A legendary comeback: Benefit for Nate Schatz draws local support after autumn accident almost took his life
NEW ENGLAND — At a fundraising event Saturday that acted as a type of comeback party, Nate Schatz could barely sit down at The B.A. for a few minutes without a friend or family member stopping by to say hello and give him a hug.
“It’s a little overwhelming for me,” Nate said. “Just ‘cause of the — with a traumatic brain injury, it’s — I’m used to a more relaxed atmosphere. This is very overwhelming.”
His sister is Amber Schatz, an anchor for KX News in Bismarck who gained national fame when she co-anchored a newscast with Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell’s character from “Anchorman,” in November. Their father, Mike Schatz, represents District 36 in the North Dakota House of Representatives and was a four-time state champion 9-man football coach.
Nate is famous in his own right.
“Nate is one of those guys that you hear stories about,” Amber said. “I had someone tell me a story about him to me and they didn’t know that was my brother.”
Nate was in a near-fatal car accident in October outside of Devils Lake while traveling between his home in Stanley and his 9-year-old son’s home in Grand Forks.
Nate’s family in the area assembled in Grand Forks within 24 hours of the accident, Amber said. Josh Schatz, their youngest brother and a helicopter pilot with the U.S. Marine Corps, later flew in from Hawaii.
“I get a phone call about 10 o’clock on Wednesday (Oct. 30) morning from Altru and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, he maybe owes a bill or something,’ and then they ask me what’s his birthday,” Mike said. “They said, ‘He’s been in an accident.’ You know your heart just fell out of you. So then we made a 90 mph trip to Grand Forks to get there.”
The accident was serious.
“Right away, they were asking him what to expect for the next day, and the doctor said, ‘We’ll see if he makes it through the night,’” Nate said about his family. “I was borderline gonna die.”
Steve LaFramboise — owner of the B.A. restaurant and bowling alley and the B.A.R., a tavern across the street — said he wants hold a fundraiser the first weekend of each spring.
LaFramboise credited his manager, Tara Jung, and local insurance agent Jill Bock, who went to high school with Nate, for organizing an Ironman-like team event Saturday that combined billiards, bowling, darts and karaoke at the two businesses.
“They just said, ‘Steve, this is what we’re doing,’ and I provide the facilities,” LaFramboise said.
LaFramboise used to work at the TV station with Amber, so getting the news team out to New England to help with the event was a no-brainer. Participants had fun with KX meteorologist “Too Tall” Tom Szymanski and anchor Lauren Kalberer.
“For things like this, a fun event, everybody just comes out because they want to have fun and knowing that it’s all to benefit Nate,” Amber said. “Everybody loves Nate, people I work with love Nate, friends from high school love Nate, people who have heard stories about Nate love Nate, and they haven’t even met him.”
The turnout in New England didn’t surprise Mike, who won three of his state titles with Nate on the field.
“I’ve lived here all my life and you know so many of these people and you know what good hearts they have,” Mike said. “I’ve always said New England is a little different town than a lot of other towns. It’s a very community-oriented, group-first type of people.”
Amber was a bit surprised by her hometown’s support.
“I was pretty overwhelmed when I walked into the room,” Amber said. “You walk in, you don’t know if anyone is going to show up, and the whole place is just packed with old friends and faces, and people I haven’t seen in so long. You know they’re all there, know what this is all for, and it’s just overwhelming.”
Another fundraiser was recently held in Grand Forks, where Nate lived for some time after attending the University of North Dakota.
“The east side, the west side, we’ve got it,” Nate said with a chuckle.
A legendary turning point
Because of the extent of his brain injury, there was a lot of uncertainty at first.
“We didn’t know if he would wake up,” Amber said. “We didn’t know if he would ever walk or talk again or what the brain injury damage would be.”
By Nov. 30, Nate had been out of his coma for some time but was incoherent due to his injuries, until Amber’s iconic broadcast that night.
Will Ferrell appeared next to the anchor as his beloved character Ron Burgundy. The visit was a part of a press tour for the film “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.”
“He literally had his wake-up moment when Will Ferrell came to visit,” Amber said. “He was in the hospital, and I told him, ‘Will Ferrell and I are going to anchor the news.’”
Nate added: “She told me not to tell anybody. And I went and told all of the nurses. I told everybody that I came in contact with. I was like, ‘My sister’s going to host the news with Will Ferrell.’ But I was talking such nonsense that nobody believed me.”
The event marked a turning point in Nate’s recovery.
“Then, the next time I saw him, he retained information for the first time,” Amber said.
It has been about five months since Nate’s accident. While he’s still not 100 percent, his recovery so far has been miraculous, Amber said.
“Every little step is a new journey,” Amber said. “It’s hard. It’s a long, slow process, and I know he gets frustrated. But for us who see it on the outside, he’s moving so fast. The fact that he’s here, sitting here, just playing pool, it’s amazing. It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle every day.”
Saturday was his first time playing billiards since the accident. In a way, it was like learning the game all over again. Since his accident, Nate has had to learn a lot of things again, like feeding himself.
But because of the injury, he hasn’t retained the memories of the events.
Patience has been key for Nate’s recovery, though it has been rather fast-paced in some regards.
Amber has been coming back to New England on her days off and taking Nate to physical therapy.
“Every week I see him stronger, lifting weights and (walking faster) on the treadmill,” Amber said. “He’s laughing more. His personality’s coming back more and more and more every week. For me, it’s the most beautiful thing.”
It’s harder for Nate to see the difference.
“It’s nice to hear that people — the process is being visualized,” Nate said. “For me, I can’t tell. It’s all day-to-day. It’s like I just do whatever I’m told.”
Nate has been staying at his parent’s house in New England and attending physical therapy in Dickinson since shortly before Christmas, but hasn’t been to a big event like Saturday’s since the accident.
Mike has enjoyed having his son back at home.
“Nate left when he was a senior in high school and he didn’t come home that much. He’s probably the one that came home the least,” Mike said of his four children. “We got to reconnect. … In many ways it’s been a blessing, because we get to know our son again.”
Saying thank you
Nate said he’s still trying to comprehend the support he has received since his accident.
“I’d like to thank everybody, but I don’t think I can,” Nate said. “We appreciate all of the support — that’s huge. All the people that are here, all the people that have thought about me or said a prayer, it’s overwhelming. For me, it’s incredible to know that, that there’s endless people that care.”
However, Nate isn’t the only one benefiting from his recovery.
“We are very lucky,” Amber said. “Because I don’t want to be in any world where he’s not in it, I can tell you that. He’s like my favorite person.”