Friday, September 25, 2009 Updated: September 27, 6:10 PM ET
Heart to heart
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
FOXBOROUGH -- Patriots left tackle Matt Light and Falcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas will be on the same football field Sunday, playing a game in which the word "miracle" is sometimes used to describe unexpected comeback victories or successful Hail Mary passes.
But they both know what a miracle truly is, and it has nothing to do with football.
Light lived his four years ago after watching his newborn son, Collin, undergo two major heart surgeries at Boston Children's Hospital.
About three years later, Nicholas was in a similar situation, his six-month-old son Stephen Jr. the recipient of a heart transplant at Children's. (ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas wrote a great piece about Nicholas in June.)
Both children are now thriving.
Matt Light has played his entire career with the Patriots.
"You look at Collin and you'd never know there is anything wrong with him," Light said in the Patriots' locker room this week in the days leading up to Sunday's game. "He's a real special kid, with a heart of gold, to say the least."
"It's just amazing," Nicholas said in a phone interview from Atlanta as the Falcons concluded their preparations. "I come home every day and he's running around, it's like everything is so normal. If you didn't see the scar, you'd never know."
Light, 31, and Nicholas, 26, don't know each other, but they'll meet for the first time Sunday.
Sometime between the hours of 1 and 4 p.m. at Gillette Stadium, they'll butt helmets, each trying to impose their will on the other in a sometimes violent game in which physicality and power often decides the victor. Afterward, they'll leave that behind, share an embrace, and wish each other well as fathers who lived in a similar miracle in the same place, about 30 miles north of where they just played.
Thankfully, their stories both have happy endings. The beginnings, however, were quite different.
Matt and Susie Light discovered their baby had a congenital heart defect before it was born. An ultrasound revealed that the baby had transposition of the great vessels, which meant the two major vessels that carry blood away from the heart -- the aorta and the pulmonary artery -- were switched.
Fourteen hours after birth, Collin was in surgery.
"When your child is born and immediately taken from you, and you have to sit back and watch them stick them with five million different tubes and needles and catheters, and you see them laying there no bigger than the size of your hand, you appreciate just what a blessing it is to come through something like that," Light said.
The surgery was a success, but the Lights were blindsided soon after when doctors weren't getting a good pulse in Collin's lower body, and discovered that he had coarctation of the aorta, a narrowing of the aortic arch that wasn't allowing blood to flow throughout his body.
Linebacker Stephen Nicholas is in his third NFL season.
A second surgery was required, this time doctors going in through Collin's back.
"It was like getting hit by lightning five times to have both of those things happen," Light said. "They had never seen it before."
Light, who is originally from Greenville, Ohio, felt fortunate to be close to such a world-renowned hospital.
Nicholas wasn't as lucky.
He was preparing for 2008 training camp with the Falcons when doctors diagnosed Stephen Jr., who was six months old, with cardiomyopathy. Stephen's heart couldn't properly pump blood throughout the body, the left side not functioning, which made the right side double the work.
The only solution was a heart transplant, and Stephen and his wife Irene researched the best places to do so. That led them to Boston for about four months.
Falcons training camp was just starting when Irene and Stephen Jr. left for Children's Hospital. Stephen stayed behind.
"We were starting two-a-days, so me being in Atlanta playing football and my family being away in Boston, that was very tough," said Nicholas, who is from Jacksonville, Fla. "You're thinking about your son and your wife, their well-being. As a father, you want to be there to handle problems. That's what you do. When you can't, it is very difficult to handle."
The Falcons did what they could to make life easier for Nicholas.
Head coach Mike Smith excused him from meetings the day after games, so he could fly to Boston each week to be with his family. Nicholas would play in games on Sundays, then rush to the airport afterward to catch the night's final flight. He stayed in town until Tuesday before returning to the Falcons for the start of a new week Wednesday. Teammates helped pay for his airfare.
This weekend marks the first time Nicholas will return to Boston and won't head directly to Children's Hospital. Those days are thankfully gone for his family, but they'll never be forgotten.
The same is true for the Lights, who previously donated $25,000 to Dr. Gerald Marx and his heart research.
Both players said they relied heavily on prayer through those trying times.
"Ultimately, you put your faith in the people you have surrounding you, the medical team and what they can do," Light said. "You hear it a lot about Children's Hospital; it's remarkable what they're able to do now, and how people dedicate themselves to things like that. It's been a blessing, a true miracle."