and he would come by and use the field. He'd be long-snapping by himself. I would always catch up with him and we would talk about his opportunities and how close he was. It's so hard. You have to just cheer for a kid like that who stuck with it and worked hard."

It worked. He got better. And better. And better.

What kept him going?

"I don't really know," Kuntz said. "One of my coaches at Duquesne, I think he hit it right on the head. He told me, 'I think you were too dumb to realize how hard it was.' I just kept working because I truly thought and believed I could play linebacker in the league. When that dream got shot down, when I got cut from New England and we didn't hear anything, I knew my chances, I wasn't a priority free agent. I was undrafted. I was going on rookie minicamp invites, I snapped in front of a couple of coaches and they told me, 'You can be in the NFL if you keep on working on this.' Them telling me that and then I would go to snapping camps and they would tell me that I was getting better and it looked good. Hearing from them saying if I worked on it for two or three years, I could get in. That's what kept me going. These guys said I can get in if I can work on it. So I did."

In the meantime, Kuntz lived at home with his mom, Kathy, and took jobs where he could get them. He worked as a valet at some downtown Pittsburgh restaurants parking the cars of future teammates. He dug holes for dog fences. And he waited by the phone.

The call came again from the Steelers in 2021 in a COVID-affected season. Teams liked to have players on call just in case something happened with a regular. So the Steelers brought Kuntz to camp just in case something happened with incumbent Kameron Canaday.

Kuntz just beat him out.

"When I was in Denver, Casey Kreiter was there," said Kuntz. "He's in New York now in his ninth year with the Giants. He just came off a Pro Bowl season in Denver. I look back at it and realize I had no business snapping next to him in Denver at that time. I was nowhere near ready. But that coach that gave me a chance told me, 'I think you can do this if you keep working.' I look back at things like that and I'm like, 'Wow. How is that guy looking at me and telling me I can do it.' I watch that Denver film. I still have it. I was nowhere near ready."

Tell Kuntz he has a chance and he'll take it.

And he has.

"It's just a tremendous story," said Saluga. "He had two older brothers that played for me too. I've known him since he was probably in the fifth grade. To watch him develop and come through the program and then to see him overcome the injury and have an All-American career at Duquesne and then the battles. Whatever it was, three, four, five years and tryouts and making cuts. It was just a battle.

"You have to just cheer for a kid like that who stuck with it and worked hard. He was a great competitor, but a really humble kid, as well. Great to be around. It's difficult not to cheer for someone like that."

Kuntz was inducted into the Duquesne Athletics Hall of Fame earlier this year. Schmitt just has to shake his head when he thinks about the chance he took on a player without any tape, whom he turned into a linebacker and talked into long-snapping.

"It's perseverance. It's who he is," Schmitt said. "He's got a great personality. I love the fact he comes over and always talks about how him and Tomlin joke around on the field.

"He went in the hall of fame. When I introduced him, I told this story: We're in this game up at Sacred Heart. It's a 0-0 game in the fourth quarter. We have two good defenses. They got the ball at midfield. They go for it on fourth-and-1. He comes off the edge, blows up the offensive tackle, makes the tackle for a loss. He gets up, flips up his helmet on his forehead. He's walking off and he looks over at me with that big smile on his face and goes, 'Let me know if you need me on offense.' I smiled at him. I said, 'I'll let you know.' That was his attitude. He could do anything."