Ann Arbor — The words spin in his head, soothing and helping him achieve a certain level of peace.
Before Michigan tight end Ian Bunting joins his teammates as they head out to play a game, he listens to the classic song by The Rolling Stones, “Wild Horses,” punctuated by its melancholy chorus.
“Wild horses couldn’t drag me away …
“Wild, wild horses, we’ll ride them some day …”
It was the song playing when his father, Stephen Bunting, died in February with his wife, Susan, daughter, Rachel, and Ian, around him.
“Which is why it’s the last song I listen to before every game,” Bunting said Tuesday, explaining why listening to it helps. “Soothing. Soothing. Calms me down. Makes me think about my dad, which is awesome. That’s all I need before the game.”
Stephen Bunting was 59 when he succumbed to brain cancer Feb. 18.
“Young still,” Bunting said of his father. “But that’s life, you know. That’s life. Things happen. It just goes on.”
A parent’s death is a heavy dose of reality for any child, no matter the age. Bunting speaks with ease about his father, calling him his inspiration. But making sense of the situation while coping, and understanding it are two different things.
“It’s the hardest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life, but I’ve learned from it,” Bunting said. “And I’m stronger because of it.
“I’ve definitely come to terms with it a lot more than before. Sometimes I get tripped up about, though, every once in a while. I think that will be kind of forever that will happen. I definitely feel a lot more at peace with it now that some time’s gone by.”
He relied on his football family at Michigan, and said he drew inspiration from assistant strength coach Mark Naylor.
“It’s definitely been tough, but everyone goes through stuff, everyone’s got a story, everyone’s got (adversity),” Bunting said. “Coach Naylor, he helped me a lot through that. He told me everyone’s got (adversity), you can either make it your excuse, or you can make it your story.
“I try to make it my story and not an excuse.”
Football, Bunting has found, has helped him heal. It also helped him when he was a senior at Hinsdale (Ill.) Central, the year his father was diagnosed.
The practice field has become a place for him to forget the day-to-day emotional grind.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to put the blinders on when you go to practice, and that’s the time when you can forget about everything,” Bunting said. “It’s an outlet. You can take out whatever anger you have and forget about things for a while.”
The 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman is finding a home in Jim Harbaugh’s offense that leans heavily toward the use of tight ends. In a 35-7 victory against Oregon State last weekend, Bunting had a career-best 33 yards on two catches, including a 21-yard reception. His first career catch was a 12-yarder in the opener at Utah.
Against Oregon State, Jake Butt, A.J. Williams and Bunting combined for 80 yards on seven catches.
Bunting was more of a receiver in high school and said he has taken to all aspects of playing tight end, including blocking and adding weight — he said he currently is 245 pounds, “250 on a good day.”
“It’s been hard work (making the transition to tight end), but that’s to be expected,” Bunting said. “I love it. I never really put my hand in the dirt until my senior year of high school, but it feels great to do. It’s fun. I like blocking people. I still liking running routes and catching passes, too.
“My biggest thing was the mental side of it. High school was a lot different for me, running routes was a lot simpler than understanding blocking schemes. I think I’ve come a long way.”
Stephen Bunting made trips to see Michigan play last season, although Ian Bunting redshirted.
Ian Bunting is certain his father is watching.
“Unfortunately never got to see me play,” Bunting said as he began to smile. “But he’s got the best seat in the house now.”
Michigan tight end Ian Bunting discusses his transition to tight end.