Georgia Tech brothers happy to be healthy and together
Levi, Lance and Logan Walls grew up as bickering brothers often do, always teasing each other about something. As football players at Georgia Tech, little has changed.
They compete over just about everything -- who has the best 40 time, who has the best dive at the student-center pool.
"Lance is the middle one," said their mom, Torina. "He's the one that says he has the best heart of all. You can take it however you want to."
Now that everyone is healthy, the Walls will take it as a return to normalcy.
Lance was the only one of the three brothers from Dawsonville, Ga., on the Yellow Jackets' roster who escaped the offseason without having to see a cardiologist for a hereditary heart problem that caused a rapid heartbeat. Their paternal grandmother had Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW), and so did their late father, Sandy, who has since passed away from an unrelated accident.
Levi was diagnosed with WPW, and Logan had a similar but less serious defect called AV nodal reentry tachycardia. Within a month of each other, they both had similar procedures that required a catheter in an artery near the groin, and both were cleared to play within a few weeks.
At 24, Levi is the oldest, and took two years off from football to go to San Diego on a Spanish-speaking Mormon mission with his church. He joined the team as a walk-on long snapper last year, and he snapped the ball for the first time in his life at age 22. Lance, a redshirt senior, is a walk-on fullback who transferred from BYU. Logan, a redshirt freshman, was heavily recruited as a defensive tackle and has the best chance at playing time as part of the defensive line rotation.
Regardless of how many snaps they get during their careers, all three already consider their time at Georgia Tech a blessing. It has provided the opportunity for them to play the sport they love -- together -- and receive the medical treatment they needed to keep it that way.
"I think they're well-grounded young men," said special teams coach Charles Kelly, who recruited the brothers. "They know there's more to life than just starting a specific game. They see the big picture, which a lot of guys at that age don't see the big picture -- life after football. I think they've been raised to see that."
It happened to Levi first.
He had been diagnosed with WPW prior to the 2007 season during his first EKG for his physical at Georgia Tech, but he didn't show any symptoms until February, in the middle of a winter conditioning drill.
"We work closely with the athletic department," said John Cantwell, director of cardiac rehabilitation at Piedmont Hospital and the consulting cardiologist to the Georgia Tech athletic department, as well as a team physician for the Atlanta Braves. "We screen all the athletes at Georgia Tech before they compete, looking for any abnormalities, and if there's anything they develop during the season or preseason a trainer calls us and we get them right in, get them fixed."
I lost all control. I didn't faint, but my body was completely numb. I couldn't feel anything. My heart was racing so fast.
Levi made it through two agility runs before he felt his energy fade and his heart quicken. It was hard for him to stand up and his vision was blurry. On the third run, "I lost all control," he said. "I didn't faint, but my body was completely numb. I couldn't feel anything. My heart was racing so fast."
The athletic trainers immediately got him off the field, and within a few minutes his heartbeat had settled. The doctors set up an appointment with Cantwell, who told him not to do anything to raise his heart rate. At the end of March, Levi underwent a four-hour corrective procedure at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.
"His follow-up EKG did not show that he had that Wolff-Parkinson-White features, and he's been doing fine since then," Cantwell said.
Then it happened to Logan.
Logan, 19, had experienced a rapid heartbeat during the 2007 regular season while he was running, and he wore a heart monitor for a month. Nothing happened, so the doctors removed it. Then, during one of his early spring workouts, he had trouble catching his breath.
"You could tell; his face was pale," Lance said. "He was worried. He knew something was wrong. He told me everything I was looking at turned bright and he was just standing there and his heart was pounding like he'd been running and running and running. ... I was worried about them, both of them."
A normal resting heartbeat for an athlete shouldn't rise much above 80 beats per minute, Cantwell said, and is usually in the 50s. If an athlete is put on a treadmill and run to exhaustion, that number can go up to 200, but for Levi and Logan, it was closer to 220 or 230 just after doing routine football drills.
Cantwell said that, on average, incidents of rapid heartbeat affect one athlete per thousand, and are a little more common in men than women.
"It's usually the only thing wrong with the heart, but sometimes it can be associated with other things like heart-muscle disease," Cantwell said. "We do do an echo and listen to the heart carefully to make sure nothing else is going on."
Logan sat out the rest of the practice and went to Cantwell within the next week to get another EKG, the results of which had changed from the fall to the spring. Logan had only made it through the first two spring practices. He had surgery in mid-April, about a month after his brother.
"I prayed for them," said teammate Luke Cox, who goes with the brothers to Moe's every Monday in midtown for the $5 burrito deal. "With heart surgery you never know what could happen."
Torina Walls knew.
In 1989, her husband's episode woke everyone in the house up.
"You could see his chest just pumping up and down," said Levi, who was about six at the time. "It felt like he was being stabbed because his heart was beating so fast. We had to call 911. It was just a crazy ordeal. It was super painful for him. The only way they could fix it was to do open-heart surgery."
Torina couldn't help but think of her late husband when Levi told her he had WPW.
"That was the first thing I thought of when Levi came telling me about his heart; I thought that sounds just like your dad," she said. "I knew how dangerous it could be because of what they had told me when Sandy had it. I was just real anxious that he went to the doctor, and if it had to be corrected then that was something we had to face and it had to be done. And then we had to do the same thing with Logan."
Now, as fall camp approaches, all three are ready for practice again.
"I would think both of them will compete for playing time," Kelly said of Lance and Logan. "Levi's more of a specialist. He works as a long snapper. Logan, of course, will be in the rotation with the defensive line. I think a lot of it depends on those guys that are playing up front. He's got a lot of seniors playing in front of him."
And two brothers next to him.
Levi has locker No. 63 and Logan, at No. 96, is within five feet and faces him. Lance, at No. 49, is on the opposite end of the locker room. None of them have been required to do any additional tests.
"If [Levi hadn't] walked on and they [hadn't done] a physical on him [with an] EKG, it actually at some point could have been deadly," Torina Walls said. "They said what he had can actually cause it to stop. I just think God was looking out for him. But now he's fine. Now they're all fine."
And Lance still hasn't shown any symptoms, nor is he worried about it.
"I guess I'm the normal one," he said with a laugh. "I guess I just have the best heart."
These days, they're all even.
Heather Dinich is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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