Most members of the Lakeside High School football squad know the story of teammate Kyle Key, but every now and then, Key adds a twist to the tale.
During the course of suiting up inside the Lakeside locker room, a young Panther inevitably will spot the scar stretching the length of Key's chest. Then comes the obvious question, and Key points out Rahul Singh, an imposing 325 lb. lineman.
"When new freshmen come in, I tell them that Rahul hit me in practice one day," Key said.
Lakeside High School football kicker Kyle Key returned to the team after open heart surgery to correct a birth defect.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
While the Lakeside senior can find some humor in his situation, the truth isn't a laughing matter.
Key was born with aortic stenosis, a heart defect which prompted open-heart surgery when he was eight days old. Doctors said he had only two weeks to live without the corrective procedure.
Doctors also predicted Kyle would never be an athlete.
"I couldn't run much, and couldn't last as long as the other kids," he said. "I just learned to live with it."
Despite the risks of overexertion, Key managed to play soccer and little league baseball; but when he reached middle school age, doctors advised him to give up rigorous sporting activities.
"All they said I could do was play golf, but I'm really not good at golf."
Besides, Key had another sport in mind.
"When he was in the 10th grade he had this passion to be on the football team. That just came out of nowhere," said Rev. Danny Key, Kyle's father. "He just put his mind to it. He was determined to play."
Change of heart
When he was a Lakeside sophomore, Kyle Key asked his cardiologist whether it was OK to be a place-kicker for the Panthers. He got the go-ahead, but before spring practice that year, Key underwent a precautionary heart checkup.
"I was doing a stress test on a treadmill, and I felt fine," Key recalled. "But they told me to get off the treadmill."
The test revealed an irregular heartbeat.
"In a way it was providential," Danny Key said. "If he hadn't decided to play football, he wouldn't have had the stress test and found out there was no time to mess around."
All his life, Kyle Key had been told he would require additional heart surgery, but it wasn't supposed to happen until he was in his 40s or 50s.
Key was 16 when he learned he would soon be on an operating table in Oklahoma City.
"The whole time I didn't worry at all, really," he recalled. "It was weird. I had this feeling of peace about me."
His father and mother, Kris, did most of the worrying.
"The surgery could easily have gone the other way," Danny said. "We tried to prepare for that."
On July 30, 2001, Kyle underwent the Ross Procedure, a revolutionary technique which was performed by Dr. Ronald Elkins.
"They open your chest and lift the heart out," Key explained. "They remove the diseased aortic valve, cut out your pulmonary valve and replace the aortic valve. The pulmonary valve is replaced with a cryopreserved donor valve, from a cadaver."
Key is doing his senior project on the Ross Procedure, and he's living proof that modern medicine can work miracles.
"I can tell the improvement from before I had the surgery. Each day is a new experience for me, to see what I can do next."
Faith also played a role. Key's parents are reverends at Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church, and their congregation provided spiritual uplift.
"They had a 24-hour prayer vigil the day of my surgery," Kyle said. "While I was in the hospital, they sent me 'prayer hands.' Each person in the church traced their hand on a sheet of paper with inspirational sayings or scripture written on them."
After the surgery, Key spent a week in the hospital, and he missed the first three weeks of his junior year at Lakeside. Also, it took six months for his chest incision to heal.
In time, though, the double-valve transplant would transform his quality of life.
"He has a lot more energy. Endurance is not a problem," Kris Key said. "One day he came home so excited; for the first time in his life he was able to run around the track without stopping. That was a huge thing that so many of us take for granted."
There are additional benefits. Since the Ross Procedure uses a donor valve (which is stripped of its DNA to prevent patient rejection) rather than a porcine or artificial valve, Kyle does not have to take blood-thinners or other medications.
That doesn't mean the journey to the gridiron was easy.
As a junior last year, Key joined the Lakeside football team, but was not physically ready for action and was relegated to cheering from the sidelines.
Key had other things to help bide time. He plays bass guitar in the church praise band, is a mainstay of the youth choir and is an accomplished artist.
Then there was his primary goal.
"The whole thing for Kyle was playing football," Danny Key says. "We had a net in the back yard, and he would just kick, and kick and kick. He is exceptional in terms of tenacity."
Friend and former Lakeside kicker Jonathan Wilson showed Kyle some pointers, and the rest of his knowledge was gleaned from Internet sites. The practice paid off this season, as he earned the place-kicking job for the Panthers.
"It's pretty remarkable that he's been able to come through that surgery," Lakeside coach Randy Hill said. "He's never kicked before, but he just wanted to play."
The better part of wisdom might have told Kyle Key to not play football. His parents certainly had some misgivings.
"It took a while to get them talked into it," he said. "They didn't like it. That's how I ended up being a kicker."
With the decision to play sealed, the next step was to actually make a contribution to the team. It didn't take long to silence any doubters.
"The first game or two, Kris and I didn't know if he could even kick it through the goal posts, because he'd never done it before," Danny said. "When he did, we were up on our feet screaming, and a lot of people were."
Key also has heard some rallying cries from teammates during practice.
"I still get tired when we do sprints, and when I'm about to give out, they cheer for me and give me encouragement."
Likewise, his parents expressed gratitude for the Lakeside coaching staff.
"They have been wonderful, just the fact that Randy has given Kyle this opportunity," Kris Key said. "I don't know if they understand the magnitude of blessing they've given Kyle. He's having the time of his life."
As it turned out, the surgery did more than repair a congenital problem - it helped Kyle Key learn life's deeper meaning, and also revealed the heart of a champion.
"God has given me the gift to play football and helped me through this tough time," Key said. "God has given me the gift to kick too, because if I had no talent whatsoever, there's no way a coach would let me kick at all."
The Lakeside football team has had a poor season in 2002, and Key hasn't had many opportunities to kick field goals or extra points.
But he isn't taking it too hard.
Losing is not the legacy he will take away from his lone prep football campaign.
"Personally, I think it will be the memories and the friends I've made. Actually, I'm just really grateful I can play."
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