Oct. 18, 2000
WINNING THE GAME OF LIFE
By Kristi Williams & Maura Singleton
Imagine looking forward to playing for years of Division I football at the University of Virginia. Now imagine that all your expectations regarding your college career have suddenly changed, before you really even got the chance to begin. That was the situation Mark Lindsey faced during his freshman year at UVa when he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a weak heart muscle.
Lindsey entered the University in the fall of 1995, a 6'6, 260-pound freshman offensive lineman from Richmond, Va. UVa was his first choice, and the only school he attended on an official visit during the recruiting process.
"I always knew I wanted to go to UVa, because of the school's reputation. When I visited, I got along well with the players, and this school just felt right to me," said Lindsey.
Like most freshman football players at the Division I level, he was planning to red-shirt, with hopes of making an impact in the future.
In March of 1996, Lindsey was extremely ill with a virus that swept through his dorm and most of Grounds. Following his illness, Lindsey dedicated himself to preparing his mind and body for the rigors he realized Division I college football required. According to his mother, he was in the best shape of his life during those spring and summer months of `96, lifting and running every day, saying, "I am not going to sit that bench." He was consistently one of the fastest offensive linemen on the team, and was looking forward to working towards a potential starting spot.
"All I could think about was it being my turn. I loved the friendships I made on the football team, but all I really wanted to do was play," said Lindsey.
During those workouts Mark began complaining that he felt like he was drowning, just not getting enough oxygen, and he could not understand why.
"It made it hard, because I was trying harder than ever to get stronger and faster. I went from finishing in the top three during sprints to finishing dead last, and I could not lift as much as I wanted to anymore" said Lindsey. "I was very disappointed and frustrated to work so hard and not understand why I was not improving."
On July 20, 1996, following a private workout, Lindsey collapsed and was taken to UVa's emergency room. His reaction, however, was unusual. He did not, under any circumstances, want his football coaches to find out or think he would not be able to contribute to the team. Following an examination by Dr. James Bergin, one of UVa's top cardiologists, it became apparent his condition was not going to just disappear. As Lindsey struggled to cope with his illness, he realized he must explain the severity of his condition to his teammates and coaches.
Four days after his collapse, Lindsey was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy. According to his mother, the proteins in the virus that her son contracted were identical to those in his heart. When his immune system programmed itself to attack the flu, it also inadvertently attacked his heart.
Doctors informed Mark that his heart was operating at only 20 percent. In approximately half the cases of viral cardiomyopathy, the heart heals itself. The Lindsey's remained optimistic that within six months, their son's heart would show signs of improvement and he would be back wearing his football uniform the following fall. Instead, they were told that he would need a heart transplant, which he was fortunate enough to receive on January 20, 2000 after two long years of waiting. Since then, Lindsey has had a slow, but progressive recovery and getting back to full strength has proved challenging.
"It has been hard having to rebuild to do simple things, especially, when you are accustom to being in really good shape. These are the cards that have been dealt to me, and now I deal with it," said Lindsey.
Though Mark Lindsey never had to opportunity to play a single down for the Cavaliers, he reflects fondly on the time he did spend as a member of the squad and continues to miss the game he loves. Now back at UVa to finish his degree in religious studies, he is concentrating on taking control of his life again and achieving a renewed sense of normalcy, even though the life he now knows is one without football.
"Every person's career ends at some time, and I have to believe that, at some point, every [former athlete] feels the same way I do when I miss the game."