Former USC player eyes CFL championship two years after suffering heart attack

Guss Armstead wrapped his arms around his son Armond, trying desperately to ease the pain of a lost dream as the tears flowed from his boy.

Lying in a hospital bed almost two years ago, Armond, then 20, had been given the latest information in a dizzying series of events. In the aftermath of a heart attack, the then-USC junior defensive tackle was told, in so many words, it was time to choose a different path.

"The doctor basically said, 'You're a smart kid, find another job, do something else,' " Armstead, remembering the day in December 2010, said by phone from Toronto. "That hurt so much to hear … I started saying things I wouldn't normally say."

Armstead, who will try to help the CFL's Argonauts win the Grey Cup on Sunday and then hopefully use that as a springboard to the NFL, wailed that football was his life and that it was being taken away. That's when his father leaned in, trying like any parent to soak up some of the hurt at a time when it was all too scary and confusing.

"I embraced him and held him like he was 3 years old again," the elder Armstead said by phone from his home in Sacramento, Calif., where Armond was raised. "There's not much you can really say at a moment like that. You just let the emotions be released and you remind him that, as a family, we'll find a way to get through this. You validate all the love you've given him in the past and say, if there was no football in his future, we were going to get through this.

"You never want to see your child broken and hopeless. But Armond isn't just a football player. That's not how we raised him. He's a bright, articulate young man who plays football. His life is not football. But when you play at a high level like he did at the time, sometimes you start to believe that."

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As it turns out, Armstead wasn't done with football.

Armstead has returned to the gridiron after discovering that the problem was not with his body, but with how he was being treated. According to a lawsuit Armstead has filed against USC, his heart attack was the result of being administered too much Toradol, an anti-inflammatory medication. Doctors haven't found a physical defect that caused the attack of the former prep phenomenon.

So now, armed with a little more perspective and appreciation for his athletic gifts, the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Armstead is back in action. After taking the 2011 season off and then leaving USC, the results have been impressive, including six sacks (tied for ninth in the league) and a selection to the CFL East All-Star squad as a rookie.

The six sacks may not sound like a lot, but this is where perspective is necessary. The Canadian version of the game is much more wide open, played on a bigger field by generally smaller men. Of the eight players who had more sacks than Armstead, the heaviest of all of them was only 270 pounds.

Armstead kept pace because he's unusually quick for a man of his size, in part because his father is a trainer who works primarily with NBA players. Growing, Armstead was drilled for the hardwood, not the gridiron.

"He developed his quickness throughout his life and that's showing up now," Guss Armstead said.

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Calgary Stampeders assistant general manager John Murphy, whose team faces Toronto for the title Sunday, believes Armstead has a serious chance to make it to the NFL.

"Playing very well in CFL," Murphy wrote in a text message. "I think if he proves healthy and does same next year he gets an NFL shot after that."

That's pretty impressive after having that dream completely erased for a time.

"I think about getting [to the NFL] someday, but my goal right now was to get 10 sacks, help us get to the playoffs and then win a Grey Cup," said Armstead, the nation's No. 3 rated defensive tackle coming out of high school in 2008. "I didn't get the first, but we got to the playoffs and now we have a chance to win the Grey Cup. That's so big."

Almost as big as the first step to being an athlete again. Approximately a month after finally being told that his body wasn't the problem, Armstead played in a pickup basketball game with some of his brothers from the Sigma Chi house at USC.

"We were just sitting around and one of the guys said let's go play some three-on-three," Armstead said. "I wasn't scared. It's just sports and you don't want to live in fear. You get things explained to you and make sure you understand what's going on and then go from there. But I was told that it was going to feel different for awhile after I got back into working out and it did.

"But it was so good to be out there again – breaking a sweat, feeling alive, like you can do things again. … That was huge."

The next step was getting to the CFL this summer, putting on pads again and hitting teammates in practice. From there came the games, such as early in the season when the Argonauts played in Vancouver, where his parents made the trip from Sacramento.

"We watched him go through warm-ups and eventually he came over and gave us the thumbs up sign," Guss Armstead said.

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This time the tears flowed from the father.

"I had a few moments that day and that was one of them."

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