Life-altering surgery put Washington on football fast track
by Staff Writer
The moment is burned into Robert Washington Sr.’s memory.
Lunch in Shelby. Arby’s restaurant. He ordered chicken tenders.
Then his cell phone rang. The call no parent wants.
“Something’s not right with your son’s heart” was the gist from the other end.
Robert Washington, then a rambunctious 13-year-old about to enter seventh grade, had a rare heart condition that likely needed surgery.
“The doctor told me ‘we usually don’t see this until autopsies’,” Washington Sr. said.
During a routine physical before Robert was planning to play middle-school football at Davidson Day in 2010, a heart murmur was discovered. He’d never had any physical limitations. An extensive heart exam showed everything else to be fine, Washington Sr. said. Then a few days later, the dreaded follow-up phone call.
The medical condition is called anomalous origin of the right coronary artery. He was born with it. In simple terms, Robert’s artery was lodged between two muscles. As the muscles grew, oxygen potentially could have been cut off.
Without surgery, Robert would have to give up football. That was fine, Washington Sr. said. Then his parents learned that almost any exertion would be dangerous for their son.
“Now it was jeopardizing his quality of life,” Washington, Sr. said. “He might not have been able to shoot baskets or walk up flights of stairs without the surgery.”
The surgery in September 2010 lasted five hours. Robert spent a week in the hospital and missed four weeks of school.
“I was scared when I found out,” Robert said. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to play football again. It was nerve-racking.”
Robert’s visible souvenir is a seven-inch scar in the middle of his chest. Not visible is his repaired heart, which now fuels one of the area’s top football prodigies.
Recovery was slow, and Robert wasn’t very interested in taking it easy. But he heeded parents’ and doctors’ warnings and made the progression from walking to climbing steps to sit-ups to jogging to pushups and running.
Robert has played the past two years on the Team USA 15-Under team and was named team captain in 2011. At last month’s developmental camp in San Antonio, Texas, he ran for more than 100 yards in several scrimmages and threw a 45-yard halfback pass for a touchdown.
Robert was picked for the Football Tech Future Stars Game, to represent North Carolina, but he declined to prepare on playing for Team USA and his upcoming freshman season at SouthLake Christian Academy. He’s been to several prestigious summer camps.
Last week – before he played a high-school game – Robert was offered a scholarship to play at the University of Mississippi, SouthLake Christian coach Bub O’Donnell said.
“I let my dad handle all that stuff,” Robert said. “I focus on school first. Like my parents always tell me, it’s academics first and football second. My challenge is to transfer from the All-American (Team USA) level and apply it to my high-school team.”
Robert’s 3.5 grade point average adheres to the family rule and is a plus for recruiters. He is a 5-foot-10, 180-pounder who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. Robert, whose family lives between Belmont and Charlotte, also has received attention from Notre Dame, West Virginia, Tennessee and Clemson.
That’s heady stuff for a player who wasn’t a natural as a beginner.
“He was awful,” Washington Sr. said, laughing. Robert, a bit chunky, was assigned to play center. But he dreamed of being a running back.
The family moved close to Gastonia, and Robert, then 11, landed on a new team (the Cramerton Panthers). He told his new coach that he was a running back.
“I never told him he couldn’t do it,” Washington Sr. said. “As a parent, you never want to do that. But Robert busted his butt and did the work to improve.”
A running back wasn’t exactly born, but he was at home.
Robert said he watched other running backs to pick up pointers and tendencies. Still does. And he dove into training with zeal. Speed training. Footwork training. This year he plans to begin weight training in earnest.
He does heart checkups twice a year, but it’s becoming a distant memory. No health problems since the surgery.
“I don’t worry any more,” Washington Sr. said. “It was a blessing we found out when we did. Robert’s a fun, goofy kid. He’s hilarious. He’s caring, and I don’t see selfish. He’s getting good at being a running back, and that has to be God’s work.”
Hidden health problems can endanger young athletes
Sudden death among young athletes is very rare – estimated at one out of 200,000 each year, according to the National Center for Sports Safety. It happens to about 12 high-school athletes nationally each year, and mostly to males.
Robert Washington’s congenital heart defect was detected after a murmur showed up during a routine physical when he was trying out for seventh-grade football. He fully recovered after surgery.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle, is the most common cause of sudden death among athletes ages 12-32, according to the NCSS. There usually aren’t any symptoms prior to the sudden death.
The second leading cause of sudden death – congenital coronary artery anomolies – is what Washington was diagnosed with. The arteries that supply blood to the heart can become restricted as the surrounding muscles increase in size.
Other types of sudden death include myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), mitrol valve prolapse, Marfan syndrome (a connective-tissue disorder marked by abnormalities in skeletal muscle, eyes, heart and arteries) and Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (fast, irregular heart beats).
The American Heart Association recommends a physical exam and history be performed before participation in high school and collegiate sports.