Oct. 10, 2014
By Connor Killoren
Before the incident transpired, University of Notre Dame senior Matt Hegarty thought he understood what facing adversity felt like.
As a highly-recruited player out of the quiet town of Aztec, New Mexico, the 6-4, 295-pound offensive lineman enjoyed dominating opponents in the trenches. Regardless of his understanding of a play call or how he executed it on the football field, Hegarty surely had accumulated many highlights for his DVD tape.
He had grown accustomed to being a star, a man amongst boys on the gridiron.
Predictably, stardom takes a backseat to adjustment upon a freshman's arrival at his first preseason camp. Welcome to the life of a college football player.
Hegarty's acclimation to the college game certainly was no different than what hundreds of other former rookies go through or what countless other Notre Dame football players have experienced. While teammates encouraged him that first year in 2011 as he watched from the sidelines, it didn't dampen Hegarty's competitive spirit or gnaw at him any less when he never played a single down.
The dawn of his sophomore season in 2012 brought hope as Hegarty earned a spot on Notre Dame's depth chart as a member of the Irish special teams. It appeared to be a start, though playing alongside his teammates on the offensive line still seemed something of a distant goal at the time.
The worries, stresses and anxieties about playing time appeared normal for Hegarty, but a harrowing set of circumstances on a fateful day in November 2012 put everything into perspective.
It started out like any other day. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary.
"I remember waking up being worried about a quiz in class that day," Hegarty says. "We were on Perfect Practice Thursday and just getting ready for our upcoming game against Boston College."
Hegarty and the rest of his cohorts along the offensive line were engaging in a normal practice prior to the team's eventual 21-6 victory at Boston College on Nov. 10, 2012.
Everything appeared normal on that day during practice until Hegarty found himself unable to formulate the words to make a call to the rest of the line and his coaches.
He looked over at fellow offensive lineman Connor Hanratty to speak to him, but when he failed multiple times to verbalize his thoughts, he knew something wasn't right.
"It was like the cat had my tongue," Hegarty says. "It was so strange because I think speech is such a big part of anyone's life. It put a strange sense of fear in me because I didn't understand what was happening.
"I couldn't talk and I didn't know how long it was going to last."
It was a scary experience for Hegarty's teammates as well, particularly for fellow offensive lineman Nick Martin.
"He couldn't really communicate to us and verbalize what was happening. The words just wouldn't come out," Martin says. "We didn't really know what was going on at the time, but we did understand it wasn't normal and something appeared really wrong."
After spending the evening at a South Bend hospital, tests determined that Hegarty had suffered a slight stroke. Further tests revealed two small holes in his heart that had been depriving him of oxygen. Those holes began to circulate Hegarty's blood flow the wrong way, which resulted in a clot that eventually made its way to the left frontal lobe of his brain (the region that controls an individual's speech).
After a couple of discussions with his doctors, Hegarty understood the extent of what had happened. In fact he had some perspective. The summer preceding the 2012 campaign, Hegarty had worked with stroke victims at Healthwin--a specialized care facility in South Bend for stroke victims.
"Being with the patients at Healthwin, reminded me of what I had experienced," Hegarty says. "The patients I worked with at Healthwin had a hard time verbalizing their thoughts. Basically, that is what I experienced that day, and it was pretty scary stuff. It was the first time in my life that I couldn't communicate my thoughts."
For as long as his memory serves, football always has been a passion for Hegarty.
An extraordinarily gifted player, the game has given him a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging.
The thought of having the game he loves nearly ripped away never occurred to Hegarty until he met with doctors shortly after his diagnosis.
But minutes after meeting with the specialists, feelings of disbelief, confusion and fear began to haunt him.
"Initially, one of the doctors I spoke with believed that I could have inherited a blood condition from both of my parents," Hegarty says. "If that was the case, then getting back on the field may not be an option for me. The doctor also indicated that I might have to take a blood thinner for the rest of my life.
"The realization that I may not play football actually became a real possibility for me. It was a surreal feeling because football had been such a big part of my everyday life. I couldn't imagine not playing and being out on the field every Saturday."
That moment proved to be a crossroads for Hegarty.
"My priorities changed after that day," he says. "It was shocking to hear what the doctors had to say, but also confusing. After speaking with them, I began thinking long and hard about if I would ever be able to play football again. Up to that point, it wasn't a question that ever crossed my mind."
Hegarty had a decision to make. He could either accept what had happened and invest his energies into making a triumphant return or he could let the memory of the stroke weigh him down and get in the way of making it back to the playing field.
His positive demeanor and his love for the game would not let him entertain any other thought than returning to the football field.
"He had a great attitude," Martin says. "Matt always brings out the best in people and when we (the Irish offensive linemen) visited him at the hospital he lay in bed cracking jokes. I think it helped the players who were there in the hospital visiting him. It helped us to relax around him."
Life without football. It became a momentary thought for Hegarty.
Surgery to repair the holes in his heart came nearly a month after his episode on the practice field, preventing him from participating in any football-related activity. Essentially, his focus became centered on making his comeback. After patiently waiting his turn, Hegarty had to reinvent his playing career and essentially start all over again.
Most disappointing was that he did not have the opportunity to suit up in the Bowl Championship Series national title game at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
"I can't deny that not being in uniform that night was the hardest part for me," Hegarty says. "My teammates were playing in the title game for a chance to win a national championship for our school. There were so many things I missed out on and wanted to be a part of. I wanted to say, 'Can I strap it up and stand on the sidelines?' But, of course, my doctors wouldn't let me have any part of that."
A cheerleader on the sidelines, Hegarty returned from Miami focused solely on returning to the playing field.
"Getting back to practice and being with my teammates became my number one priority," Hegarty says. "Fortunately for me, I had the support of them. They made me feel like I was never away from the game."
The closeness experienced by Notre Dame's offensive linemen long has been the hallmark of this Irish group.
"We included him in everything," Martin says. "I've been out of the lineup, too. The guys on the offensive line are so good at making sure that everyone feels included. It starts off the field.
"At the same time, however, Matt's personality wouldn't have allowed us to do anything but include him. He's one of those guys who attracts other people because of his outgoing personality. Matt's like a magnet. People want to be around him."
Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand also has proven to be instrumental during Hegarty's rehabilitation and comeback.
"Coach Hiestand has been terrific through all of this," Hegarty says. "He believes in his players, and that is something that is really important to us. Coach has been supportive and understands my work ethic and the dedication it took for me to get back on the field.
"Coach never questioned that. It's nice to have the trust we have with each other. It's reassuring to have him as a coach and leader for us. He really helped all of the guys on our offensive line fine their potential."
Hiestand did just that for his protégé.
After a long, winding and difficult path back to the field, Hegarty finally earned his first career start on Nov. 30, 2013, when the Irish played at Stanford.
Walking onto the field that evening validated all of the hard work Hegarty had put in over the previous two years. It became an indescribable feeling.
"It's hard to remember what I felt that night when I made my first career start," Hegarty says. "I had plenty of different emotions and there were so many thoughts running through my head. Just a year before I wondered if I would ever play football again.
"I'll never forget the pride I felt that night of being able to contribute and to know that my team needed me."
His teammates also had an appreciation for Hegarty's big moment that evening.
"We all were so happy for Matt," Martin says. "You could see the excitement on his face. All the struggles getting to that point seemed to be forgotten."
Hegarty concluded the season by earning a start in Notre Dame's 29-16 victory against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl, and he has carried the momentum of those final two games of the 2013 campaign into 2014.
His past struggles have led to a greater appreciation for the blessings in his life.
"Having the football part taken away during that short period really put a lot of things into perspective for me," Hegarty says. "Life is precious and the uncertainty of not knowing what each day brings has made me more grateful for the life I have today."