TAMPA — In separate vehicles, they’ll venture to a rural prep football outpost today, and bask in every mile. By tonight, one will be in the stands, the other in the secondary, and the moment will make their hearts pound.
This time, in a good way.
“It’s been crazy,” said Deidre Peek, mother of Jesuit senior free safety James Peek, who starts in the Tigers’ regular-season opener at Wauchula Hardee. “I’m just excited to see my son get a normal life again.”
Amazingly, the new normal closely resembles the old one. James must take four types of pills daily — some for blood pressure, others for blood thinning — and keep tabs on any fluctuations in heartbeat.
Otherwise, one would never suspect slightly more than three months ago he was undergoing surgery for a congenital defect that had his heart going so crazy, he could see it pounding through his shirt.
“It’s a story of divine intervention, I think,” Deidre said.
Intervention, innovation and plain old intuition. To be sure, all converged to help James, the fifth of Deidre and Skipper Peek’s seven kids, return to the sport steeped in his heritage and surgically mended heart.
“I’m actually better than ever, I think,” he said.
The story begins four decades ago, maybe before that. Deidre, then a high school freshman in Farmington, Mich., had to give up gymnastics upon being diagnosed with atrial septal defect.
Essentially, it’s a defectiveness — or absence — of the wall of tissue separating the right and left atria of the heart. The condition can limit oxygen flow to blood supplying the brains, organs and other tissues.
Depending on the extent of the condition, symptoms can be severe or subtle. Until last fall, James never showed any. While Deidre’s heart history appeared on all of her son’s medical records, his sports physicals never called for an EKG.
But last fall, she recalled James — whose three interceptions led the team — becoming nauseous and extremely winded after a game. The murmurs that rippled through the home bleachers, the ones about her son being out of shape, still resonate.
Then last spring, he was sitting in class when his heart rate suddenly went into high gear. Bewildered and a bit scared, he consulted Dr. Angelo Pastore, an assistant principal and former clinical instructor in the surgery department at a local VA hospital.
Pastore took his heart rate: roughly 200 beats per minute.
“He was like, ‘We need to call your mom, and you need to go to the cardiologist immediately,’ ” James recalled.
By his mom’s definition, Pastore’s presence was the first divine interlude. The second arrived in the form of Dr. Mitchell O’Hara of the Florida Hospital Pepin Heart Institute, whose daughter happened to play prep soccer with two of James’ sisters.
The day after James went to Pastore, O’Hara canceled his lunch and shoehorned him into his schedule. The day before the Tigers began practicing in pads, James was pulled from spring football — celestial smile No. 3, Deidre insists.
“He could be dead,” she said.
On May 20, exactly a week after his 18th birthday, James underwent surgery at Pepin Heart Institute. Unlike his mother’s procedure, which required her sternum being sawed, James’ was far less intrusive.
Nonetheless, new Tigers coach Matt Thompson, who had been taken by James’ intelligence and willingness to ask “good football questions,” presumed he was down one veteran player.
“I thought he was done,” Thompson said. “I was scrambling for a safety.”
A thin catheter inserted in a vein in the groin area was threaded to the heart’s septum. A tiny, umbrella-like device folded up inside the catheter was then pushed out and positioned to plug the hole between the atria.
The surgery was prolonged — to roughly three hours — when the first device was found to be too small. Still, after five mostly stationary days, James was able to walk around. A month and a half later, he was cleared for light jogging and lifting.
Last Thursday, he trotted onto Alumni Field’s sopping synthetic turf as a 5-foot-10, 170-pound starter in the Tigers’ preseason classic. By game’s end, any maternal apprehension Deidre felt had mostly dissipated.
“Dr. O’Hara told him if you’re winded now, it’s not your heart,” said Deidre, now an advocate for kids getting EKG’s before athletic participation. “I’m going to go into this week a lot less stressful.”
And so a blissful football heritage resumes, thanks to a convergence of medicine and — by mom’s account — miracles. The son of a former Guy Toph Award winner for Jesuit, James is putting on weight more steadily than ever, and is resuming the pastime he feels he was born to play.
Kid always had a figurative heart for the game. Now, he has a fixed one.