Ottis Anderson had just rushed for 122 yards and one touchdown in the St. Louis Cardinals' victory over the Atlanta Falcons two weeks ago. He got on the team bus, sat down on the front seat next to Coach Jim Hanifan, "put his hand over heart and said, 'Oh, it burns,' " Hanifan said. "He doubled over, got up and doubled over again. Then he shook his left hand and said, 'It feels numb.'
"I said, 'C'mon, O.J., what's the problem? Is it a sharp pain?' Our trainer, John Omohundro, was standing three or four seats behind us. I yelled to him. Now, O.J. was starting to sweat. I said, 'John, get up here.' "
Within seconds, Dr. Bernard Garfinkel, the team physician, was by Anderson's side. Within five or 10 minutes, the team bus was at a hospital, Hanifan said. "We got a wheelchair from the emergency room," Hanifan said. "By this time, he was soaking with sweat. We pushed him into the emergency area. He was hurting . . . I'll tell you what flashed through my mind. I thought, here's a fantastic scene for TV. Here's the coach and the doctor wheeling the star of the game into the emergency room. If this doesn't seem like Hollywood, I don't what does. But here it is, real life."
Soon Anderson, 25, was hooked up to an electrocardiogram machine. By the time the doctors had the test results, the pain and the sweat had disappeared. "When they brought me out of X-ray, the bus was still waiting," Anderson said. "I had no idea the team was still out there waiting."
Later, Anderson said, when the doctors saw him "cheerful and joking with the nurses," they allowed him to join the team at the airport for the flight home. The heart attack that wasn't was over.
Anderson never knew such fear. "It makes you look at life a little bit, what you're doing wrong," he said. "There's a reason for everything. It was a warning, a severe warning about how I am living my life. I wasn't living in the fast lane but let's say the middle of the fast lane. It will definitely slow me down."
If Anderson displayed the classic symptoms of a heart attack, the Cardinals displayed sensitivity that is too often lacking in the sports world. "I do think often people will forget the fact they are participating in a game, not a life or death struggle," Hanifan said.
The organization was traumatized when tight end J.V. Cain died of heart failure in 1979. "I don't think we're more cautious," said William V. Bidwill, chairman of the board. "I think we're more sensitive. We were cautious before."
Anderson did not play last week against the Philadelphia Eagles. "For the first time, I can say I was looked at as a person, not an athlete, not a piece of stock," Anderson said. "I learned it's not what you do or how you it. It's having people care about your health."
Hanifan expects Anderson to practice Wedesday and to start Sunday against the Redskins in St. Louis. Doctors do not know exactly what the problem was, "but we know what it wasn't," Garfinkel said.
It could have been a muscle spasm "that mimicked cardiac pain," Garfinkel said. "It can be due to chemical abnormalities. It can be due to stresses or to a spasm of the esophagus. All kinds of things happen . . . If you had seen it in a 45-year-old executive, 99 times out of 100 it would have been a heart attack."
Anderson never thought it was. "I've seen enough stories on TV," he said. "I figured if I was having a heart attack, I would have pain that shortened the wind. I never had that."
Just to make sure, Garfinkel admitted Anderson to the hospital on Tuesday for a coronary arteriogram, a procedure that involved puncturing an artery in his groin to insert dye for an X-ray of his heart.
That's when Anderson got scared. "They started talking about what I had to have done and the failure and success rates," Anderson said. "It's 95 percent successful. A guy like me doesn't want to deal with stats, though you always deal with stats. I said, 'What about that 5 percent? What is 100 percent in medicine?' They said, 'Nothing.' "
Though doctors thought the puncture would probably heal by Sunday, and though Anderson wanted to keep his 52-game starting streak intact, no one was taking any chances. "It was a dramatic thing going on here," Hanifan said. "As the doctors explained it to me, they told me it was possible if he took a hit on that puncture wound, it might bleed. If there was bleeding, would they be able to stop that blood? My God."
The Cardinals (3-2) have won their last two games. "Obviously, it (the Redskins game) is a very important game for both teams," Hanifan said. "It's more important to us than to them. They are in a really good position for the playoffs. We're fighting for our lives."
The coach paused and started laughing at himself, at those words.