On Monday, a young man named Hunter Helton practiced with the Central High School basketball team in Knoxville, Tenn. But Helton -- the 14-year-old cousin of major-leaguer and Knoxville native Todd Helton -- unexpectedly collapsed after suffering sudden cardiac arrest in the middle of the session.
The freshman survived, doctors said, because former Tennessee basketball standout Jon Higgins -- his high school coach -- performed CPR and utilized an automatic external defibrillator (AED) to shock his heart, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel:
"He flatlined three times," said Hunter's father, Ronnie, choking back tears. Hunter's parents, who were called after he was revived and who met him at the hospital, said he had no history of heart problems. Hunter has played football and baseball for years, said his father.
"He's had poison ivy and braces -- that's all," Ronnie Helton said. "He's always been a healthy, normal kid."
As I researched sudden cardiac death among young athletes for an August story on ESPN.com, I learned that most cases of sudden cardiac death among young athletes started like Helton’s. Young men and women who’d never been diagnosed with any ailment -- making cardiac issues an unimaginable possibility in the eyes of the athletes and those around them -- suddenly and violently collapsed.
About a dozen college athletes die each year from sudden cardiac death, per NCAA estimates. That’s a small number considering the thousands who participate in collegiate athletics. So it’s safe to call this a rare occurrence.
That doesn’t make it any less significant.
There is a national push -- through a determined group of parents, doctors, advocates, coaches and athletes -- to tackle the issue and increase awareness. The NCAA is studying sudden cardiac death among its athletes with the help of doctors in Washington. Men and women around the country are raising money for more research, AEDs and training to teach other Higgins-like heroes.
Higgins, one of the top 3-point shooters in Tennessee history (39.8 percent), saved Helton with the tools that people such as Jocelyn Leonard are trying to help more people acquire.
Leonard -- the mother of former Michigan prep star Wes Leonard, who collapsed and died in a game last year -- runs an organization that has placed dozens of AEDs in local high schools. The Wes Leonard Heart Team also runs clinics for CPR and AED training.
"Sometimes, we won't know what they have until [their heart] stops," Leonard said. "Overall, we're going to save a lot more people. You're going to save people in the stands, the coaches that get too excited. You're going to save the referees. … People are using [AEDs], and they're getting people back."
Higgins’ life-saving effort proves as much. He brought Helton back.