Simon Keith didn't just survive a narrow brush with death in 1986. He returned from it to become the first person to ever play professional sports after having a heart transplant. His return was so strong that he became the No. 1 overall pick in the Major Indoor Soccer League only three years after surgery.
More than 25 years after nearly dying as his own heart shriveled under attack from a virus, Keith shares his stunning and inspiring story of not only surviving but also thriving in the face of such a traumatic event. The following is an excerpt from his autobiography "Heart for the Game" (available on Amazon.com and Kindle). Keith went from chasing World Cup glory to looking for a new heart in England. He watched the world's biggest soccer tournament play out on television from his hospital bed as his body deteriorated. Yet he wouldn't let go of his dream of playing soccer at some of its highest levels.
In this book, which was co-written with Yahoo! Sports writer Jason Cole, Keith takes readers inside his desire and determination. Keith also takes you to an emotional meeting with the father of the young man who was his heart donor. In the summer of 2011, Keith returned to England to reunite with the man who lost his son. Their emotional, day-long meeting ended at the son's grave with a sharing of tears of regret and joy.
As a motivational speaker and long-time survivor, Keith is trying to bring greater attention to the critical need for more donors. For more information, go to TheSimonKeithFoundation.com.
In the following excerpt, Keith talks about the moment after surgery when his drive to return to the game kicked in:
… Everything else was a blur. I remember two things about the moment I woke up on July 8: I was thirsty as hell and my brother Marc was there. I'd never been so happy to see him. In the rush of getting me to surgery, my parents had called my brothers to fly to England. It was either going to be for some great bit of news or for a final chance to say goodbye.
Before I get into the initial part of recovery, I want to mention the key moment or what I call my actual awakening from this whole experience. It's one of those life moments – what I call a Moment of Truth – where everything seems to click, even if this moment was hardly what you would call a success.
About three weeks after surgery, in late July 1986, I had been discharged from Papworth and we had rented a little house in Cambridge where I was working on recuperation. I was still doing what I call the "old man rehab" and was walking around, feeling good, with no significant problems of any kind. I was beginning to think about getting in shape to play soccer again. I was regaining confidence in my body. Again, before I went to England in May, I was looking ahead to the soccer season that September.
Now, it's late July and I'm figuring I better start busting my ass in training or else I might not be ready for September. Of course, this all relates to my theory of the "Power of Stupid," but what the hell. I was 21 and had no clue what I was really doing.
The temperature in England had come back down from that late-June/early-July heat wave. I was still doing some pretty typical heart rehabilitation stuff, but nothing that would remotely qualify as strenuous. It was a somewhat chilly and foggy morning when I snuck out. My mom was in the rental house and was still a little overprotective of me. Her idea was to wrap me up in cotton wool, then a blanket, more cotton wool and put me on the chair so I wouldn't break. I guess I couldn't blame her, but I knew differently. I was ready to go. Dressed in some workout clothes, which was pretty normal, I snuck out of the house. I just walked casually until I reached a park and was out of her sight. Like most communities in the UK, there was no shortage of soccer fields in this neighborhood. As I reached this park, there were acres and acres of soccer fields. Maybe 15 or 20 fields.
Here was my chance to push it. I was going to run. I figured I would keep it to a light jog at first. You know, keep it sensible and not get too out of control. I figured I'd go a couple of miles and stretch my legs just enough and give the new ticker a try. I was feeling strong again and looking ahead to real training. The fact that I had just had my heart taken out of my chest and replaced three weeks earlier didn't really register at that moment. Oh, to be 21 and have an infinite amount of stupidity!
And off I went. Man, did I feel alive. I was free. I was invigorated. I could see my warm breath against the chilly, foggy air. The hospitals, the doctors, the nurses and even the media back home, they were all gone. The frustrations that had built up over two plus years. The poking and the prodding. The questions of my ability to run again. To play again. For an instant they were all gone. It was just me, doing what my body wanted to do so much. It was fantastic.
The first 10 yards were so freeing. Simply awesome. At about 30 yards, my legs started burning. My chest got tight, my side seized up. My body said, "Yo, dude, are you freaking stupid?" I pushed through it, figuring the pain would go away and that it was just a matter of breaking through. At 60 yards, the fire inside my body started. My legs, my chest, my arms, my shoulders … everything was on fire. At 80 yards, the voice that athletes have been trained to ignore started to argue with my body. An inferno was raging inside my body now. My new heart felt like it was going to burst through my chest.
And then it was over. Born free this was not. At 100 yards, I was toast, done. I put my hands on my knees, hunched over in agony. The universal sign of an athlete exhausted. I was pissed. My body had failed me again. I was discouraged, mad, sad, hopeless.
But only for a moment.
As I stood there, hunched over, I was a shadow of the world-class athlete I had been until recently. Alone in some dreary English park 5,000 miles from my home. Away from friends and family. Away from the media scrutiny. Away from the doctors and nurses. Away from other players, teammates and coaches. I made a decision. The determination welled up inside of me.
All the lessons from my father, all the competitiveness I had developed over the years with my brothers, all the understanding of my body and what I could do when I was healthy completely aligned.
This was that moment for me. A Moment of Truth.
This was that time when my desire to push forward at every moment became my greatest ally. I knew right then that I was at an absolute zero in terms of physical condition. In order to come back, I was going to have to come all the way back from literally zero to become myself again. I would have to face judgment and scorn, nervousness and curious stares, stereotypes and prejudices. It would take sacrifice, dedication, desire, blood and sweat, but I was going to make it back.
This was the ultimate challenge of my life, and I was ready.
This became the single most important moment in my early life. Many who face death and survive talk about such moments. This was the ultimate character test for me. I had a choice to make. It would have been easy to accept that I was now broken, that I was somehow different and that people would understand if I was never the same again. As I had these thoughts about accepting that fate, I just got more and more pissed off.
I decided then and there, once and for all, that neither my illness nor my subsequent transplant was going to define me. Not a chance. I told myself, "I'm going to beat this," whatever that meant. I would beat it. I would beat it with passion, pride and commitment.
As I worked through my recovery – I stayed in England until September – I pushed myself a lot harder than the therapists were pushing me. We would do one set of exercises and I would be pushing for the next one. The therapist kept trying to hold me back for the first week, but I knew what my body could handle. It got so bad that my Dad had to step in. I had gone through three therapists in the first week or so and so my Dad had a meeting with the chief of the department. He tried to explain that I was … ummm … "different." She finally got it when he explained it this way: "Simon will push you. He will push his body. He knows his limits. He will push and push and push. He will push you to the wall … and then he will push you through it." Once she understood who I was, I was put in charge of my own therapy.
The good thing in all of this was that I stayed in England for over two months, most of that time spent in what was essentially a halfway house – a combination of part-hospital and part-residential facility for people who were recovering from surgery. I wanted to go home strong, completely rehabilitated. I wanted the people in Victoria to see that there was nothing wrong with me and I was back to normal. But I also got tired of the halfway house and all the protocol. Again, I didn't feel like I needed to deal with all the restrictions. If they had just assessed me physically, they would have seen how much healthier I was than most people there. Here I was, 21 years old and a recovering athlete. I wasn't some 50-year-old, hard-line drinker who had beaten the crap out of his body.
There is feeling among people who have been through transplants and come that close to death that we will often say we "see" or understand things with a clarity that other people don't. I suppose it's this ultimate form of wisdom or whatever else you get from going through this type of situation. I don't really know how to explain it to people when I talk about it, but when I'm around other people who have had transplants, they intuitively understand. It's as if you take that "whatever" attitude you have been through as you're dealing with illness and possible death – that approach I had used to ignore the mundane parts of a day when I first got to England and was staying with my aunt and uncle – and added the euphoria of having survived. You're still indifferent to the small details, but you're also aware of how great the big picture can look. It's like you strip away all the other issues and see things very clearly.
At that moment, I saw what I needed to do.
I needed to get my body back in shape. I needed to play again. I needed to have control over my body to the fullest extent possible. There have been countless other times that I have gone through that in my life. I went through it again when I retired as a professional soccer player. I went through that when I realized that Kelly was the right woman for me, the first woman who completely captured my soul.
I went through the same thing when I finished my degree in college and started my business. I went through the same thing when I decided to write this book. I knew what I needed to get done, and I did it.
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