A Life-Changing Turn of Events

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By Michael Wilbon
Friday, February 1, 2008

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.

The site of Super Bowl XLII, the gigantic steel-faced stadium that looks like a spaceship plopped down in the desert, is only a 35-minute drive west around the beltway known as the 101. The center of Super Bowl activity is a 25-minute drive south to downtown Phoenix, a quick trip past a residential oasis called Paradise Valley, past Camelback Mountain.

It's just outside my door, really, but I can't get there. Couldn't get to Super Bowl media day on Tuesday. Couldn't get to the Patriots' and Giants' interview sessions Wednesday or Thursday. Couldn't mingle with former coaches and former players in the lobbies of the downtown hotels to find out what they think about the Patriots being undefeated. Can't do any of it because I had a heart attack in the wee hours of Monday morning.

Since then it's been no reporting, no writing, no TV, no fighting with Kornheiser, nothing to do with football or the Super Bowl. What would have been my 21st consecutive Super Bowl assignment for The Washington Post has instead included my first ambulance ride, a trip to the emergency room, angioplasty, and a dramatic lifestyle change that now calls for heart medicine, insulin injections and daily blood-pressure checks . . . or else die early.

I landed in Phoenix late Sunday night, drove to my home-away-from-D.C.-home in Scottsdale, looked at some e-mail, and went to bed at 1:30. At 3:15 a heavy pain in my left arm and on the left side of my chest woke me. I thought it was indigestion, and started drinking water, but the pain persisted. Took some Advil. The pain got worse. Tried to go back to bed, but it became unbearable. They were classic heart-attack symptoms, the pain up and down the left arm and in the upper-left chest, stuff you see on TV dramas and sitcoms. It was after 15 minutes of denial that I woke my wife and told her: "I know this sounds insane, but we've got to drive to the emergency room. I'm having a heart attack."

Within six hours, after nitroglycerin pills, morphine drips and an ambulance transfer to an intensive care unit, a cardiologist to whom I will forever be indebted conducted an angioplasty, using a balloon to open a blocked artery. For the first time in my life, I was admitted to a hospital and stayed there for two more days -- and found out that not only wasn't I indestructible but that I now would be a full-fledged, insulin-dependent diabetic.

Until very recently, I'd never missed a big assignment of any kind because of illness. My father grew up plowing fields and picking cotton and bailing hay in the deep South during the Depression and his sense of work was you don't miss -- ever. If you do, it's a sign of weakness or frailty, and he didn't tolerate it from his two boys. And though that has overwhelmingly served us well and I believe in that work ethic wholly, the fact was this was a permissible exception, make that a mandatory exception. And I had any number of people, some friends and some professional associates and many who are both, drive that point home, that I needed to smarten up and look at life differently from here on out.

It was unimaginable to me that beyond my family members and dearest friends, so many people -- many of great public stature -- took the time to call or send flowers. One of the first calls was from Darrell Green, who should be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame by Saturday evening. Warren Sapp said if I didn't change my life he'd come looking for me. I heard from my basketball buddies, Grant Hill, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Mike Fratello, Rick Carlisle and Chris Mullin. Two commissioners -- David Stern and Roger Goodell -- called. I've heard multiple times from football buddies/Arizona neighbors Nick Lowery and Bertrand Berry. Byron Leftwich, whom I've known since he was 14, left a long, heartfelt voice mail. Howie Long sent a touching text message. Roy Green, who had a heart attack at about the same age, made himself available to talk about what comes next for me. I was startled to open the door and get a big basket of fruit from Abe and Irene Pollin and flowers from Phil Jackson and Jeannie Buss. I'm grateful for, and humbled by, each and every expression.

But two things left me speechless and of a mind to reevaluate a lot of stuff. The phone rang while I was in my hospital bed Monday night and the voice on the other end said: "This is Jeff George. I was calling to tell you I'm thinking of you and praying for you." Yep, Jeff George. No. 3 in your program. For years and years, especially during his brief time in D.C., I was pointedly critical of George. I'm sure some of it was over the top and unnecessary. Yet he was big enough to put that aside and call with get-well wishes. He told me about his father having a heart attack when he was about my age, 49, about lifestyle changes and how families respond with support.

George sounded like an expert on the topic and on recovery. He talked and I listened.

I've also, in this space and on TV, been pointedly critical of Kobe Bryant. Yet, I answered the doorbell Wednesday and there were flowers and balloons from Kobe wishing me a quick return to my duties. I hope I have the grace to extend myself to someone who might offer a public rebuke of my work.

The lesson learned is probably that a bad pass on third and 12, a missed jump shot at the buzzer or even a prolonged disagreement with a teammate doesn't make that the dominant theme of a man's life. It's not like I won't make a critical observation about Kobe in the playoffs, if necessary, just that such comments ought to be expressed in context and not cavalierly used to form larger judgments about a person's life. At the very least there ought to be an acknowledgment of a sense of compassion and humanity that aren't to be taken for granted.

There's also an obligation on my part to take all this support and advice and make the necessary changes that will enable me to get out of bed and be a producer again, a more responsible one who can go to work with the consistency of Cal Ripken and also understand the need for better health and a more balanced life. As Jeff George said in our conversation the other night: "This is definitely manageable. And you'll do it. But it doesn't mean you're in total control. This whole thing should help you learn the difference."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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