Ian Bunting’s musical tastes are diverse, ranging from reggae to rap to classic rock. But when it comes to his pregame routine, his final song is a constant, just like the man it represents.
Before each game, the redshirt freshman tight end plays “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones. Its somber tones and slow-strummed guitar aren’t the typical hype-up music for a college football player, but that’s exactly the point. “Wild Horses” is the song that was playing when his father, Stephen Bunting, passed away.
Ian was 19 on February 18, 2015, when his father died after a yearlong battle with brain cancer. Stephen was a far-too-young 59.
“He was and still is my inspiration,” Bunting said.
The song goes:
“Faith has been broken, tears must be cried.
Let’s do some living after we die.
Wild Horses couldn’t drag me away.
Wild, wild horses, we’ll ride them some day.”
In this context, the lyrics to Wild Horses are both touching and heart-wrenching. To Bunting, though, they aren’t a source of pain.
“It’s just soothing,” Bunting said. “It calms me down, makes me think of my dad, which is awesome. That’s all I need before the game.”
It’s remarkable in its own right that Bunting is composed when opening up about the feelings associated with his father’s passing.
Bunting was emotional, of course, but he was also reflective. He has come to terms with the loss about as well as anyone possibly could in such a short span of time.
“It’s definitely been tough, but everyone goes through stuff, everyone’s got a story, everyone’s got (adversity),” Bunting said. “(Mark) Naylor, one of our strength coaches, 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.’ ”
At the time of his father’s passing, Bunting was already dealing with all kinds of change on the football team. Jim Harbaugh had just been brought in as coach, and he had to balance staying afloat personally while also juggling a coaching transition and school.
But rather than sinking under the pressure and uncertainty, Bunting learned to use the football team for recovery instead of letting it become another source of stress.
“It was a lot. At times it was — sometimes you’ve just to put the blinders on,” Bunting said. “You go out to practice and that’s time you can forget about everything. It’s like an outlet. You can just go take out whatever anger you have and just forget about things for a while.
“Hardest thing that’s ever happened to me in life. But I’ve learned from it. And I’m stronger because of it.”
Stephen Bunting played high school football, but it was in Bunting’s other sports that his father coached him growing up. Bunting was much younger at the time, so doesn’t remember everything, but he does recall playing for his dad on his childhood basketball, soccer and baseball teams.
The parent-coach relationship can be a difficult one to navigate, but as Bunting remembers it, his dad had a knack for balancing the two.
“He knew how to work me hard and not be overly critical,” Bunting recalled. “But he was definitely critical, and gave me pointers and let me know when I needed to do better.”
Now, those memories, however faint, are part of what Bunting has to remember his father by.
There was an especially poignant moment before Michigan’s season opener against Utah. Stephen’s brother had played for the Utes, creating a fitting way for Bunting to play his first game after losing his dad. He played “Wild Horses,” and in his first-ever college game, Bunting had a 12-yard reception.
Stephen was able to see the Wolverines play a few times when he was sick, but his son was redshirting. He never got to see Ian play college football.
“He’s got the best seat in the house now,” Bunting said.