Irish sophomore Matt Hegarty is recovering from heart surgery brought on by a previously unreported min-stroke that sidelined him during the final month of the regular season, his father said Sunday night.
Irish sophomore Matt Hegarty had heart surgery on Dec. 14.
The reserve center was running through non-contact drills at Notre Dame’s practice on Nov. 8, the Thursday before a game against Boston College, when suddenly he couldn’t speak. Coaches yelled for him to make his line calls. He tried to yell back, and when his voice failed him a second time he knew he had a problem.
Blood was pumping through the 6-foot-5, 296-pound lineman's aortic chambers and smashing into a wall that should not have been there. Hegarty would later discover he was born with two small holes in his heart that had left him deprived of oxygen for the first 20 years of his life.
On Nov. 8, those holes started re-routing the flow of blood in Hegarty’s heart in the wrong direction, forming a clot that traveled into his brain and caused the mini-stroke that left him speechless.
“He was totally freaked out,” said Bryan Hegarty, Matt’s father. “He wasn’t sure if he was going to ever be able to talk again.”
Trainers took Hegarty to a hospital in South Bend that afternoon where it took almost 24 hours to discover the holes in his heart that led to a diagnosis. Hegarty had successful surgery on Dec. 14 and is starting a slow rehabilitation process that he hopes will get him back on the field in time for Notre Dame’s spring practice.
Irish coach Brian Kelly acknowledged that Hegarty had a medical issue a week after the injury, but said at the time privacy laws prevented him from revealing any details.
"I can’t get into the specifics of it. I don’t want it to be a cloak and dagger situation. He’s fine, but we have to shut him down until he has some further testing," Kelly said on Nov. 15.
Hegarty continued to attend classes at Notre Dame while going through speech therapy and other tests in November to make sure he was healthy enough for surgery. Bryan Hegarty said his son is able to do light workouts now and will go through a series of tests in early March to see if he is healthy enough for contact. There’s still a chance Hegarty’s football career is over, but his family is very optimistic that his return is a matter of when not if.
“We’re working off the premise that it’s higher than 50 percent, and he’s going to be ready for spring when they start to hit,” Bryan Hegarty said. “He might be late a week or two from some hitting. Or, if it’s not better than 50 percent for that, he’ll definitely be back for regular football later.”
Doctors said the surgery should add up to 20 percent more oxygen to Matt’s blood and make it easier for him to breathe during exercise. He’s hoping that the traumatic injury will eventually make him a better player. Notre Dame’s top two centers — Braxston Cave and Mike Golic, Jr. — are out of eligibility at the end of this season. Hegarty’s return would be a major boost to the Irish depth chart on the offensive line.
Hegarty’s father said Matt is still balancing concerns about getting back in time to make an impact on the team next fall and dealing with the trauma of the event. When Hegarty couldn’t speak on the practice field he went to the training room and tried to write down his symptoms (which didn’t include numbness or other typical telltale signs of a stroke) and found he couldn’t get the thoughts from his head on to the paper.
“He started getting frustrated [with the slow rehab process] after he understood he wasn’t going to die,” Hegarty said.
Hegarty’s spirits were boosted when Cave told him about former All-Pro linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who had a more serious stroke and eventually returned to the field. Hegarty bought Bruschi’s biography, Never Give Up, and is currently reading it to help him through the rehab process.
“That was huge for Matt,” Bryan Hegarty said.
The younger Hegarty flew to Miami Saturday to be with his team when they play No. 2 Alabama for the national championship Monday night. Any major jolts of physical contact in the immediate future could harm the patches on his heart and cause major setbacks, but the outlook for his return to football is much higher than in early November.