By Jeff Odom
The morning sun appeared from behind the clouds, and outside the sounds of children playing filled the air as John Naperkowski walked to the fields at Chester Taylor Elementary in Zephyrhills.
For the physical education teacher, who woke hours before the crack of dawn to make the hour-long drive from his home in Holiday, it was just a routine day.
The grade book was checked and the newspaper crossword puzzle had long been completed.
Around him, a couple teachers were tending to his students. The extra helping hands were a rare but welcomed asset.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Susan Draves, a roaming staffer who helped with students from time to time. As Naperkowski continued, the man motioned to her and opened his mouth to say hello.
Nothing came out except for the panicked gasp of her name — “Susan.”
The tall, broad figure grabbed his chest and collapsed onto the ground as his heart shut down.
He was clinically dead.
In 1998, then-43-year-old Naperkowski was beginning his first year as a football assistant at Hudson High as well as a physical education instructor at the adjacent Hudson Elementary.
Known as coach Ski to those around him, Naperkowski had just retired from a 20-year career with the U.S. Marine Corps and was enjoying the time spent with his new jobs.
He looked on at the mass of students, getting ready for his class with warm-up exercises, when he noticed one was lying on the ground. As he walked over, he called out to the boy.
The children were immediately herded away from where the boy haplessly laid, and Naperkowski picked the boy up into in his arms.
It was 9-year-old Thomas Foley.
The child known for his smiles to teachers and good spirit to classmates was unresponsive. Naperkowski tried everything he could to somehow, someway, give Foley life.
Moments ticked by. The help that was coming seemed to take hours before the sound of a medical helicopter roared overhead. The air began to swirl around as it landed in the middle of the school’s field.
Paramedics removed his lifeless body from the arms of the coach who had stayed with him, holding on to hope that he could be saved.
But it was too late. His heart gave out a short time later.
There was no lifesaving equipment on the school’s campus. Naperkowski, who was hailed as a hero by his peers after rushing to Foley’s side and calling for help, said he could have prevented the student’s passing had there have been a defibulator available.
“They just didn’t have them in the schools at that time,” Naperkowski said.
Soon after the investigation concluded, the Pasco County School Board voted to install defibulators at all of its schools, which would be added during the next 14 years in order to prevent such tragedy from happening again.
Hudson Elementary was the first to get one.
Draves began to perform chest compressions on her friend, praying it would bring Naperkowski back to life. The physical education teacher Jackie Campbell ran to his side with a defibulator, which the school had installed just one year earlier.
The women, anxiously waiting for the ambulance to arrive, did everything in their power to keep the coach with them.
A faint beat began to pulsate throughout Naperkowski’s body as sirens announced the arrival of help.
On board, the man awoke to a haze of beeps and sounds coming from every direction. Naperkowski listened as an unrecognizable figure called out. He snapped, not understanding what was going on.
“I had no out of body experience; all I saw was black,” Naperkowski said. “I remember waking up on the way to the hospital, and they had some sort of resuscitator on me, and I felt like I was being smothered, and I was fighting the paramedics trying to get that off, and they assured me to calm down. I guess I just laid back and rested, letting them do their thing.”
Once at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, Naperkowski began to regain his senses and joked with his doctor about going back home. The weight of what had occurred hours earlier still hadn’t hit him.
The doctors went to work on his heart the next morning. Inside, they found his aorta completely blocked with plaque buildup, which doctors concluded was the source of the attack.
Six days later, Naperkowski was released from the hospital. Michael Shaheen, a former student, pushed his wheelchair to the waiting car to take him home.
It was a reminder of how many lives he touched along the way.
“I’m just eternally thankful,” Naperkowski said. “I love my school, I love the kids and quite frankly that’s why I’ve been in the profession.”
Today, nearly two months after his heart attack, the only visible reminder is a large scar on his chest and thigh from where blood vessels were removed, but Naperkowski also carries the memory of just how fragile life can be.
For some, he’s a defender of American freedom whose story shines the light on the need for life-saving machines in schools.
To himself, he’s just coach Ski, forever thankful for those that saved him, for those that never gave up trying to keep him alive, much like he never gave up on young Thomas Foley.
Just as fate would have it.
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