With a repaired heart and a Fighting Irishman's spirit, Matt Hegarty is back on the football field.
The 21-year-old University of Notre Dame offensive lineman suffered a mild stroke in early November 2012, and doctors eventually found two small holes in his heart. Hegarty's heart surgery on Dec. 14 was successful, and he was cleared for spring activities.
After recently passing a six-month, post-surgery exam, Hegarty, a 2011 Aztec High School graduate, is working hard in workouts to regain his place on the Notre Dame offensive line as camp opens Monday.
"Going through spring ball and getting into the rhythm of things over the summer, it has been nice to get to where I don't think about my heart anymore," said Hegarty in a phone interview Friday from South Bend, Ind. "I am making up lost ground. There has been a lot of competition, and I am glad camp is coming around because it is a great opportunity to get better and compete. When you come to a place as competitive as Notre Dame, you have to take advantage of every rep you get."
In November 2012, Hegarty was in the height of his sophomore season at Notre Dame as the Irish made their push through an undefeated regular season. But his season came to an abrupt end on Nov. 8 when he began to experience a number symptoms, including shortness of breath and the inability to talk or write. When the symptoms didn't go away after a day, team doctors evaluated Hegarty. He was taken to the hospital, where he learned he had suffered a mild stroke.
To repair the two small holes in Hegarty's heart -- holes that have been there since birth -- doctors ran a small tube up from his upper thigh to his heart and placed a small umbrella-like patch over both holes. His heart has since scarred over the path, helping secure it in place.
The procedure will help Hegarty's life in several ways, said Dr. Ronald D. Nelson, a cardiologist in South Bend, who performed the surgery. The holes in Hegarty's heart allowed blood clots to reach his head, causing a stroke, Nelson said. The condition also allows oxygen-depleted blood in one chamber of the heart to mix with oxygen-rich blood in the other.
"Prior to getting this opening closed, Matt was dealing with an abnormality that caused his oxygen levels to drop that strained his system," Nelson said. "Because he did a tremendous amount of exercise, his tolerance increased tremendously, but there is no question the numbers show he is better now than he was before the stroke."
Pre-surgery, the percentage of oxygen in Hegarty's blood was 84 percent. Post-surgery, it surged to 99 percent.
Before surgery, Hegarty was running 8-minute, 15-second miles at 725 feet above sea level in South Bend. Over the summer in Aztec -- a city that sits at 5,623 feet above sea level -- Hegarty said he has been able to run a mile in 7 minutes and 14 seconds.
"We are 100 percent relieved that Matt's stroke issue is now a closed chapter in his life," said Matt Hegarty's father, Bryan Hegarty. "His surgeon said his December surgery was a cure. Matt is now back to 120 percent since his heart gets 20 percent more oxygen after the surgery. From our perspective as parents, we were truly, truly blessed with the way this whole potential tragedy played out."
Hegarty was fortunate to discover the heart problem through only a minor stroke. Had the condition gone undetected, it could have lead to more severe consequences, said Matt Hegarty's mother, Stacy Hegarty.
"We were told if Matt hadn't found this problem now, then he could have suffered more strokes in his forties and fifties," she said. "That fact that the correction was made at age 20 saves him years of potential damage."
The diagnosis and surgery kept Hegarty out of the 2013 Discover BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7, in which No. 1 Notre Dame fell 42-12 to No. 2 Alabama. But even as Hegarty's football future was in question, he never lost sight of returning to the field with Notre Dame.
"Having the goal of coming back as soon as possible was what drove me through. It was a down time for me. It was exciting for the team going to the national championship at the time, but it was tough," said Hegarty, who had played in each of Notre Dame's first nine games before the stroke. "I had to keep looking at getting back on the field. I had a calendar and circled dates for every goal. I used that to keep my mind on track. I thought, 'This might blow right now, but on this day I can start working out again and on this day I can go to practice and progress back.' That kept me going."
That dedication to get back on the field impressed even his parents.
"The word stroke strikes fear for anyone, especially a 20-year-old student-athlete," Bryan Hegarty said. "Originally, he was told he may be done with football. He also worried he may not recover fully and how that would affect his studies. Matt was first very worried, then angry about how unfair this all seemed. He had worked very hard to get where he was."
Matt Hegarty was Aztec High's acclaimed left tackle. In his senior season, he was selected for the U.S. ARMY All-American Bowl. The 6-foot-5, nearly 300-pound lineman didn't play in his freshman season at Notre Dame and served as the backup center as a sophomore and played on special teams. Bryan Hegarty said he is proud of how his son refocused after his surgery.
"Lots of things knock kids off their path, especially if something bad happens that is not really their fault," he said. "But Matt got his head together, did his rehab work and got cleared for full-contact spring ball. He is now fighting to get back his position and help his team as best he can."
Matt Hegarty is just happy the conversation around him now changed from questions about his heart to questions about Notre Dame's title chances again this season.
"For awhile, you just expected that when people wanted to talk to you, they were going to ask about your heart. Now I talk to people about how workouts and camp are going. That is a big thing for me," he said. I have started to realize that it is behind me, and I feel great about it."
And now he wants to turn the conversation back to the game.
"I know our team has put in the work all winter and spring and the guys all understand what we need to do to take the next step to win a game like the national championship," he said. "I don't see any reason why we can't get back to that game with the amount of veterans and good leadership we have. It is fun to see the guys grinding in practice, and that is how we are going to win a lot of games. We have a lot of heart on this team."John Livingston can be reached at email@example.com; 505-564-4648. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.