The patches covering two holes on Matt Hegarty’s heart — the ones that were folded up like miniature umbrellas and threaded through an artery from his thigh to his chest in December — didn’t register in his mind when he lined up to take his first snap of the spring.
Notre Dame's Matt Hegarty, center, is back to worrying about football after offseason heart surgery.
Hegarty’s thoughts were focused broadly on the competition that was just beginning for the vacant spot in the center of Notre Dame’s offensive line. More specifically, they were on the 320-pound nose guard lined up across from him.
“Honestly the first thing you start thinking is get a good first step and get your hands inside,” Hegarty said when asked what went through his mind the first time he put his repaired heart in harm’s way. “If you spend too much time thinking about what’s happened then you get blown off the ball. That’s the beautiful thing about football.”
Football looked like it might be gone during a short stretch last fall for Hegarty. The sophomore center suffered a mini-stroke while attending a team walkthrough in November. He lost his ability to speak and write temporarily. A stressful 24 hours later, doctors discovered two holes in his heart that had been there since birth and added up to about an inch of missing tissue.
The doctors told him that ensuing surgery and a regimen of medicine would completely cure him by spring. The heart grew around the implanted patches and made him healthier than he was in the past. He started lifting weights in February. When mid-March came and it was time to put on his pads, Hegarty said he had no worries about a repeat incident.
Bouncing back from an at least mildly traumatizing event last fall required some mental rehab along with the physical. Hegarty said the uncertainty about what would happen next got to him at times. He had dreams about having another stroke. Getting on the field this spring has reduced that anxiety rather than bring it to a peak.
“It creeps in a little bit on you. I think the best part has just been getting back to business,” he said. “Going out there in practice, doing everything that I normally do and seeing that things are at least back to normal — I don’t have anything to worry about.”
Hegarty allowed himself a brief moment of perspective in the locker room while strapping on his knee braces prior to the team’s first practice of the year. He said he almost forgot how to put them on, which reminded him how grateful he was to be healthy and playing football again.
His teammates say they haven’t noticed a difference in the way he takes the field.
“Obviously it was a crazy thing and pretty devastating. He’s really lucky to be back here,” fifth-year senior guard Chris Watt said. “He’s champing at the bit to get back out there and he’s been doing a great job so far.”
The 296-pound, soon-to-be junior’s main concerns now are teammates Nick Martin and Louis Nix. Martin is Hegarty’s competition at the center position and appears to have gained a significant holeshot in the race for a starting job. Nix makes life difficult for both of them as their main opponent when facing the Irish defense this spring.
Hegarty played tackle before coming to Notre Dame. He said he’s had to adjust to blocking a bigger player trying to charge right through him rather trying to stop a swifter defensive end from running around him. Nix has helped him get used to the new assignment in a hurry.
“I think it’s a great opportunity because obviously he’s one of the top guys in the whole country at that position. If you can get used to going against him during the season, Saturday is probably going to be your easiest day of work,” Hegarty said.
It remains to be seen how much work Hegarty will get on Saturdays this fall, but he says he’ll be happy to be there.