First in a series on the challenges of state athletes and their families.
There’s something wrong with Thomas! It is the only sentence the coach really remembers. There’s something wrong with Thomas! After that, things began to blur, kids and adults, doctors and nurses, belief and disbelief, life and death.
There’s something wrong with Thomas! It was the day after Thanksgiving, and a half-dozen Detroit prep teams were playing a six-way scrimmage in the Denby High School gym. Six teams, two courts, 20 kids at a time, the cacophony of squeaking sneakers and pounding balls and teenaged yelling and suddenly, in the middle of all that, this: Thomas Winfrey, a 15-year-old East Catholic sophomore who already towered over most grown men, was lying in the bleachers, flat on his back, gasping for air. He had made a weird noise, someone said, as if he were laughing.
Then everything stopped.
There’s something wrong with Thomas! Dave Soules, his white-haired coach, came racing into the crowd. In his three decades of coaching, this had never happened. He tried to talk to his player. He asked him what was wrong. He told him to hang on, EMS was on its way. The balls had stopped bouncing and the sneakers had stopped squeaking and now dozens of teenaged boys were watching something they should never have to watch.
Another coach began CPR. Breathe in. Breathe out. The ambulance came. The medics, according to Soules, laid Thomas on the gym floor and tried resuscitation. Then they wheeled him to the emergency vehicle, and players and coaches jumped in cars and followed to St. John Hospital.
Even to that moment, no one really knew what happened, that the boy’s heart, enlarged to almost twice a normal size, had gone into some kind of arrest, that the short, laughing sound he had made before falling over was the beginning of the attack, that he was not coming back, not to the scrimmage, not to the team, not to his family.
You couldn’t miss Thomas Winfrey, friends said. He stood out. He was nearly 6-feet-6, and he was always smiling and squeezing into those small school desks. You couldn’t miss him. But now, at the hospital, he was behind closed doors, and a nurse appeared and took Soules aside — at 64 years old, he seemed to be the one in charge — and she told him something that he still cannot believe, that Thomas “didn’t make it.” That he was dead.
And then the boy’s parents arrived and Soules was stunned and his players were stunned and at one point, with the nurse’s permission, they entered the room to say good-bye. And there was Thomas, on a gurney, looking like he was sleeping. He was just this big kid — “T-Sport” was his nickname — this big, smart, soft-spoken kid who a blink ago was playing in a basketball scrimmage.
(“He was still wearing his uniform,” Soules says. “No. 55, the biggest number for the biggest kid.”) Only now the kid was without breath in a hospital bed, as if someone had fast-forwarded his life 70 years. Children don’t die of heart attacks, old people do, right?
Wrong. One by one, the East Catholic players approached the body, to say good-bye to a teammate, and farewell to childhood.
The season must go on
Dave Soules blows a whistle and his Chargers players go into motion. One kid makes a defensive mistake and Soules blows the whistle again. They stop.
“Hold up, hold up! . . . Guys, all you have to do is not move. Don’t move! It’s not that hard, not moving. Is it?”
Well, yes and no. Soules himself has not moved much. He has been coaching at East Catholic, in this building, in this gym, for more than 30 years. He looks like an old high school coach, a little stooped, keys around his neck, sneakers with his khakis. Thirty-plus years of teaching and discipline and, on occasion, state championships. But this, he says — recovering from a death of a player — there is nothing like this. Thomas was in his first year on varsity. He hadn’t even played an official game yet. He played maybe 10 minutes in that scrimmage. He was just . . . a child.
“When it happens, you want to crawl and hide under a blanket. But you can’t. They told me the best thing for the kids is to get back in the routine. So we practiced.”
On the first day back, Soules addressed his players. He told them to focus “on the good things about Thomas,” the way he “took care of his business,” the way he studied, the way he stayed out of trouble. They could honor their teammate, he said, by being like him.
And still, the gym seemed too quiet. They went through drills, “but it was like they were playing with a 50-pound pack on their back.”
You want to freeze time. Go back to your innocence. But standing still is harder than it looks.
The pictures of health
There is no sure answer for what happened to Thomas Winfrey. The autopsy report cited “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy” and said his enlarged heart had scar tissue. His condition could have been congenital; he could have been a ticking bomb. He had passed a physical several weeks earlier. He had been fine to that point. And then, suddenly, gone.
His mother is still too upset to speak much about it. “This is a difficult time,” she said, when reached. Soules recalls when his younger brother, “thin as a rail, in great shape,” dropped dead of a brain aneurysm at age 56. At that time, Soules says, 56 was “too young to die.”
Now “too young” has been redefined.
You watch the East Catholic players go through practice, shirts versus skins, their bodies slick with sweat, their underwear protruding from baggy sweats. They are tall and muscled and seem to lack an ounce of body fat. The pictures of health.
But there is another picture of health, on the wall in the East Catholic hallway, a self-portrait cartoon drawn in art class by Thomas Winfrey. It is a young man in a basketball outfit, built like a superhero, small waist, broad shoulders, big biceps. Above the drawing are the words “basketball is my life.”
How long ago did he draw that? A few months? A lifetime?
Back in the gym, Soules blows the whistle, says a few words, and dismisses his team. He rubs his white hair, and watches his players pull their coats on and head into the winter chill.
“When I was their age,” he says, “I thought tomorrow was forever.”
Nothing is forever. There’s something wrong with Thomas. If there is any lesson here, it is that that sentence can come at any time, to anyone, young or old. The East Catholic Chargers have a game tonight, against Detroit DePorres. They have one fewer player on the team. You couldn’t miss Thomas Winfrey. But they all do.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).