Photo by Jason Mussell / Back from the brink of death, Eagle’s Landing’s star senior Eric Wortham Jr. has unfinished business — helping the Golden Eagles win a state championship.
McDONOUGH — It was just a dream. No, a nightmare. It had to be. What else jolts you awake at 2 a.m. in a sweat and panicked, wondering whether the casket you were walking toward contained ...
No, Joe Teknipp couldn’t look. He had to wake up.
“I didn’t want it to be Eric,” said Teknipp, the head football coach at Eagle’s Landing.
Teknipp couldn’t have known that at the same time, Eric Wortham Jr. was waking up at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to find his father, Eric Sr., pinning him to his hospital bed to make sure the 6-foot-6, 220-pound senior basketball star didn’t rip away the tubes and cords monitoring his every breath and heart beat.
With a few blinks, Wortham Jr.’s world came back into focus. He saw his father, the head of the Emotional Behavior Disorder department at Henry County Middle School trying to keep his own emotions together as he held Wortham Jr. firmly to the bed. He saw his mother, Wanda, who had already lost herself in prayer and tears, nearby.
Everything else was still a blur — how Wortham Jr. had left the house that Friday, March 2, 2012, morning asking for $3 to buy a chicken biscuit and by 11:30 a.m. was laying on the Eagle’s Landing cafeteria floor unconscious, eyes rolled up into his head, veins popping out of his skin, kids standing on tables watching as substitute lunch ladies then assistant principals then Teknipp tried to keep Wortham Jr. alive in time for paramedics to arrive.
“All I remember is I had some little shorts I was going to wear to practice,” Wortham Jr. said. “I put them in my bag. I walked to lunch. Next thing you know I’m waking up and my dad is trying to hold me down. And I was like, “Whoa ...”
As the Golden Eagles embark on another state tournament run trying to build off of unprecedented back-to-back state semifinals appearances, they’re reminded how close Wortham Jr. came almost one year ago to missing this final shot at making school and county history.
As Wortham Jr. finally started to make sense of things that night, sparks flew in his brain.
“What is today?,” Wortham Jr. said. “Saturday? Oh, I got a game! We got to go, got to go!”
But Wortham Jr. wasn’t going anywhere. They told Wortham Jr. he couldn’t play in Eagle’s Landing’s quarterfinals game against Crisp County.
“Why can’t I play,” Wortham Jr. asked.
He wouldn’t like the answer.
The blur didn’t go away; it just expanded.
Soon Wortham Jr. went through all sorts of tests at CHOA that returned mysterious results — nothing was wrong with Wortham Jr. Doctors started him off with a stress test, a light walk on the treadmill. Wortham Jr. ran it instead. There was no scar tissue on his heart. No irregular beats. No red flags.
“They kept telling us his heart was perfect,” Eric Sr. said.
Just days before, Eric Sr. had been walking down the street in the opposite direction of Henry County Middle School waiting for Vincent Rosser, head boys basketball coach at Henry County High, to pick him up. Wortham Jr.’s coach, Clay Crump, had called in the middle of class to tell him something was wrong with Eric, that Teknipp had used the school’s defibrillator on Eric, sending a shock to his heart with the force to lift the muscular forward eight inches off the ground.
Wortham Sr. knew what that meant.
“We don’t use the [defibrillator] unless the heart stops,” Wortham Sr. said.
Wortham Sr. bolted, only to realize he didn’t have a ride. Wortham Jr. had taken his mom’s car to school. His wife had dropped him off that morning.
So Wortham Sr. just kept walking. He needed space to think. He needed time to process what he might see so that when he did, he wouldn’t panic. He’d come up through the Atlanta high school basketball ranks; Wortham Sr. was known for holding it together during the family’s toughest moments.
Then he saw his son, the reigning Henry Daily Herald Henry County Boys Player of the Year, the reigning Region 4-AAA Player of the Year, the kid who transcended high school cliques and helped redefine what was possible in county basketball, who’d never had so much as a cold, appear lifeless on a hospital bed at Henry Medical Center.
“I’d never seen my son in a situation like that,” Wortham Sr. said. “It kind of got to us.”
Now, here was Wortham Jr. walking around CHOA, playing Time Spinners 2 on Playstation, watching video of Eagle’s Landing’s 68-66 overtime victory against Crisp County, going through more and more tests, waiting and waiting for an answer.
Doctors had only one answer — to call it an anomalous event, put an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator in his chest and deliver news that made even the man in charge, Dr. Peter Fischbach, stutter.
“That’s when he was like, ‘Uh, we’re going to have to insert a defibrillator,’” Wortham Jr. said. “’And with the defibrillator, you’re’ — and he kept taking forever — ‘you won’t be able to play basketball again.’
“I don’t remember much after that.”
‘It’s going to work out’
Now the blur is overwhelming, suffocating. It’s wrapped Wortham Jr. up in the unthinkable. It’s threatening to take away the sport Wortham Sr. started teaching Wortham Jr. so young, the vision Wortham Sr. had for him and teammates Desmond Ringer and Isaiah Dennis when they formed an AAU team in fifth grade to bring Henry County its first Georgia High School Association boys basketball state championship.
This blur wasn’t going away gradually. The Worthams had to attack it.
Just to leave the hospital took Wortham Sr. calling another teammate’s father who was a doctor who knew the right lawyers to pressure Children’s. They gladly signed a waiver relieving Children’s of responsibility.
The next step wasn’t so certain. They left Children’s determined but rudderless.
Until Dennis came to the Worthams one night. He’d seen what everyone else had seen but no one had brought to the Worthams’ attention — that a female friend had playfully jabbed Wortham Jr. in the chest two or three times mere seconds before Wortham Jr. collapsed.
Armed with this clue and a new doctor, Dr. David S. Cannom, the director of cardiology at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles and founder of Los Angeles Cardiology Associates, the Worthams finally got an answer.
The Worthams flew out to meet Cannom and let him conduct his own tests. Cannom sent the results to a colleague to be reviewed, and the prognosis was clear — Wortham Jr.’s unexpected seizure and cardiac arrest was caused by commotio cordis, a disruption of heart rhythm from a blow to the chest area directly over the heart at a distinct point during the cycle of a heart beat.
Wortham Jr. would still need an ICD, but he would be able to play basketball.
“We know sometimes things look worse than they are,” Wortham Sr. said. “We just held to faith and said, It’s going to work out, it’s going to work out.”
‘I owe them’
What blur? After Wortham Jr. has the ICD implanted, the blur is dissipating in just a few weeks.
First he’s working out at Eagle’s Landing’s gymnasium with Crump just trying not to feel gassed after running up and down the court.
Soon he’s pushing the limit during workouts with Wortham Sr., following one-hour-and-a-half sessions by doing bleachers on the football field — home and away side — followed by another two miles around the track.
Soon he’s scoring 14 points in his first game back at an AAU tournament with the Georgia Stars in California, catching a pass and nailing a jumper; running the court, finding an open spot for another catch-and-shoot; driving past his defender for an easy lay-up; getting a steal and converting a three-point play at the other end.
“I felt like I had to prove a point to the doctors,” Wortham Jr. said. “Honestly, I still do. I will until the day I die.”
Where is the blur now as Wortham Jr. runs the floor like a small forward, knifes passes through traffic like a point guard, nails 3-pointers like a shooting guard, rebounds like a power forward and makes decisions like a coach?
No, there’s no more blur. Wortham Jr. has a clarity he can’t shake, that he doesn’t want to shake. He’s passing up chances to score to help his teammates succeed. He’s thanking his mom for simple things like filling up his car with gas. He’s making the sign of the cross before he prays. He’s taking initiative to complete seemingly mundane tasks he used to put off.
And Wortham Jr.’s ready begin a quest to bring Eagle’s Landing and the county the championship it’s never won. Not for himself, but for the assistant principals and teachers and former coaches and teammates and friends who flooded the visiting rooms at Henry Medical Center and Children’s that Friday almost one year ago. Who wrote Wortham Jr. nearly 500 letters that he keeps in a bag by his bed for those nights after a bad game when he needs to get his mind right. Who kept his family fed during those harrowing days and sent Bible verses to recite.
“Now, I don’t want to win a state championship for me,” Wortham Jr. said. “I want to win it, because we should have won one already, but especially for Coach Crump, [assistant] coach [Elliot] Montgomery, even [assistant] coach [Luke] Smith.
“And especially for the school. I feel like I owe them a championship. If I don’t, what was the point? I did nothing.”