Brett Sterbach’s opponents learned not to underestimate the former Shawnee Mission West High School running back as he helped lead the Vikings to their first Kansas state football championship in 27 years.
Two would-be muggers at a Topeka gas station learned a similar lesson shortly before 11 p.m. Saturday. That’s when the 5-foot-7, 155-pound Sterbach, 18, wrestled away a knife, suffering a stab wound in his thigh, then fought off his assailants, forcing them to flee.
Sterbach was headed home from playing on the winning team in the Kansas Shrine Bowl, an all-star football game at Washburn University. His parents, Nick and Julie, and an uncle, Brad Earnest, who’d flown in from Connecticut to attend the game, were also in the car when it stopped at the Phillips 66 at Hudson Crossing, 810 SE 15th St.
“Brett didn’t want to go in,” Julie Sterbach said. “He was tired, so I was getting him a drink and a snack for the long drive home. That’s when it all transpired.”
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Brett’s dad and uncle also went into the store. Then two men approached and knocked on the window of Nick’s Honda Accord, where Brett was in the back seat talking on his cell phone to a friend.
“These two guys come up to my car and one knocked on the window to ask for something,” Brett said. “I opened the door and, as soon as I did, they pulled a knife on me and said, ‘Give me all your money.’”
When Brett said he didn’t have any money, the robbers demanded his phone.
Brett chose to fight back.
“I hung up my phone and acted like I was going to put it in my pocket,” Brett said. “He had the knife at my rib level, so I pushed it down because I didn’t want it near any vital organs. He pushed it forward at the same time, and that’s when I must have been stabbed in the leg, but I didn’t even feel it go in.”
Brett said he wrestled the knife away from his attacker as the second assailant struck him in the head. Then Brett said he stabbed the first attacker in the abdomen. Topeka Police confirmed surveillance video shows two men approaching the car and then an altercation outside of the car.
“I pushed the other guy off me and got out of the car and squared up to them,” Brett said.
The second attacker rushed Brett, who still had the knife in his hands.
“I thought I stabbed him once, but the cops who saw the surveillance video said, ‘No, you stabbed him a good five times in the collarbone area,’” Brett said.
After that, the attackers, who face attempted aggravated robbery charges, fled. Brett gave chase before the first attacker appeared to pull something — perhaps a gun — from the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt.
Blood streaming down his leg, Brett then retreated inside the store to find his parents.
“Honestly, my first thought when he came inside was, ‘Why is Brett holding that knife?’” Julie said. “It just didn’t make sense to me then I looked down and blood was everywhere dripping down his leg. That’s when I asked the (gas station attendant) to call 911.”
Brett — a first-team All-Metro running back who racked up 2,228 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior, including 273 yards against Hutchinson in the championship game — was taken to a hospital. Stitches were required to close the two-inch deep, quarter-inch-long knife wound on the outside of his right thigh.
No arrest had been made as of Monday afternoon.
“We haven’t identified any suspects, but the information available on the video leads us to believe the investigation will proceed,” Topeka Police Capt. Scott Conklin said.
Conklin also said he was glad Brett’s situation worked out the way it did but cautioned others against taking such bold actions.
“When you take actions like that, you can be easily overwhelmed or fall, and now we’re talking about a tragedy,” he said. “Most of the time, whether it’s a wallet or phone or whatever they are demanding, it’s not worth it.”
Sterbach, while proud he fought off his attackers, also realizes he was lucky to escape serious injury.
“I’m just glad nothing worse happened,” he said. “During this whole Shrine Bowl experience, I got to see so many kids who were born with no limbs and other problems.
“I’m glad I got out with nothing major. It’s just a little stab wound, but it didn’t hit any bone or any major arteries. I could have been killed, so I’m blessed that’s how it ended up.”