Thursday, October 4, 2012

Heart for the Game: Life, Soccer and Simon Keith

Heart for the Game: The Incredible Saga of Simon Keith
Simon Keith, with Jason Cole and Don Yaeger
with forward by Steve Nash
Nexus Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 978-1475195132

Sometimes life is not only unfair, it's downright cruel and mean-spirited. How else can one explain the life of a 20 year old who has a bright future as a soccer star who is struck down with a heart virus that so destroys heart tissue that he must have a heart transplant or die? This was Simon Keith's life. He was well on his way to a professional career in soccer, and all of a sudden, it was all taken from him.

But Simon's story is not the standard tale of the heart transplant patient who gets a new heart and then lives a few more years than the average, living cautiously and in the shadows.
Simon goes on to become the longest-living (25 years and counting) heart transplant patient, but more importantly, gets back into soccer as a professional, has a real career, and then becomes a mentor of sorts for other transplant patients, an inspirational speaker and motivator focusing not just on surviving transplants, but on getting one's life back, and living it to the fullest.

This book is also (a lot) about soccer, and sports in general. Most of us don't realize that it takes a very different mindset to become a professional sports player. Not only is it a matter of training the body to take a beating, run faster, move quicker, and think on one's feet more rapidly than the opposition, but it's also learning to let go of the failure of the last play, keeping a laser focus on the instant that you're in, and not letting anything distract you from your responsibilities in the play that will lead to a goal. In Simon's case, it's this kind of attitude and approach that allowed him to take back a life that might have ended very early, even with the heart transplant.

As a sports fan (hockey in particular), I've always known that players have to be obsessed to some degree with the game, and have to be able to let go of bad plays when something really doesn't work, but this book provided an insight to what that kind of thinking would look like in everyday life: forgetting the past, risking pain and frustration to get back into shape at the highest level, and not letting anything get in the way of a positive view of the future.

When the community that worked hard to help provide the funding get the transplant done was unable to see Simon as anyone other than “the Heart Guy,” in their minds forever the focus of a heartwarming news story of a community coming together to help someone struggling, Simon realized this view of himself was hampering his recovery and his plan to have a real life, not as a patient, but as a player. He'd seen other patients never become anything other than “transplants” living half of the lives they'd had before, scared to take on real life again, feeling vulnerable and fragile, and he was having none of it. His plan for his future required the willingness to once more run at full speed, take all the hits, with their attendant risks, to re-earn his ability to play professionally. Disloyal and weird as it felt, he moved to another community where no one knew of his medical past, where he could be seen as the person he was now, capable and healthy, not as “the Heart Guy.”.

Interviews with other players, coaches, and friends, tell the story of someone determined to have a real life, with an attitude that convinced them (in spite of liability concerns and fears for his safety) that he was ready to take his life back.  The "Simon Keith Foundation" was formed to help other transplant patients think in new ways, so they can get their lives back as well.

There's a lot of added soccer history in the book, stories about teams and players that were not familiar to me, (although everyone knows Pele) but which would be a real treat for soccer fans. Overall, “Heart for the Game” gave me a lot to think about; I learned a lot about what it takes to be a winner, not only in sports, but in life, and may Simon have many more years to remind us all to “seize the day” and live our lives to the hilt.

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