The Cleveland Crunch wanted to draft Simon Keith, but first there were a couple of questions the newest team in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) wanted to ask him. So at a luncheon the day before the college soccer all-star game, in Wichita, Kans., last July 7, Al Miller, the Crunch's general manager, introduced himself to Keith, a 24-year-old forward from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Then Miller backed into the questions: "The word is that you had some kind of heart problem."
"Yeah," Keith said.
"What was it?" asked Miller.
December 4, 1989
"Uh, now what exactly does that mean, Simon?"
Keith pointed to his chest and said, "One out and one in."
Keith is a sincere young man from a respected family in Victoria, B.C., but people seem to have a difficult time believing his story. When a scout, coach or player says "the word" is that Keith has had a heart transplant, listeners are apt to snicker, nod and say, "Yeah, right." Sometimes even a glimpse of the thick scar that runs down the center of Keith's chest isn't enough to convince skeptics that the heart beating inside the chest of one of the best soccer players in the U.S. has been there for only three years.
Keith told Miller about the transplant only because he had asked. Afterward, Miller said, "You are one amazing person." Keith, who has grown a little weary of amazing other people, replied, "I'd rather be one amazing soccer player." Miller smiled and walked away. "Then I thought about that and turned around," he says. "I went up to him again and said, 'You are.' I decided then that we had to have him." On July 8, three years and one day after his heart transplant operation, the Crunch picked Keith No. 1 in the first round of the 1989 draft.
"Athletically speaking, there's no reason why he can't resume his normal life-style," says Dr. Noel Chant, Keith's cardiologist in Victoria. "But we are a little surprised that Simon has been able to function at the level he has."
The greatest medical danger for someone with a transplant is that the body will reject the foreign organ. But because rejection usually occurs within a year after the operation, that risk is now very small for Keith. The complication that doctors fear most in his case is kidney damage from the three drugs he will have to take twice a day for the rest of his life to stave off rejection. His blood is tested every few months to determine whether these powerful drugs are doing more harm than good. Another potential complication is that since these drugs inhibit the immune system, he is especially susceptible to infection.
Heart-transplant patients have run marathons and returned to stressful jobs, but Keith is the first to play a professional sport. Dr. Arnie Melby—one of the team physicians for Cleveland—says, "We treat him like anybody else on the team. Only he's in better shape than most of them."
Still, it doesn't take much of a cynic to suggest that perhaps somebody at an expansion franchise thought a soccer player with a heart transplant would be an excellent drawing card. But Keith is no publicity stunt. The Crunch could not afford to waste the first pick in the draft on a mediocre player. Keith was the best player in Wichita. At 5'8" and 170 pounds, he's built for the indoor game, with quick feet and a knack for finding seams in the defense. On Oct. 7 he scored the second goal in Crunch history when he sneaked behind a defender during an exhibition game at Richfield Coliseum and, before the defender could recover, pounded a shot into the upper-right corner of the net.
In spite of all the publicity Keith has attracted, the team is surely taking a public relations risk. If Keith were to collapse during practice or in a game, the Crunch would be viewed not as the team that gave him an opportunity to play but as the team that exploited him. The Crunch anticipated that it might be charged with using Keith as a publicity stunt. In Wichita before the all-star game, Miller tracked Keith down at his hotel and told him that the team was going to pick him first. Keith was relieved because he had a charley horse and wasn't sure he could play. Miller told him that he didn't have to worry about that now, and then he jokingly told Keith to go out and win the MVP. That evening, Keith scored one goal, assisted on two others and was named offensive MVP.
No one can doubt Keith's soccer pedigree or his ability. His father, David, played for a semipro team in England in the '50s and was assistant coach of the Canadian team in 1982. Simon started playing when he was four, and after competing for Millwall—then a third-division team in England—for a year after high school, he was offered one of 16 spots on the Canadian development team. The team trains in Victoria, so Simon lived at home and enrolled at the University of Victoria in September '84.
That fall he caught what he thought was a cold. He was named All-Canada while playing for the university team, but he tired easily. By December, with his symptoms lingering into a third month, Keith realized he was dealing with more than a runny nose. "I was at [University of British Columbia] practice and I was freezing, so I had my hands in my pockets," he says. "The coach yelled at me to take them out. When I did, they were pure white." A few minutes later the coach chewed him out again for having his hands in his pockets. "I didn't even know I had put them back in there," he says. The coach called Keith aside and told him that he had a bad attitude.
Convinced that his problem was physiological rather than emotional, Simon and his father consulted a doctor, who told them, "Simon's stress level is too high and his energy level too low." The Keiths looked at each other. Simon says, "We were both thinking, Listen to this crap."
Keith took a month off. When he didn't improve, he had himself checked out by, a doctor at Vancouver General Hospital. A biopsy showed that his heart had been damaged by a virus. The disease, called viral myocarditis, had destroyed part of his heart muscle, and the heart could not pump blood efficiently—thus, his fatigue. Keith was put on prednisone (a corticosteroid, a different type of steroid from those used by some athletes to build muscle mass) to reduce the swelling of the heart muscle.
The medicine worked so well that Keith returned to the team and again earned All-Canada honors. He was labeled a miracle boy in Victoria. But as he was being weaned from the steroids, his symptoms returned. By February 1986 he was back at Vancouver General. Keith says, "They did another biopsy and the doctors said, 'That's it. Your heart is too damaged. You need a transplant or you're dead.' "
In April he was sent to the biggest transplant center in Canada, University Hospital in London, Ont. Like all candidates for a transplant, Keith had to be evaluated. He was under the impression that the better he performed—the healthier he appeared to be—the sooner he would receive a transplant. So he hopped on a treadmill and ran seven miles. The doctors sent him home and told him to come back in three months, when he would be nearer death. "I know they have priorities," says Keith. "But you don't think about that when it's you. You think, Why wait until I'm as sick as that guy? Give it to me."
The Keiths then heard about a doctor in London who had developed a treatment for myocarditis that didn't involve a transplant. Because Simon had been born in Lewes, England, the National Health Service medical system of Great Britain would pay for his treatment.
But when Professor John Goodwin examined Keith, he decided that too much of his heart had been destroyed for the treatment to be successful, and instead sent Keith to Dr. Terence English, a transplant surgeon at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge. English examined Keith and said to him, "If you want one, we'll give you one."
The transplant could be performed only if Keith was completely free of the steroids he was taking, so while he waited for a donor, he was taken off them. During the next 21 days, his kidneys and liver began to fail. All he remembers about those three weeks was the World Cup final, won by Argentina 3-2 over West Germany, on June 29.
On July 6, a 17-year-old boy died of a brain hemorrhage while playing soccer in Wales. His heart was transplanted into Keith's chest the next day. While it is the hospital's policy to keep a donor's identity from the recipient, the Keiths learned where Simon's new heart had come from through relatives in the boy's hometown. There was an article about his death on the front page of the local newspaper and, a few inches away on the same page, one about Simon's transplant. Though English confirmed the identity of the donor, the Keiths have never contacted the boy's family.
"What's the shortest time anyone's been in the hospital after one of these?" were Simon's first words after he regained consciousness. His health improved immediately, and for the first time in months he could feel his fingers and toes.
Two-and-a-half months later, Keith returned to Canada a celebrity. Before the operation, the story of the dying soccer star had been all over the Victoria newspapers and local television. Marathons and dances were held to raise money to send to England. "The community adopted him," says David, who's a phys ed teacher at a junior secondary school in Victoria.
Simon was grateful for the community's support, but the demands of being a celebrity were beginning to weigh on him. "The media in Victoria was driving me crazy," he says. "Everyone knew about the transplant because I was a soccer player. They raised money for me, and they were great. But it became bigger than it should've been. I'd go out and want to have a beer and there would be somebody there saying that I shouldn't."
That fall, Keith transferred to UNLV, where his older brother, Adam, played midfield on the soccer team. Simon signed up for the team as well. He also signed a waiver that released the university from any liability should something happen to him. And he reassured coach Barry Barto by saying, "Look, if I die, I die. But I won't, I promise you."
Keith was named all-Big West in both his years at UNLV and, after his senior season, he was chosen the conference's student-athlete of the year. In April he was invited to the Wichita all-star game, reserved for the top 30 seniors in the country.
After Keith convinced Miller that it was possible for someone to have a heart transplant and play soccer, Miller told the Crunch's majority owner, George Hoffman, that Keith was the player he wanted. Hoffman turned the matter over to professionals. "My doctors and his doctors talked," says Hoffman. "We have a stack two feet high of reports from doctors and lawyers."
Keith's contract with the Crunch is no different from that of any other rookie, except for the matter of his health care. David Keith, who represented his son in the negotiations, was primarily concerned that in case of a medical emergency, Simon would be transferred to a Canadian hospital so that any treatment would be paid for by national health insurance. The Crunch's big concern was that in case of a medical emergency, the team would not be held liable. Both got what they wanted.
To say that Keith doesn't dwell on his transplant is an understatement; he barely acknowledges it. His girlfriend, Kelly Dempers, still wouldn't know how close Keith had come to dying if one of his friends hadn't told her about the transplant. Joe Koziol is Keith's roommate and best friend on the team, yet neither has mentioned the transplant to the other. While watching Keith run a few miles during a soccer game, it's difficult for anyone who knows about the operation not to be concerned. Still, Dempers isn't worried. "He's doing what he loves doing most in the world: playing soccer," she says. "He knows his limitations. He just doesn't have any."