BRIAN SCIARETTA - Friday, May 18, 2012
Years from now, when soccer fans reflect on the 2011/2012 European season, they will remember both thrilling moments and also heartbreaking on-field tragedies.
In addition to the wonderful moments like the conclusion to the English Premier League season and the incredible games of the Champions League semifinals, there were also horrific moments where cardiac problems took the life of one player and left another in critical condition.
On March 27, Bolton Wanderer's 24 year old midfielder Fabrice Muamba nearly died when he went into cardiac arrest on the field in a game against Tottenham. For days after the incident, he was in critical condition and it was unclear if he would survive.
Just weeks later in Italy on April 14, Livorno midfielder Piermario Morosini went into cardiac arrest on the field in a game against Pescara. At just 25 years old, doctors were unable to resuscitate him and he was pronounced dead soon after.
For fans, these horrific incidents serve as a painful reminder that what happens on the field is only just a game. While the players are professional athletes in prime physical condition, life can be fragile even for them. When incidents like these happen, they leave behind grieving families, friends, teammates, and communities.
For Zach Herold, these tragic incidents of cardiac arrests have a profound impact.
It was only two and a half years ago when Toronto FC selected a 17 year old Herold with the 24th overall pick in the MLS draft. Herold, a defender, was fresh out of US Soccer's residency program which he completed by playing in the 2009 U-17 World Cup in Nigeria.
Herold had always dreamed of being a professional soccer player and as a young man that was his primary focus in life.
But this dream was cut short. During a routine physical after being drafted, doctors discovered an issue with his heart and diagnosed him with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (also known as "HCM"). The nature of HCM is that the walls in part of the heart abnormally thicken and put him at risk for cardiac arrest should his heart rate become elevated.
For Herold who naturally has a high heart rate, his case of HCM was uncorrectable and the only way to prevent a tragic incident was for him to retire and stay away from high level physical activity.
Without ever playing a professional game, he retired from soccer and his career was over before it began.
"Immediately, of course, I was completely devastated," Herold told YA. "I was only 17 and I was aspiring to be a professional soccer player my whole life. Not even being able to play one single professional game and not even being able to practice at all, it was the most shocking news I've ever heard in my life."
The news was an extraordinary setback for Herold who was forced to readjust his life. It did take awhile but eventually he learned to accept the medical diagnosis as positive moment that saved his life instead of one that ended his career.
"As time has gone one, I've realized they've caught it before it got worse," Herold added. "I'm so thankful to be alive right now."
After the diagnosis, Herold moved back to his home in Port St. Lucie, Florida and began coaching youth soccer for a local under-9 team. He quickly got his C-level coaching license but the next step in life after playing was to get a formal education.
Herold enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of South Florida and was offered a job as an assistant coach for USF's men's soccer team. Despite the opportunity, the devastation of no longer being able to play the game was not far removed and Herold's coaching tenure did not last long.
"Unfortunately at South Florida it just wasn't for me," Herold recalled. "It had nothing to do with the program. I just couldn't handle it emotionally. All I wanted to do was get out there and play. Coaching is fun, but for now, my love is still just playing the game of soccer - not coaching. It's too soon. Once I get a little older, I think coaching could definitely be something that's on my radar."
It's not just coaching that is difficult for Herold. Watching national teams for the United States also is an emotional experience.
"It's definitely bittersweet watching the United States play," Herold admitted. "I don't have a problem watching it until I see my friends who I know personally and grew up playing with on national teams. It's a little rough but at the same time, I am so happy and proud of them. But it just makes it harder on me knowing I played with them and I could be right where they're at right now."
Herold admits that he was never into school while growing up but he is still enrolled at South Florida trying to decide what he wants to do with his life.
This summer he will be interning at Wasserman Media Group in California. It is the same sports management agency who represented him as a player. He hopes that that will be a good avenue to stay involved with soccer without having to take part in the daily aspects of the game.
While he continues to search for a career path in soccer, Herold remains outspoken in his desire to see all professional athletes get tested for heart conditions in order to prevent tragedies. He currently accepts most interview requests to talk about the issue in his effort to raise awareness for HCM.
"Personally I think it is awful that these guys have been playing soccer their whole lives and have made it that far but [their condition] has gone unnoticed," Herold stressed. "For me, I played in a U-17 World Cup and I did all these great things but it still only got picked up the first day of my professional life. I think it's necessary for every single team to have heart tests every six months."
The entire Herold family is also involved in the cause for raising awareness for HCM. Herold's mother is a doctor and she never before was involved in physical activities.
She now races in marathon events to become involved in a search for the cure.
"My mom has never been an athlete or done anything physical," Herold concluded. "But once she found out about my condition, she races in marathons and ironman competitions. She's gotten a lot of attention for that. Every race she competes in, she wears a shirt that says on the back ‘raise awareness for HGM' and on the front it says ‘I race for Zach.'"