This is a sports story. I’m not that into basketball. I was once, in high school, for a brief period, because wrestling practice was just too hard and basketball was played during the same time of the year. I played basketball for a couple of years….okay that’s a lie. I tried to make the team my sophomore year and was told, and I quote, “Leonard, you’re the best player I’m cutting.” Well, come on, teams have limited rosters you know. Can’t have everybody on the team even if they’re the best one cut. There was more: The coach said I obviously didn’t have experience, and I should try out again next year. I didn’t. And, in the end comparison, basketball practice was just as hard as wrestling practice, but no worse.
I played sports in high school. I’ve got proof. There are team pictures withme in them in high school year books, but you won’t find any mention of me in the high school record books. I played football, wrestled, ran cross-country and track, and, like I mentioned, tried out for the basketball team. My high school graduating class had around 350 students. As a ratio it wasn’t that hard to make a sports team at my high school. If you could put up with the “torture” known as practice, you could at least sit on the bench in a varsity uniform. Which is what I did for three years. But the one thing I remember is that we had to have a yearly physical done by the family doctor before we could play, or should I say, try out. A physical that I would think would have indicated that I had a heart problem.
This is one of the reasons why I was totally shocked and saddened by the death of the 16-year-old, 6-foot-2, 215-pound star of the Fennville (Michigan) High School Blackhawks. Wes Leonard collapsed shortly after his game-winning lay-up to cap off a perfect 20-0 season for the team. Collapsed and suffered a severe and fatal heart attack. He was rushed to Holland Hospital and died there two hours later. The forensic pathologist and medical examiner of Ottawa County, Dr. David A. Start, gave the cause of death as cardiac arrest due to dilated cardiomyopathy. That last part means an enlarged heart.
It is the most common type of cardiomyopathy, and is caused predominantly by overworking the heart. Sounds like an athlete or a bodybuilder, right? Body builders, for example, know that building larger muscles require overworking the muscle. The same thing happens in the heart, only it’s not a good thing.
Bottom line is the cardiomyopathy condition of this 16-year old athlete probably wouldn’t have shown up in any physical. Not for years, even as the condition worsened. Which leads you to wonder why this doesn’t happen more often. In fact a similar sudden death did occur the same week. A 17-year old rugby player from Colorado, Matthew Hammerdorfer, suffered a fatal heart-attack following a rugby match in Timnath, Colorado. Matthew had three surgeries on his heart before the final heart attack though.
These stories are, thankfully, very rare, and the benefits of exercise far outweigh the risks. And then there are those positive life experiences from organized sports, lessons in sportsmanship and teamwork, rarely learned anywhere else. Did Wes Leonard have a family history of cardiac problems? I don’t know, but it could be one of the most important questions. If there was a history, maybe he should have been more closely monitored for possible problems.
Tonight, the Fennville Blackhawks will play in the state tournament. They’ll do it, most of all, to honor their star player . I hope they win.
UPDATE: The Fennville, Michigan, High School Blackhawks move on to the next round of the state tournament after posting a 65-54 win over Lawrence Monday night. They moved the game to Hope College to accomodate a crowd estimated at 3,500.
UPDATE: The Blackhawks continued their winning streak for two more games to go 23-0, and won their Class C District Title. The streak ended on March 14th when they lost their post season regional semi-final, three weeks after Wes Leonard died.