TIFFIN, Ohio – Steve and Sherri Donnellon were all smiles standing in the cold rain at Heidelberg University Monday afternoon. I’m not sure if they consciously realized it.
Their son, Andrew, is an 18-year-old freshman kicker on the Bluffton University junior varsity football team. The game starts well for the Beavers, who take a 7-0 lead with a touchdown and extra point in the first quarter. Andrew doesn’t get to kick the extra point – he told sophomore Dylan Mann that Mann could take the first rotation of kicks even though Mann offered to go second – but he follows the score with a kickoff. It’s a designed squib kick that Heidelberg handles in the wet conditions.
That will be Andrew’s only action of the game. Heidelberg ends up running away with the victory, allowing just that one touchdown.
Still, in the cold rain, there are a lot of smiles from the Donnellons. How can they not smile?
Andrew Donnellon was born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. It’s a congenital defect in which the left ventricle, the larger of the heart’s two pumping chambers, doesn’t properly develop in utero and cannot perform its normal function of pushing oxygen-rich blood out to the rest of the body. In essence, Andrew was born with half a heart.
Before Andrew was four years old he had undergone three open heart surgeries, a staged series of operations pioneered by Dr. William Norwood in the early 1980s that re-routes the flow of blood and allows the heart to function with just one working ventricle.
Prior to Dr. Norwood’s work, parents whose children were born with HLHS had just one option: home comfort care until the baby passed away, which usually occurred within the first month following birth.
Why wouldn’t the Donnellons be smiling after driving 190 miles from their home in Cincinnati to watch their son make one squib kickoff in the cold rain of North Central Ohio?
“I’ve got a new hobby,” said Steve Donnellon about the travels he and his wife had made to watch Andrew. “We wish he’d get more play time but I’m happy with what he’s got. I’m surprised with how much he’s gotten.”
THE TIN MAN
Andrew Donnellon has been surprising people his whole life. Doctors told the Donnellons that Andrew would never be able to play sports. The heart just wouldn’t be able to handle the extra stress involved in such strenuous activities. Andrew started playing soccer for his grade school team because they needed some more bodies. He was a defender and played in short stints, coming out when he needed to catch his breath and regroup.
By the time he was a freshman at Purcell Marian High School – his classmates quickly nicknamed him Tin Man upon hearing his story – he had built up his stamina and endurance and could play striker. The Tin Man scored goals.
Andrew is among the first generation of HLHS patients who have grown into adulthood. When he was born in 1995 his parents were told their son would have a 50 percent chance of reaching adulthood if they chose the surgical route. Andrew’s procedures were performed at the Cleveland Clinic by Dr. Roger Mee, who pioneered a modified Norwood procedure in the first stage surgery.
The first time I met Andrew was August 2012. He told me then: “Isn’t there a 50 percent chance for everything?”
Andrew began kicking footballs two years ago. His soccer days ended after his freshman year but one of his friends, Hunter Kohls, had been trying to get him to join the football team for some time as a kicker. One of Purcell Marian’s games was on TV and Andrew was watching the Cavaliers play. An extra point attempt went awry. It went really awry.
Andrew texted Kohls after that game and told him he was in.
All he had to do was convince Purcell Marian coach Brian Miller that he was serious. Plus get the okay from his parents and medical clearance. Steve and Sherri were always supportive of letting Andrew try what he wanted to try, to test his limits. Andrew’s cardiologist, Dr. Timothy Knilans of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, gave him the medical okay.
Now Andrew works on getting better at kicking the ball off the ground. He uses the same short rotation of his upper body that Bengals kicker Mike Nugent deploys before his kicks to achieve a rhythm and balance. In high school, Andrew could use a tee. He’s learning all over again how to kick.
“We’re extremely happy with him,” said Lou Stokes, who is Bluffton’s assistant head coach and works directly with the kickers. Stokes is a 39-year coaching veteran and a Vietnam veteran who has been awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
“I like his attitude probably more than anything,” said Stokes. “He appears to be happy and appreciative of the opportunity he’s got. Not phenomenal expectations but he’s just a happy young guy. When you talk to him, he smiles all of the time. You try to give him some instructions, he’s very receptive. He’s just a joy to be around. His ego is not a situation or anything like that. He’s just such a pleasant kid. He smiles a lot.”
Steve and Sherri Donnellon were concerned about their son when he left for school and for preseason training camp. What parent doesn’t worry about their kid going away to college? But Andrew had more to do than just take on full responsibility of doing his own laundry, getting his own meals, making sure he makes it to his classes and keeping up on all of his studies.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one percent of all births in the United States have some form of congenital heart defect. The CDC estimates that HLHS affects one in every 4,344 babies born in the county. A white paper published last year by the Journal of American College of Cardiology states that 70 percent of babies born with HLHS will reach adulthood, as Andrew has.
Where his parents and family were around the past 18 years to make sure he got to doctor appointments and always kept up with his medications, that’s Andrew’s responsibility now. He takes a blood pressure medication, Lisinopril, and a blood thinner, Coumadin. He has to have routine blood tests, which are set up at a local Bluffton hospital.
Andrew has always known, always embraced his condition, but there is something more to it now that he’s reached adulthood.
“With the Internet I think he pulled up some scary things, but you do have to tell him how things look and that is different. You’re an adult now,” said Sherri Donnellon. “I don’t think he really knew the entire makeup of how things worked… it just was.”
Yet while he’s on his own, he’s hardly alone. Kohls is a freshman quarterback and Andrew’s roommate at Bluffton.
“It kind of just worked out this way because he didn’t know if he’d be able to play college football after high school,” said Kohls. “When he knew he could play college football I guess we wanted to go to the same school together and play on the same college team, continue it.”
The nickname Tin Man has spread from Purcell Marian to Bluffton.
“All of the guys on the team and those on his floor, whether they’re on the team or not, refer to him as Tin Man,” said Bluffton head coach Tyson Veidt.
FAMILY OF 150
Veidt knew nothing about HLHS or that Andrew lived with the condition until the Donnellons had made a couple of visits to Bluffton. Sherri broached the subject in an e-mail to Veidt, sending along an article from the Cincinnati Enquirer about Andrew among other items to help explain the situation.
“I wrote him a note that said so that Andrew’s feelings weren’t hurt and he didn’t feel that he was being duped, this is what we’re dealing with and if you don’t want to actively recruit anymore we’ll understand,” said Sherri. “No hard feelings.”
There were no hard feelings to be had.
“It was the complete opposite of having reservations just because of his intestinal fortitude,” said Veidt. “Those are the type of people you want in your college football program. It only encouraged us more to hopefully land him here, to have a great person of great character and work ethic. It’s all the things you talk about and use as examples. He exhibits those values on a daily basis.”
When Andrew received an e-mail from Veidt later the same night Sherri had sent her e-mail, unbeknownst to her son, it pretty much sealed the deal of where he would be going to college.
“I like that it’s a family-oriented atmosphere. There’s not too many people and everyone tends to know everyone. And, with the football team, everyone has your back,” said Andrew. “I’ve got a lot of people looking out for me. I went from a family of six to now 150. There are a lot of people that if anything happened to me they’d be there for me.”
Bluffton is a Division III school playing in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference. At 1-6, it’s been a tough season for the Beavers. Andrew dresses for the varsity games at home. He’s hopeful he can improve over the coming years to do more than just put on pads, jersey and helmet for the varsity. It’s not a given, just the same as it’s no given that any linebacker, defensive back or quarterback who played for the JV this year will one day play for the varsity.
HLHS is one thing that is not holding Andrew Donnellon back.
“Even if it’s Division III, it’s no joke and you take it very seriously,” said Andrew. “I think I’ve got enough potential to, hopefully next year, get some kicks on varsity. I know in high school I lifted all summer and I got increasingly better. I know I definitely can. I’m just getting used to kicking off the ground. I think this offseason is going to be the time for me to step up and hit the gym and see what I can bring next year.”