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USF Bulls' Jozwiak to make heartfelt return

TAMPA — The heart won't skip a beat tonight; surgery has seen to that. Ten months after lying in recovery at Tampa General, wondering if all the post-operative vomiting would ever cease, Thor Jozwiak is on zero medication.

This time, it's the heartstrings that'll go haywire.

At dusk tonight, when he's standing in the southwest tunnel of Raymond James Stadium waiting to line up for his first collegiate game since Dec. 1, 2012, Thorton Joseph Jozwiak's tear ducts likely will be pumping as efficiently as his ticker. Whose wouldn't be? How many gain re-entry to a dream, on the heels of a nightmare, no less?

"I don't know if any words I can say can describe the emotion and the intensity and the feeling that I'm going to get going out on that field against Western Carolina," said Jozwiak, a 321-pound USF junior set to start at left guard. "I mean, I'm getting chills just now thinking about it."

Managing the chills could be Jozwiak's greatest challenge tonight. At some point he'll have to settle in, lock out the surreality of it all, and try to create daylight for a program in dire need of it. No such mandate will exist for his mom, dad, sister, grandparents or girlfriend.

All will be there, likely comparing goose bumps as No. 64 takes the field for the first time since something called atrial fibrillation threatened to derail his career.

"I'm just like Thor in that (emotional) regard," his mom, Johna, says, her mild West Virginia drawl melting into sobs. "I don't think words can be put into expression because we went to every game last year, just watching him (on the sideline). … He wants to contribute, and it was really hard for him last year."

Tonight, Jozwiak just might lead the Bulls in positive vibes, the very mention of his name likely to elicit more smiles among peers than the water-break whistle. His unkempt mohawk, not unlike the one his dad, Brian, sported during an All-America career at West Virginia in the 1980s, might convey arrogance or defiance of conformity if resting atop anyone else's pate.

But on Jozwiak, it seems as fitting as a parrot atop the hat of a Jimmy Buffett fan.

"Thor is Thor," senior receiver and team captain Andre Davis said with a grin.

"He's always positive, always upbeat and it's contagious," coach Willie Taggart said.

Stands to reason these days. Greeting Jozwiak at the end of the tunnel tonight, at last, will be lights and fans and a field. But some of its earlier passageways were dark and daunting.

"I thought I was done," he said.

The problem surfaced two springs ago, when Jozwiak began experiencing dizziness and shortness of breath in Taggart's inaugural practices as Bulls coach. He sat out a couple of weeks, went on medication and returned to normal, or so he thought.

The second day of fall camp, he passed out during individual drills, right after warmups. After taking an EKG, trainers rushed him to Tampa General Hospital and phoned his mom, the principal at Haines City's Eastside Elementary.

"It took months to go through and figure out," Johna said. "The poor kid was poked and prodded every which way and they did every kind of MRI, CAT scan, every kind of test there was, because they were narrowing down trying to figure exactly what it was."

Ultimately, doctors diagnosed atrial fibrillation — an irregular heartbeat. According the Mayo Clinic's website, the condition results from the heart's two upper chambers (atria) beating chaotically and out of synch with the two lower chambers (ventricles).

Whether the condition is genetic remains unclear, but Brian Jozwiak said he experienced similar episodes around the same stage of his career and was formally diagnosed with "a-fib" a few years back. Both his parents have the same condition, he said.

"When you're out of rhythm and your heart ain't working right buddy, it affects everything," said Brian, a teacher and coach at North Port High who still requires blood thinners. "I mean everything."

A tedious procedure to essentially put the heart back in synch was performed in late October 2013. Normally a six- to eight-hour operation, it took more like 12 to 13 in the case of Jozwiak, whose size required extra anesthesia. For Johna, who had gone into premature labor with her son at three months and remained couch-ridden the rest of her pregnancy, this was excruciation revisited.

"They had to keep him because they gave him so much anesthesia that he was profusely vomiting," Johna said.

The surgery was a success. In no time, he had weaned himself off his medications, which made him sick anyway. The daily texts from Taggart, the regular visits from team chaplain David "Rev" Lane, the encouragement from teammates and coaches — they did his heart good also.

"Having those guys be there by my side got me through all of the hardships that I went through," Jozwiak said.

Cleared for spring practice, Jozwiak quickly asserted himself at left guard and remained entrenched there throughout preseason camp.

"He's always enthusiastic, and he brings a demeanor to our offensive line that we didn't have last year," Taggart said, "so it's good to have him around from that standpoint."

Since his return, Jozwiak has not missed a practice — spring or preseason — and works out daily. Though he requires no meds, he said he carefully manages his diet and avoids caffeine. But there's no avoiding tonight's rush.

It's one heart flutter he'll afford himself.

"I'll be flying on a cloud," Brian said.

"I thought my career was over at a young age," Jozwiak said. "And I got that second opportunity, so every day I wake up I want to capitalize on that opportunity and I want to make a great day and have excitement and love it and just live in the moment … running out of that tunnel at Raymond James."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

USF Bulls' Jozwiak to make heartfelt return 08/29/14 [Last modified: Saturday, August 30, 2014 12:25am]

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