Samuel Mazzeo’s life changed forever, during a P.E. class at Cypress Creek Middle High.
He was playing football with classmates on the school’s field when, suddenly, he collapsed.
The teenager had gone into cardiac arrest.
School officials, luckily, were on hand to quickly come to his aid.
He was revived with CPR and a defibrillator. He received medical care at John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and AdventHealth Wesley Chapel.
Mazzeo had been suffering from a rare, genetic heart disease called arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia, or ARVD for short.
It occurs when the heart muscle of the right ventricle is replaced by fat or fibrous tissue, so the right ventricle is dilated and contracts poorly; the condition was never diagnosed during physicals or regular check-ups.
The condition weakens the heart’s ability to pump blood.
The scary episode happened on Feb. 23, 2018.
“I don’t remember anything at all,” said the 17-year-old Mazzeo. “I tell my stories from what my friends and my family and the doctors told me what happened.”
Family and friends recently celebrated the day’s one-year anniversary, which is now described as Mazzeo’s “first birthday.”
“It’s crazy to think that actually happened a year ago, but I’m still happy and lucky I’m still here,” Mazzeo said. “I’m starting to realize, ‘Wow, it’s already been a whole year since basically my life completely changed.’”
Mazzeo now has a pacemaker implanted into his chest.
He doesn’t look like someone with a heart condition.
The teen measures at 6-foot-5 and 240-plus pounds — packed into a sturdy, imposing frame.
Doctors told him he’s no longer able to play competitive sports, however.
Other strenuous forms of exercise are also off-limits — aside from brisk walks, light weight-training and the occasional swim.
The realization was humbling for a multi-sport athlete who participated on Cypress Creek’s football, basketball and weightlifting teams — and who had dreams of playing college football.
“It was a little tough at first,” Mazzeo said of the diagnosis and its limitations. “The first few months were rough, and I realized that football was no more. I honestly didn’t think that would ever happen to me. I’ve always been a healthy, active kid. I almost felt invincible, playing football…and then that happens and you’re just like, ‘Wow.’”
As months passed, Mazzeo learned to accept his new, altered lifestyle.
“I wouldn’t say I’m fine with it, but I’m not mad about it,” Mazzeo said. “I’m better now. It’s a lot easier to move on with.”
A few things eased the transition.
Though unable to don a helmet and pads ever again, Mazzeo was able to be involved with the Cypress Creek varsity football team in another capacity — as a student assistant coach.
It’s a role he grew to embrace.
“As the season went on and progressed, I found out that I loved to coach,” Mazzeo said. “It’s something that’s really rewarding to see the progress from the start of the season to the end of the season, just watching the guys improve and watching them get wins.”
Mazzeo has even been asked to return next season as a paid assistant, once he graduates high school.
He sees it as a possible future career path.
“I do miss playing football a lot, especially during the last past season, but getting the opportunity to coach was something that I never would’ve expected to happen,” Mazzeo said. “It was a good opportunity to do and, obviously it still kept me close with the team and close with everybody.”
Mazzeo found a niche in another sport, also.
He recently was cleared by his cardiologist to participate on the school’s varsity track and field team as a shot put and discus thrower; the movements were deemed low-impact enough for someone with a pacemaker.
Given his size and strength, Mazzeo has shown to be a natural at both.
At a recent quad meet, he placed sixth overall in shot put (10.55 meters) and ninth overall in discus (25.77 meters), respectively.
“I’m happy I was cleared to do shot and discus,” said Mazzeo.
Besides his continued involvement in sports, Mazzeo also is working to raise awareness about heart health throughout school.
He encourages his classmates to get heart screenings and to understand the importance of learning CPR.
“I think it’s good to get screened, to get tested for just anything in general,” Mazzeo said. “Even if you’re an athlete, you never know.”
Meantime, Mazzeo remains thankful the incident took place at school.
He sometimes reflects he could’ve been any place alone when his heart stopped.
“I’m very fortunate that it happened in the right place, with the right people around to help me,” Mazzeo said. “Because I work out at home, I work out at the gym, usually there’s no one with me or there’s no medical devices around, so I’m very lucky and fortunate it happened here at school.”
Published February 27, 2019