RUSKIN — Leslie Strunk knew her son had many friends. He was outgoing and helpful at his church and school. Everyone called the 6-foot-5 student "Big D" and everyone knew they could count on him.
But she had no idea the 19-year-old would have nearly 700 people at his funeral on Monday.
"His dad and I are just in awe," she said. "We had no idea his impact was that humongous. It was overwhelming."
Daniel Strunk died from injuries related to an April 22 crash near his Ruskin home. He lost control of a truck and drove into a ditch near 11th Avenue NW.
His brother Matthew Strunk, 17, was a passenger but wasn't seriously harmed. After the crash, he walked over to his brother, pushed him and said, "Daniel, get up. Get up."
He didn't. Matthew ran four blocks home to get his parents. His dad, Frank Strunk, pulled Daniel from the truck and gave him CPR. He didn't feel a pulse.
"I did what I had to do, as a parent," he said. "I wanted my kid to breathe."
• • •
Daniel almost died when he was 5 years old. He got meningitis, and the illness put him a year behind in school.
School was difficult for Daniel because he had a learning disability. He was held back twice: first because of the illness, then again because he was a troublemaker.
"He just thought he was a tough guy. Nobody was going to tell him what to do," Leslie Strunk said. "He had a bad attitude toward people, and a bad attitude for life."
In high school, he had the stature to back up his attitude. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, even the tough friends in his group considered him one of the toughest. He got in fights at East Bay High School and neighbors considered him a troublemaker.
But that all changed in 2006.
Billy Sandoval, a student at East Bay, had been persistently inviting him to his youth group at First Baptist Church of Ruskin. Daniel gave in. He was baptized in March 2006 and his attitude changed dramatically, friends and family said.
"What changed about Daniel was not his appearance," youth pastor Josh Rumsey said. "He was a country boy before he came to know the Lord, and he was a country boy after. What changed was his heart."
Daniel became involved in the youth group, leading worship and telling others how he changed. He got a scholarship to attend Ruskin Christian School, where he acted in a play and gave elementary school students high-fives in the hallways.
"He was an imposing man, but his personality was as big or bigger than his body," Rumsey said.
• • •
It was dark outside when the paramedics told Frank Strunk to step back so they could take over. Leslie Strunk had left the scene. She didn't want to have a meltdown, so she went home and called First Baptist's pastors, who went to the scene.
One of them came back and told her that Daniel didn't make it.
Paramedics took him to South Bay Hospital in Sun City Center. And Leslie soon got a call from her older son, whose girlfriend's mother had driven to South Bay Hospital looking for a Strunk boy.
Daniel was alive, she said.
He had been shocked with a defibrillator and was on a ventilator, waiting to be flown to Tampa General Hospital. At Tampa General, about 50 people gathered, waiting for news. Leslie and about 10 others stood near the helicopter pad, looking into the sky for the helicopter that would bring Daniel. As he landed, they shouted, "Big D, Big D, Big D!"
"Hang on baby," his mom told him. "Be strong."
He was in a coma, but doctors were going to perform tests and give him a CT scan to assess his chances for recovery. Leslie and Frank Strunk went in his room and talked to him.
"I was telling him that I loved him," she said. "I know that my son could hear what I was saying to him because when I spoke with him, tears came from the corners of his eyes."
They realized, after talking with a neurologist, that they should let him go. He wouldn't have wanted to depend on others to dress or eat, Leslie Strunk said. She told him to let go and be with God.
They left the room. Twenty minutes later, his heart stopped.
"I know he's where he'd rather be," she said.
Leslie and Frank Strunk will walk across the stage with Ruskin Christian School's three graduating seniors to accept Daniel's diploma on May 16.
He had worked so hard to graduate and though he didn't make it to the ceremony, he still graduated, Leslie Strunk said.
"As far as mom's concerned, he graduated and he graduated with honors," she said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.