Negedu moves on after brush with death
Tennessee and Indiana refused to take the risk, but Nigerian welcomed at New Mexico
Emmanuel Negedu remembers the only thing he ate or drank on Sept. 28, 2009, was a milk shake. He can describe everything he did that morning and early afternoon, highlighting his weight lifting and workout sessions at the University of Tennessee's indoor football practice facility.
But he won't ever remember that moment when his heart stopped during a cardiac arrest, and he collapsed on the field before UT trainer Chad Newman and director of sports medicine Jason McVeigh heroically brought Negedu back to life with CPR and an automatic external defibrillator.
Remarkably, just seven-plus months later and after an internal cardiac defibrillator (ICD) was implanted in his chest, Negedu will play basketball again.
But it won't be at Tennessee, where he played 33 games as a freshman. And it will not be at Indiana, where he used to spend his summers living with Mark Adams, president of the A-Hope Foundation, which helped bring him to the United States from his native Nigeria five years ago.
Instead it'll be at New Mexico for coach Steve Alford, who while at Iowa recruited Negedu, ranked by ESPNU as the nation's 23rd-best prospect in the class of 2008. The 6-foot-7, 220-pound forward signed with the Lobos on Monday morning.
Tennessee wouldn't clear him to play and neither would Indiana. Negedu said there were multiple suitors who were willing to bring him aboard, but New Mexico -- with his previous ties to Alford -- was the one that made the most sense to him.
But the decision to allow Negedu to play has hardly been a consensus. Those against it warn the risk is death. Those for it say there is no evidence to suggest that such a tragic fate is inevitable.
"He essentially died,'' said Tennessee assistant coach Steve Forbes. "I was there that day. I went to the hospital and the emergency room. I slept there for two nights. I'll never forget that. But I'm going to be worried. At the end of the day, I'm comfortable with what we did here.''
So, too, is New Mexico with its decision. UNM athletic director Paul Krebs said the final call was left to the university's cardiologist and medical team, led by Dr. Chris McGrew.
"Our doctors looked at all the records and cleared him to play,'' Krebs said. "They talked to the doctors at Indiana, too. Our doctors have fully vetted this.''
Alford said he personally called Dr. Larry Rink, Indiana's team physician and cardiologist whom he knew from his own college career in Bloomington.
"If he had an enlarged heart, no one would have cleared Emmanuel,'' Alford said. "But he has no issues. The stress test Indiana put him on he cleared amazingly. The cardiologists felt there was no reason not to clear him.
"That doesn't mean there isn't a risk to be aware of. He has a defibrillator so you have to be alert and the coaches should know CPR. Everybody knows the potential risks. But once he was cleared, the athletic director, myself and the president all signed off on it. Dr. Rink told me there is no reason why he shouldn't be able to play.''
After the near-death experience, Negedu was told he couldn't do any strenuous activity for three months. The 21-year-old was and still is extremely popular among Vols fans and teammates, and his setback made him an even more beloved figure around campus. But despite being given a second chance at life, Negedu took the news that basketball may be over extremely hard.
"I'd go and watch the guys practice and go to games and dress, seeing no reason why I couldn't be out there playing,'' said Negedu, who still insists a poor diet, overexertion and an inability to read his body's warning signs were the reasons he collapsed, not a faulty heart. "I felt like my life was gone. I was alive but I was dead. I'm telling you that's how I felt. I was dead. I was gone. I wasn't here anymore. I was breathing, but my life was taken away.''
Negedu was checked thoroughly and was told he didn't have an enlarged heart. He said he was told there was nothing structurally wrong with his heart.
Dr. Stuart Bresee, who was on call and treated Negedu upon his arrival at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, said the initial diagnosis was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart muscle thickens, making it harder for the heart to pump blood. That has been the common cause of sudden cardiac arrest for athletes such as Hank Gathers. But Bresee said that once Negedu quit training, his heart was back to normal. He said the genetic testing was all negative and said Negedu's heart muscle was close to normal.
"He is probably on the lower risk of having that condition,'' Bresee said. "It's pretty clear that people with his problem are more likely to have another incident, and if they did, the risk is death if the ICD didn't work. So you can see why people would say why take that chance. But people choose to climb Mount Everest and choose to race Formula One cars. We've decided if a patient wants to participate, they can if they know the risks.''
Bresee said there is a split among cardiologists who follow the Bethesda Conference Journal of the American College of Cardiology. At the 2005 conference, a report was issued that starkly stated: "Although differences of opinions exist and little direct evidence is available, the panel asserts that the presence of an ICD should disqualify athletes from most competitive sports, including those that potentially involve bodily trauma.''
No football players are allowed to compete with an ICD because of the fear of a direct hit to the device.
"You can't blame them for following the national guidelines,'' said Bresee said of the Tennessee camp, which is led by Dr. Chris Klenck, the lead physician of the UT men's athletic department.
Klenck said he called doctors around the country and within the SEC to gauge public opinion on the subject. Negedu had already gone to see another specialist in Cleveland, seeking other opinions. He also got another opinion in Los Angeles from noted cardiologist Dr. David S. Cannom, the director of cardiology at Good Samaritan Hospital. Cannom had cleared former Pepperdine player Will Kimble to play at UTEP after the Waves wouldn't let Kimble return to the court after collapsing in 2002. Cannom told Kimble that his ICD implant would allow him to play competitive sports again.
"There is a group that doesn't see the scientific evidence to prevent them from playing,'' Bresee said.
Klenck isn't among them.
"We did not clear him on the fact that he had a cardiac arrest and required an ICD, under the guidelines,'' he said. "I didn't feel it was a risk worth taking.''
It is also an unwritten rule that doctors for the home school cover the opposing players for games. Klenck said he didn't feel comfortable putting that burden on other schools within the SEC.
"If we had accepted that risk, then I think we should be there,'' Klenck said.
"None of us wanted to deny him the chance to play,'' said Newman. "But we didn't feel it was the right thing for us to constantly worry and be concerned with.''
Newman said he doesn't believe the ICD, which is used to monitor the heart's rhythm and deliver energy when an irregularity occurs, was designed for elite professional athletes.
"I know people who have had them go off while doing yard work,'' Newman said. "But I understand that from a 21-year-old, it was his dream to play.''
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said his preference was for Negedu to stay on full scholarship, finish his degree and go into coaching.
"I wanted for him to keep basketball in his life,'' Pearl said. "I told him he could go teach the game and go back to Nigeria and be a guru. I told him he could find other ways to be in the game. We all stop playing at some point. I stopped because of a career-ending knee injury.
"Emmanuel had a heart attack,'' Pearl added. "His heart stopped for two minutes. We don't know why. He doesn't present the classic symptoms, but he did and it happened. And because of that, it could happen again. Obviously Indiana must have felt the same way. But I wish him nothing but the best and I'm hoping that he goes to New Mexico and that [ICD] never goes off.''
Indiana coach Tom Crean did confirm that the school's cardiologist cleared Negedu, a fact Alford was adamant about as well. But the school didn't feel comfortable clearing Negedu to play for the Hoosiers from a liability standpoint.
"He is a fantastic kid,'' Crean said. "He's the real deal. You want him to succeed, no doubt about it.''
IU's decision crushed Negedu. In January, he was dealt another blow when his sister died of malaria at the age of 39. While Negedu was home in Kaduna, Nigeria, for the funeral, his family members said they could tell he was also upset about his uncertain future. Negedu, the youngest of eight children, was both sad and frustrated.
"Everything had checked out normal, my stress test, echocardiograms,'' Negedu said. "My doctor that did the surgery cleared me to play. I feel I can play. I'm fine. There was no evidence of damage to my heart. I went to Indiana, I talked to them, it was all good and then somebody said, 'Sorry, it's not going to work out.' I was down. I didn't want to talk to other schools. I wanted to go to Indiana. But after that I was open to going anywhere.''
Negedu sought out Kimble, who is now back at Pepperdine as an assistant coach, and talked to him prior to visiting New Mexico last month.
"I told him that if you're going to do it, you have to treat yourself like you're any other player,'' said Kimble, who played in 64 games in two seasons at UTEP (2004-06) without incident after his collapse in 2002.
Kimble, who played for a physically demanding coach in Doc Sadler (now at Nebraska), said UTEP trainers and doctors would put a protective cover over his chest to help absorb any blows. Like Kimble, Negedu is a forward who will be battling with other sizable players.
"I told him that you have to be comfortable out there and you should be around people who are comfortable with you playing,'' Kimble said. "He's probably better off than four or five guys out there [playing basketball] that don't even know they have a problem [without an ICD].''
So what's next for Negedu? He leaves Knoxville this week and will go to Albuquerque for summer school in June.
Alford said the school will file an appeal for Negedu to play immediately instead of sitting out a year, since he had no choice but to leave Tennessee. Alford said this should be treated the same as the case of Tyler Smith, who left his Iowa program to go to Tennessee to be with his dying father.
"I love this kid,'' Alford said. "I've known him a long time through the AAU programs in Indiana. I've had a long history with him, knowing him for five years.''
Negedu, who once committed to Arizona but then withdrew the commitment when former coach Lute Olson took a leave of absence, said he wants to keep playing because he is a basketball player. It's what he does.
"I love to play the game, this is what I've been doing,'' Negedu said. "Every morning I woke up and they said, you can't do this, you can't do this. You can't run, you can't jump for three months. I would go for another checkup and if they found something wrong with me, then OK, I won't do this anymore. But they found nothing wrong, so that's what keeps me going.''
Negedu said he recently called home to Kaduna to tell his family he had been cleared to play at New Mexico.
"I could feel them jumping through the phone,'' he said. "I'm happy. I'm alive. I can't wait to get back on the court.''
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.