Nick Wells1 Comment

A FOOTBALLER, A HEART TRANSPLANT AND THE SEARCH FOR SELF-IDENTITY IN LAS VEGAS

Nick Wells1 Comment
A FOOTBALLER, A HEART TRANSPLANT AND THE SEARCH FOR SELF-IDENTITY IN LAS VEGAS

It was a fresh start. No longer would he simply be known as "The Heart Guy." Las Vegas, the city of reinvention, was his destination.

In Sin City, criminals can become legitimate, middle-aged men can become high rollers for a day, and mild-mannered seniors can become aggressive card players. Not many would say they were bound for Las Vegas seeking an innocent clean break. But for a 22-year-old man fresh from Canada, it was an opportunity to be simply that; to just be a 22-year-old man, unencumbered by media pressure and a defining past.

This was a chance to finally just be Simon Keith. A chance to just play football.

This fall marks 30 years since Keith stepped back onto the football pitch for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Rebels. The more remarkable part? He did so barely a year after undergoing a heart transplant.

"Pre-transplant, I probably would have never considered playing in college," said Keith from his home in Nevada. "Post-transplant, I wasn't sure of where I fit in."

At the age of 19, Keith was diagnosed with myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart's middle wall, brought on by infection. It was a startling interruption to a burgeoning career.

The youngest of three brothers, Keith was a precocious striker who worked his way up through the city's youth clubs. Grainy video footage shows a mulleted Keith knocking the ball past defenders before unleashing stinging shots, or tapping a ball between the legs of an onrushing player and breezing away.

In the waning years of the North American Soccer League, he was approached by a scout from the New York Cosmos about his potential future - a future that was hastily ended by the demise of the league. But despite the lack of a secure professional pathway in North America, Keith had much to be optimistic about.

He spent a year in England in 1983, donning the Millwall FC kit, solely focusing on his career.

"Games would be on Saturday with Sundays off, and then back to the same routine on Monday. I did this literally every day close to a year," he recalled in his biography.

The club, which featured a young Teddy Sheringham at the time, was battling in the old Second Division. His personal highlight was a goal at Highbury against an Arsenal side featuring Martin Keown and Tony Adams.

"As I'm sure both Keown and Adams were marking the imposing Sheringham, I was able to sneak in behind them and slot the ball between the legs of the on-rushing [Jon] Lucic for the only goal of the match…[no goal] is burned into my memory like that."

Keith, who grew up in Victoria, B.C. - a sleepy city located on the West Coast of Canada – returned to his hometown to prep for the upcoming Olympics and World Cup qualifiers. He was training with the national team program at the University of Victoria in the winter of 1984 when he noticed something amiss.

For a man who prided himself on his fitness – a skill Keith attributed to competing amongst his siblings – he was struggling for breath during training. The city has a temperate climate with damp winter days, but Keith would find himself unable to warm himself, with ice-cold white hands after training.

The competitive edge that had defined him as a player was waning; he admits he simply looked forward to finishing practice. It would be the start of roughly two years of denial, before a sentence of six months to live was handed down.

"An indescribable, sickening feeling seemed to drain every ounce of energy out of my body. For the next few hours, it felt like I was moving outside of my body," he wrote.

His home province of British Columbia had not yet completed a heart transplant – and wouldn’t do so until 1988 – and in desperation, his family turned to the province of Ontario. Yet, Keith’s naturally competitive instincts hampered his progress for a new heart. He would push himself during physical testing, leading doctors to conclude his case wasn’t as serious as it could be, which in turn decreased his priority for a transplant.

“Whoever was closest to death was first in line. I was being told: ‘You’re not sick enough. Go home, get sicker, and then come back,’” he recalled.

Due to his British heritage – and critically, citizenship papers that he had renewed while playing for Millwall – Keith qualified for care with Britain's National Health Service. He returned to England, receiving a heart from another footballer at Papworth Hospital. John Edwards was 17 when he died. In a cruel twist of fate, a budding career in football ended abruptly with a brain aneurysm.

Keith later met his donor's family in 2011 and admits his gratitude was difficult to articulate: "How do you possibly say thank you to someone who gave you everything?" he says. "My health, my life, my wife, my children, my career, my money, everything. Without him, I wouldn't be here. There's no possible way to say thank you."

His return to fitness was brutal.

He made a late night escape from the home he was convalescing in, stretching his legs and testing his heart as he sprinted. Keith’s return to running lasted all of 100 metres, leaving him discouraged but determined to recover. He went back to Canada facing a storm of publicity and pressure, and admitted the amount of interest in his case when he returned to his hometown was stifling. "It was smothering me," he said.

Taking up training at the University of Victoria was slightly awkward, with former teammates unsure of how to treat him.

"I vividly remember guys on the team, they just wouldn't tackle me. They just wouldn't touch me," Keith said. "Until one guy, who is one of my very best friends in the world to this day, just absolutely hammered me. All the guys around the field were like “holy shit”. It was the best thing. He didn't do it on purpose, he did it to show he wasn't going to treat me any different."

Still, Keith needed an escape. His brother Adam had moved to Nevada for university and invited him down for a visit. It was an instant connection as Barry Barto, the then-coach of UNLV, liked him and his playing style.

"He, for me, amongst the number of players I've had under my tutelage for 30 years, he stood out," said Barto, who now works as the assistant athletics director for the university after coaching the soccer team for 24 years. "It's a storybook tale."

Keith's time in Nevada marked not only a change in his life, but also a change in the way he played the game.

"Pre-transplant, I was the fittest guy on every single team I played for, without a doubt. I was utterly relentless," he said. "Post-transplant, I was average fit. I had to adapt my game. I literally could not run and sprint the way I used to do."

Barto said he played Keith as one half of a striking duo, normally in a traditional 4-4-2, as the finisher when paired up with a target man.

"He was technically very sound, very quick, tenacious, and he set the standard for everybody else on the team," he added.

It was a successful time for both the Rebels and Keith. He made his debut on September 11, 1987, pulling on his boots to face off against the Air Force Academy, a mere 14 months post-surgery.

"I don't think anyone really knew or comprehended what I'd been through. You know, what it took to play," he said.

He would have to wait just over a month for his first goal, nodding a cross into an open goal during a 4-0 demolition of Fresno State.

Away from the small town nature of Victoria, he flourished. He was named in the second All-Star team in his first season back playing, and followed it up as a first team All-Star in his second year. His sophomore season also saw him set a record for the number of assists with eight. The record is tied for seventh overall in the school's history.

UNLV finished in the top 15 of the country in 1987, after failing to crack the ranking in the previous season. The coaches' poll, a system where coaches from across the league ranked teams, placed the Rebels in 12th spot.

"At that time, we were a very good program playing against the top teams in the country. Playing against all the guys you've heard about - John Harkes, Tony Meola, Tab Ramos," Keith said, listing players who became stalwarts of the U.S. mens’ national team throughout the 1990s.

On an individual level, he was awarded the Stan Gilbertson True Grit Award, handed down to American university's bravest athletes. In a write-up about Keith, UNLV's student newspaper called it the most "prestigious honor ever bestowed upon a Rebel player".

His performances earned him recognition on the professional circuit, getting drafted first overall in the Major Indoor Soccer League by the Cleveland Crunch. That draft earned him the distinction of being the first professional athlete with a heart transplant. Keith would go on to make 52 appearances, scoring six goals for the Ohio club.

It would take years for him to discuss the reason he was able to continue playing. "It was a total struggle. If you asked anybody in the first 25 years [of having a new heart], I would not talk about it. I wouldn't talk about it with my brother, my wife, my children, nobody," he said. "People knew not to talk about it."

Roughly ten years ago, he started doing some public speaking, and decided to learn more about organ donation and the system surrounding it. He now champions organ donations and works closely with the Nevada Donor Network to recognise donation recipients, as well as the lasting impact of becoming a donor can have.

There is a sad coda to Keith’s inspirational story: he's undergone numerous surgeries, with at least 12 pacemakers being put in. He says the number of antibiotics he needs to take for his heart have a knock-on effect and will eventually cause his kidneys to fail, making him susceptible to various forms of cancer.

Still, he thinks back to that summer day in Wales, meeting the family of the boy who died so he could live. Now 31 years since the heart now beating in his chest was placed inside him, Keith thinks he finally knows how to properly say thank you.

"Living your life, making a difference, head down, being successful. That's the way you say thank you."

By IBWM Senior Writer Nick Wells

IBWM is open to everyone to share their stories. If you'd like to submit an article on any topic, please contact us.