Aztec's Hegarty finally starting for Notre Dame one year after stroke and heart surgery

John Livingston The Daily Times
The Daily Times

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FARMINGTON — One year after his football career was in doubt after a miniature stroke, Matthew Hegarty is starting on the Notre Dame offensive line.

Hegarty, a 2011 graduate of Aztec High School, earned his first start for the Fighting Irish on Nov. 30 against Pac-12 Conference power Stanford. The 22-year-old never doubted he would earn a start at Notre Dame, even after going through heart surgery on Dec. 14, 2012.

"A year ago, I really had no idea how the rest of my career would unfold," Hegarty said in a phone interview on Monday from South Bend, Ind. "It has been a crazy year, but I am happy to compete at this point."

Hegarty's heart surgery repaired two small holes in his heart that led to his mild stroke on Nov. 8, 2012.

The 6-foot-5-inch, 305 pound lineman was cleared to play by his surgeon, Ronald D. Nelson, following a six-month exam, and Hegarty slowly worked his way back to the field with the Irish. Just as he did in his red shirt freshman season, it began with special teams action.

But an injury to one of Hegarty's closest friends on the line, Nick Martin, during a game against Brigham Young University on Nov. 23 gave Hegarty his first shot to play on the offensive line. After being diagnosed with a torn MCL, Martin was forced to miss the rest of the season, opening the door for Hegarty to start against Stanford and in today's Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers in Yankee Stadium in New York City.

"When Matt went into the BYU game, I actually cried," said Matthew's mother Stacy. "He was ready, and it was a business-as-usual moment for him. I knew he had to be nervous, but I couldn't see it on his face."

Stacy had a similar feeling walking into a hospital room in South Bend shortly after her son's stroke.

"The team doctor actually said he thought it was a stroke before I even flew out. When I got to the hospital and had to go up to the cardiac wing and saw a big sign that read "Stroke Recovery Unit," my heart sank," she said. "When I saw Matthew, though sitting up and being himself -- he even stood up to give me a hug against all orders -- I knew we were going to be OK. ... He was struggling with some words, but he was still all Matt. Some jokes, some wit, some worry, but he was not down at all."

Matthew Hegarty said he was a mixed bag of emotions leading into his first start at Stanford.

"It was a really interesting feeling. Obviously, I was really excited but, at the same time, knew we had a big task ahead of us with a great team like Stanford," he said. "I didn't want to take it for granted by any means because I know as well as anyone that circumstances can change quickly. It was just great to have that opportunity."

In an email to his parents prior to his first start, Matthew Hegarty expressed what a whirlwind his experience has been with Notre Dame since arriving in the summer of 2011 as a four-star recruit.

"After all of us 2010 offensive line recruits were red shirted the first year and put on 'Scout Team Purgatory' as Coach (Brian) Kelly calls it, I was asked to change positions for the upcoming year from tackle to center. I agreed and started a second year of scout team 'purgatory,' but I was being groomed for the opportunity to start at center for the 2013 season," Hegarty wrote. "Then everything was taken away in an instant when I had my mini-stroke about a year ago.

Hegarty wrote that he lost four months of hard work and he lost his position to Martin. He worked hard to return, but it wasn't enough and so he began a third year of scout team purgatory.

"I appreciated the opportunity to play at Notre Dame, but we average 40 hours a week of practice or lifting or work on my own, and not playing is discouraging, especially when my stroke was something I did not do to myself," Hegarty wrote. "I appreciated playing in games on special teams, but I wanted and needed to get back to the line to really help."

Hegarty has had many experiences as a Notre Dame football player, from a trip to Dublin, Ireland, in the 2012 season to being on the sideline for the BCS National Championship game in last January, less than a month after his surgery.

During the past week, Hegarty had the experience of practicing in the New York Giants and Jets facilities as well as a trip to "Ground Zero" of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

But finally getting the chance to play the sport he has worked so hard on is the greatest experience of all.

"I want to take advantage of the opportunity," he said. "I feel mentally real comfortable out on the field now, and physically as well."

Hegarty said family support has provided the strong motivation he needed to get back on the football field, and he can't imagine what the last 12 months would have been like without them by his side.

"They are the best motivators. When times have been hard in the past and I wonder why I do it, I have those people. My mom, dad, brother and sister have been in the back of my mind through it all, and I want to make them proud," he said.

No matter how many pancake blocks Hegarty has today against Rutgers, his family is already proud.

"When Matt got to start against Stanford, the television announcers did a lot of talking about it, and that made me all the more nervous, though that sense of gratitude to see him doing what he loves and finally getting the chance to do it was great," Stacy Hegarty said. "I don't think anyone thought he could come back from last year's incident. So, whether it's the school play at Park Avenue Elementary or the starting center spot on national television, I think the feeling is the same. Pride, a lot of pride and happiness for what your kids achieve with their work."

John Livingston covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4648 and jlivingston Follow him @jlivi2 on Twitter