Craig Kinneberg figured he had mononucleosis or maybe a severe case of the flu.
When he couldn’t lift his arms anymore, he knew he had figured wrong.
It was a year ago this month when the promising junior season of Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep’s right-hander came to a screeching halt. While his teammates advanced to the 4A-II state baseball semifinals, Kinneberg was in the intensive care unit at Scottsdale Memorial North Hospital, at the mercy of Guillain-Barre syndrome.
It’s a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system. It begins at the legs and moves upward, temporarily paralyzing the victim.
Without treatment, it is life threatening.
Kinneberg began feeling the effects in a game against Scottsdale Saguaro on April 21. He started on the mound, but quickly realized something was wrong. His pitches were eight miles per hour slower than normal and he had no strength in his legs.
“He came in the dugout and told me he couldn’t really feel his limbs that much, that they were getting numb,” teammate Clayton Hill said. “That’s when we really started to get worried.”
Kinneberg got progressively weaker over the weekend. He went to school on Monday, April 24 for the final time as a junior.
The next four days were the worst.
Anxiety gripped the Kinneberg household when first Craig’s legs went numb, then his left arm, then his right. Kinneberg and his mother, Meg, tried to wait it out, thinking his body would fight off the illness.
“We thought it was mono,” Kinneberg said. “We diagnosed it pretty bad. With mono you feel pretty lethargic, but not like this.”
The Kinnebergs had no idea what kind of danger Craig was in. If left unattended, Guillain-Barre can infiltrate the lungs and make them so weak that patients can’t breathe on their own.
Kinneberg said it never quite got to that point, “but it was close.”
That Friday, Meg Kinneberg took her son to the emergency room.
“That was the first day I couldn’t walk by myself,” Kinneberg said. “The other days I kind of waddled around real slowly.”
The doctors gave Kinneberg the diagnosis. He had no idea what Guillain-Barre syndrome was, but instead of fear, Kinneberg said there was relief.
“It was before I went to the hospital — that week that I didn’t know what was going on — that’s when I was scared,” he said.
Kinneberg spent a week in ICU and five more days at a rehab center.
Meg Kinneberg remembers vividly her most helpless moment.
It was a few days into the hospital stay and the disorder had reached its peak. Craig was too weak to swallow his blood pressure pills whole, so she crushed them for him. The taste was so bad that Kinneberg began to vomit, and his throat muscles were too weak to clear the vomit.
Meg looked fearfully at the nurse. Neither knew what to do. A respiratory therapist rushed in to clear Craig’s airway.
The next day, the disorder reached his lungs, and Kinneberg was put on a BiPAP machine to rid his body of excess carbon dioxide.
“We were all very worried, very scared. Baseball was probably the last thing on all of our minds,” Notre Dame baseball coach Guy Gianni said. “There was the shock of, 'Oh, God, he might not come out of this thing.’”
Eventually the disorder retreated. It took Kinneberg almost the whole summer to recuperate, first in a wheelchair and then on crutches.
He wasn’t there for the majority of the Saints’ postseason run, but he kept his vow to get back into the dugout. He made it for the season’s final game, a 6-4 loss to Phoenix Arcadia in the state semifinals.
“I don’t think there was one kid on our team that was worried more about the loss,” Gianni said. “They were just happy Craig was there.”
The road back was not easy. Kinneberg lost 40 pounds, and while the doctors were careful not to set any sort of timeline, family friends of the Kinnebergs tried to be realistic.
“I’m friends with a physical therapist, and she said that it may take at least a year to get back,” Meg Kinneberg said.
When Meg asked a doctor she knew from Spokane, Wash., what Craig’s odds were of making it back for fall ball, he told her there was “no chance.”
To the surprise of nearly everyone, Craig worked feverishly to rehab and was back pitching in the fall — not nearly the pitcher he was, but there nonetheless.
He continued to train through the winter, and once the season started in February, Kinneberg was back in form. He has a 4-2 record with a 1.22 ERA and three complete games in a team-leading 34 1/3 innings this year. Notre Dame is ranked No. 1 in the Tribune’s baseball rankings.
Aside from the talent, this year’s team just has a different feel to it.
“They’re a much closer group,” Gianni said, “and Craig’s a major reason for that.”
Kinneberg insists the experience wasn’t a life-changing experience. His life didn’t need a wake-up call.
“He’s pretty much the same kid he was last year,” Gianni said. “He might appreciate things more now, but his personality is the same. He’s just a great kid who has great morals.
“Craig is one of those kids you really pull for.”