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Article updated: 12/11/2013 9:51 PM
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Selflessly, Lake Zurich's Gruninger makes the toughest cut
 

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Selflessly, Lake Zurich's Gruninger makes the toughest cut
  • Lake Zurich senior football player Eric Gruninger gets his hair cut Tuesday by Magda Szewczyk, owner of Studio M in Lake Zurich.

    Lake Zurich senior football player Eric Gruninger gets his hair cut Tuesday by Magda Szewczyk, owner of Studio M in Lake Zurich.

  • Lake Zurich senior football player Eric Gruninger sports his new look, after getting 10 inches of his hair cut. He donated his cut hair to charity.

    Lake Zurich senior football player Eric Gruninger sports his new look, after getting 10 inches of his hair cut. He donated his cut hair to charity.

 

A long football season and even longer three years for Eric Gruninger had some closure Tuesday.

Lake Zurich's longhaired backup defensive lineman showed up at Studio M hair salon ready for a cruel cut -- 10 of his 14 inches of golden blond locks were about to be chopped.

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"His sister," Eric's mom, Carrie Gruninger, said of her oldest child, Katy, "would kill for his hair."

What girl -- or guy -- wouldn't?

Eric Gruninger would be no match Tuesday for salon owner Magda Szewczyk, who was armed with scissors, a comb and a sweet smile that no opposing offensive lineman Eric faced could match.

And the football tough guy thought getting cut-blocked by a running back was tough.

Sorry, Clay Matthews, your look-alike has a new game face, a gentler, less-gruff one.

"He's my favorite player -- and still will be after I get my hair cut," the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Gruninger, wearing a Green Bay Packers cap backward while sitting in a Studio M chair, said of the Packers linebacker, whose long hair, like Gruninger's, cascades Rapunzel-esque from a football helmet.

Eric's favorite male role model was his dad. Still is.

A former Northfield police officer who later worked in fraud investigation for a bank, Jeff Gruninger succumbed to a brain tumor in October of 2010 at the too-young age of 50.

"He was my best friend," Eric said.

And what would Dad have thought of the long hair?

"I don't think he would have approved," Eric said, grinning.

Rest assured, his dad was smiling Tuesday, despite the Packers cap his son was wearing. Besides his son, Jeff Gruninger loved football, particularly the Bears and Wisconsin Badgers, says Carrie, who grew up in Madison. (Eric gets his love of the Packers from his grandfather, Carrie's dad). Jeff was excited to see his son take to football.

Eric didn't play a lot of varsity downs for Lake Zurich's varsity, but what he did Tuesday was typical of an LZ Bear. He made a winning play. He donated a zip-locked bag filled with ropes of his golden hair to Locks of Love, which is a public nonprofit organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children who are under the age of 21, living in the United States or Canada and suffering from long-term medical hair loss.

Carrie Gruninger credits both the Lake Zurich High School and Lake Zurich Flames football programs for developing her son into what she called the "strong person, in body and character," that he is today. A lifeguard in the summer, Eric has a winter job, too, serving as a ski instructor at Wilmot Mountain, where his mom also instructs.

Before Tuesday, the last time Eric had gotten his hair cut was April of his sophomore year.

"Before that, I was getting haircuts like once every 3-4 months," the burly senior said. "I decided to grow it out because I just didn't really like haircuts. I was planning on getting it cut a couple of times, but I didn't."

Then it hit him harder than a Colton Moskal hit. What a perfect way to pay tribute to his dad, who lost his hair while undergoing treatment for his brain tumor. Gruninger would then donate his hair to charity. The idea was a cut above, so to speak.

"It just grew into that," said Gruninger, his pun unintended.

"I had heard of Locks of Love (and other charity organizations), and I thought that was fitting to do that."

Funny, in his 20 years working for the Northfield police department, Jeff Gruninger and fellow officers were required to be well-groomed and weren't allowed to sport facial hair.

"Not even a mustache," Carrie said.

Sports teaches you discipline. Take Eric.

"I use special shampoo and conditioner," he said. "That's about it. (The hair) got beaten up during football."

Comb LZ's football roster. You realize there were other longhaired Bears: Sean Lynch, Chris Lehtinen, Sam Walstrum, Nick Tsiapas.

"I think I'm the one who started it," Gruninger said, proudly.

Gruninger played four years of high school football for Lake Zurich. No. 37 got some late-game snaps against Elk Grove in the Bears' first-round playoff game and was on the field with all of his teammates at Northern Illinois University's Huskie Stadium for the Class 7A state championship game over Thanksgiving weekend. Lake Zurich wound up losing to Mount Carmel.

"It was unreal," Gruninger said of the state experience. "The only thing I would change is the outcome of (the game)."

There are no regrets -- even after Magda put away her scissors and comb.

"I love the haircut," Eric said. "It just feels weird."

All seemed right.

jaguilar@dailyherald.com

• Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeAguilar64

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