Heart of an Irishman: Aztec's Matt Hegarty sidelined for BCS national championship game after stroke, heart surgery
The heart Matt Hegarty showed on the field in Aztec helped him earn a football scholarship at Notre Dame, but it is his heart that is keeping him out of Monday's BCS national championship game.
Hegarty, a 2011 graduate of Aztec High School, suffered a mini-stroke Nov. 8 and he hasn't played a game since. The 20-year-old offensive lineman underwent heart surgery Dec. 14 to repair two holes in his heart that he has had since birth.
The surgery was successful and Hegarty hopes to make a full recovery in time to earn the starting center job in spring practices, but the 6-foot-5, 296-pound sophomore will be sidelined for Monday's showdown against No. 2 Alabama.
"It is going to be hard sitting on the sideline. I got to be a part of every game all year and then, for arguably the biggest game ever, I won't get to be in there," Hegarty said. "I am absolutely confident in the way our team has prepared for this game, and I am equally confident with the way the program is set up that I will have the opportunity to play for a national championship again in the future.
“We are bringing back a lot of guys and the coaching staff is sticking together,” he said. “It would be sweet to play in this national championship, but next year the opportunity will be there. It will be that much sweeter if I can come back and play."
Hegarty suffered symptoms such as shortness of breath and the inability to talk or write. Those symptoms lingered on for nearly a day before he went to team doctors for an evaluation.
"It was pretty scary. I had heard stories about people who have had strokes and it flashed in my mind for a second that I might be having one. But I thought I was 20 and in good health and it couldn't be a stroke," he said. "I talked to the trainers and they were keeping an eye out on me, but my symptoms seemed to get better.
“The next day in warmups before practice, it got worse and the team doctor ran some tests and I went to the hospital where they determined I had had a stroke."
The two holes in Hegarty's heart were discovered and surgically repaired by Dr. Ronald D. Nelson in South Bend, Ind. He did not undergo open-heart surgery, but instead had a catheter type surgery in which a small tube was run up from his upper thigh to his heart to place a small umbrella-type patch over both holes.
"Dr. Nelson has done a ton of the heart patches. It was reassuring to have him because he is kind of a front-runner for the hole-patching procedure. It was a coincidence to have one of the best doctors for that specific procedure right here in South Bend," Hegarty said. "Not knowing what caused the stroke was frustrating for me and I wanted to know how to prevent it from happening in the future. When the doctors found out and said they could fix it and I would be fine, it was relieving."
Bryan and Stacy Hegarty, the athlete's parents, were alarmed by the news of their son's stroke and impending heart surgery.
"Though Matt is recovering, Stacy and I have not yet recovered from the events this past six weeks," Bryan Hegarty said. "During Matt's first hospital stay, the news just kept getting worse every 15 hours or so before it got better. It started where Matt could not write or talk at practice, then he was diagnosed with a stroke.
“It continued the next day when Matt was diagnosed with holes in his heart. Matt told us 'I went from worrying about missing the next game to worrying about missing the rest of the season to worrying about ever playing football again or being healthy.' We are very grateful to the positive developments that unfolded later."
Now that the nightmare is over and Hegarty is slowly recovering, the family views the situation as a blessing in disguise.
"If his heart problem was left undetected until his 40s or 50s or later, serious heart damage would be likely," Bryan Hegarty said. "Matt originally disagreed with this idea because he missed some games and the national championship but, as the last couple of weeks have passed, he understands he is blessed the way things have occurred. We are just grateful for a healthy kid."
Hegarty will continue to be monitored over the next few months and for the rest of his life, but his prospects of returning to the field are very good, Bryan Hegarty said.
Hegarty received limitless support from his coaches, teammates and family through the entire process.
"Notre Dame is special and really is family," Matt Hegarty said. "I think the best advice I can give to people after this is to rely on your family. I am an independent person and like to handle these things alone. The biggest thing I had through the whole deal was my family's support. It was an unfortunate event, but I can confide in my family. Having their support means a lot."
Hegarty left Aztec as one of the top offensive line recruits in the country with dreams of playing in the NFL.
Despite this setback, playing on Sundays is still his goal.
There is a precedent for football players coming back from the same medical problems Hegarty has faced. All he has to do is turn on his television and watch former New England Patriot and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi.
It was Notre Dame starting center Braxton Cave who first asked, "Didn't Tedy Bruschi have that?"
"That short comment was huge news to me, to know another football guy had this happen and come back healthy to play again," Matt Hegarty said. "He had a hole in his heart and suffered a much more severe stroke. It was nice to hear about that and remembering that he played for four years afterward. I would say he has been a pretty successful guy since it happened to him."
Hegarty is still taking time with his family in Aztec, but he will meet up with the Irish in Miami on Saturday in advance of Monday night's game.
For a kid from a small town such as Aztec, standing under the lights at the Orange Bowl on the Notre Dame sideline across from the Crimson Tide is as big as it gets, even if he won't touch the ball.
"I am seeing all the pictures from my buddies down there already and it looks electric," he said. "I miss being around the guys since I have been stuck in the doctors for awhile, but I like to stay involved with the team and be there whenever I can. It is a tremendous opportunity to be a part of a game like this and to be a part of the year we have had. Our guys have absolutely earned it, and now it is time for this Notre Dame team to leave its mark."