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St. Joe's Prep grieves over sudden death of young player

After Ryan Gillyard died of a heart condition in April, Hawks won't let player's death be in vain.

THE PICTURES, like the faces and the people, have been collected through time. They line the rim of a short oak bureau, covering a coaching odyssey that began in North Jersey, passed through 19 years of myriad backroads and midnight car rides home,

and successfully settled here in Philadelphia, where in six years, Gabe Infante has done things no other football coach at

St. Joseph's Prep has accomplished.

Amid the mementos of consecutive state championships that fill his cramped office, his special collection of dusty "Star Wars" figurines that sit on a shelf, emotional candids of him hugging family, players and coaches, one image resonates above the others. It's a freshly taped portrait behind his desk of a smiling freshman, down on one knee in a gray jersey and a football tucked under his arm. It's the kind of photo that follows you, which, years from now, someone who doesn't know might ask about.

Infante will glance over his left shoulder and tell them the story of Ryan Gillyard - a promising, motivated 15-year-old with a work ethic and vision beyond his years. He'll tell them about Ryan's dream to one day play Division I football and whose life was truncated before he ever got a chance to really live it.

Maybe someday Infante can fill in the rest of the story of how the unthinkable galvanized a young team to do something many doubted they could do and threepeat as PIAA Class AAAA state champions. Real-life movie stuff.

It's a narrative yet to be determined.

In the meantime, Jeff Gillyard, Ryan's father, can't bring himself to watch a football game. Infante can hardly bring himself to glance at the photo behind his desk, and Tim Roken and John Connors walk around with sullen, sunken eyes, unable to think back on that day.

A father, a head coach, two assistant coaches and a whole football community were numbed by the death of Ryan Gillyard on Saturday, April 18, while doing a simple rope drill after a water break at Temple's practice facility. Ryan died of sudden cardiac arrest, attributed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office determined Wednesday.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the single-most common condition responsible for these tragedies, is a genetic condition that often goes undiagnosed, according to the Mayo Clinic. It comes from a gradual thickening of the heart muscle that can cause shortness of breath, chest pain or abnormal heart rhythms.

Months after his death, the blank expressions and visceral guilt remain as the staff and team at the Prep attempt to move forward and somehow make sense of the senseless.

"You can't," said Infante, who was on a coach's retreat that weekend in Ocean City, Md., when he received the call about Gillyard. "It's why I want him here; I want his picture next to me. Wherever I am, wherever I'll be, he will always be on a wall in my office. It's a scar that's there and will never go away."

For three weeks after it happened, Infante did nothing. He didn't eat, didn't watch TV. He didn't want to talk to anyone. He shut down. He even wondered whether he wanted to coach anymore.

"It came across my mind. I blame myself - we all blame ourselves," Infante said. "You can't help but feel responsible, even after medically and scientifically they tell you there is nothing you could have done. You can't help but think you have so much ability to impact a moment. It's the illusion of a coach; it's the illusion that you have more control over things than you really do. Ryan was a special kid whose impact was beyond football. It's something that touched the whole school.

"There is an amount of shame that comes from it. You're not supposed to lose a player on your watch. I spoke to other coaches about it. I know there's nothing I could have done, but I can't help but feel I could have done something if I was there. I've said to people you never think today is the day that you're not going to be able to return a child to his parents. You don't think like that as a coach. It changes you; it changes who you are. Like everything in life, it's an experience you have to process and how that becomes a part of you. Ryan will forever be a part of me and this program."

In the previous five years, Infante's teams have gone 4-7, 7-4, 10-1 and 12-3, leading to Prep's first state title in 2013, and then 11-3 and another state title in 2014. The Hawks return arguably the best player in the state in junior tailback D'Andre Swift, but lose a wealth of Division I talent to graduation, such as John Reid (Penn State), Jon Daniel Runyan (Michigan) and Olamide Zaccheaus (Virginia).

Compounding the dearth in experience is overcoming the Gillyard loss.

"So many things run through your head," Infante said. "Not being there bothered me. Not being there for my coaches, and my players. I worried about them. Not being there was bad in its own right, because you start imagining things. That's the guilt that I'm going to have for the rest of my life. All of our coaches carry their own guilt, but my guilt is that I should have been there. I could have done something about it. If nothing else, to protect my assistant coaches from going through it.

"I called my wife and we went to go see the Gillyards, Shannon and Jeff. That was very difficult, one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Then you go about living day by day, moment by moment. You live every moment very intensely, and try to get to the next moment and be very present for everybody that's hurting and trying to make sense of the senseless. You try to wrap that up in faith for people and try to love people. For me, I was a battery. I allowed people to hook themselves into me and keep going as long as I could. Every day for the kids and the staff, it gets better."

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, an April 2012 study estimated that an average of 2,000 young adults under age 25 will die of sudden cardiac arrest each year, though the actual number might not be totally clear, because statistics are inexact.

Infante and the Prep football program are trying to do something about that, both for Ryan and for others. On Saturday, Nov. 7, St. Joe's Prep is providing electrocardiograms for its students. EKGs have an 80 to 85 percent accuracy rate in detecting heart abnormalities, according to experts. St. Joe's Prep is partnering with Simon's Fund, a nonprofit based in Lafayette Hill, Pa., undertaken by Darren Sudman, co-founder of Simon's Fund, with his wife, Phyllis. Those tests regularly run about $1,500 and aren't always covered by insurance.

The Sudmans lost their 3-month-old son, Simon, on Jan. 24, 2005, likely because of sudden cardiac arrest, though Simon's death certificate states he died of natural causes. In 2010, at Sycamore High School (Ohio), Sudman's alma mater, an 18-year-old swimmer named Jose Cerda Navarro died after practice from what was reported as a "cardiac event," though his death certificate states the cause of death was drowning.

On Aug. 6 of this year, a 14-year-old girl named Alison Brown collapsed and died at Southern Guilford High School, in North Carolina, while trying out for the cross-country team.

Sudman noted that there have been three additional deaths since then.

"It's a typical story of a child who had an undetected heart condition; you shake your head and ask yourself a lot of questions, because there's no way to get around it," Darren Sudman said. "I've met with lots of families who have been through the situation. We were fortunate to be surrounded by an unbelievable community, and fortunate to have a daughter. It's the healing power of another child. Sally was 2 when Simon died. You can't pull down the window shade and cry for the rest of your life. Children force you to laugh and force you to move forward.

"Most people might think getting fired from a job, or losing a parent, could be the most adverse conditions you could go through. The fact that you never expect to bury a child . . . it does test you like nothing else. When the time is right, I would like to meet Ryan's family. You can't quantify what the loss is. Hopefully, I can speak with Ryan's parents and they can come to our heart screening when we go to the Prep on Nov. 7."

On May 29, 2012, Pennsylvania adopted the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Prevention Act, requiring parents of student-athletes in public schools to read and sign an acknowledgement form before their child participates in sports. It also requires coaches to complete an annual training course on sudden cardiac arrest, and to remove from a game players who exhibit warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest and to keep them out until they are cleared by a licensed medical professional.

"I think people would be surprised by the number of cases we see sudden cardiac arrest," said Dr. Brian McDonough, medical editor at KYW Newsradio for over 25 years. "With the medical knowledge we have, you see these kids and see all of these different cases, you think there is something that can be done, certainly because of the age group. We just don't expect it.

"But look at the statistics when it happens. Two-thirds of the time when this happens, they identify a heart abnormality after the fact. The problem is, in a third of the cases, there is no heart abnormality, but even in the two-thirds of cases, these aren't easy things to pick up. At the high school and collegiate level, this needs to be looked at. There needs to be more empirical evidence. We need be more accurate with a cause of death to build data."

That's the frustration Sudman has felt.

"That's because sudden cardiac arrest is one of the most underreported causes of death in the country among young athletes," he said. "We view that as part of our mission to find the cause of death, to possibly address the matter and get kids tested."

Infante takes a brief look at Ryan's portrait and a vexed expression comes across his face. He knows concussions are the issue du jour. Gillyard never displayed the warning signs of fainting or seizures after practice, according to his coaches and teammates.

Ryan should be enjoying his sophomore year of football. He should be toiling in the sun with his teammates during August scrimmages. He should be laughing and dreaming of someday playing Division I football.

But no one saw this coming, because no one could see it coming. Maybe what happened to Ryan could be the impetus in saving someone's life. It might mean another layer of tests required of teenaged athletes to play high school sports. But the severity of what might occur certainly supersedes the inconvenience and cost involved.

"Everyone wants to talk about concussions and concussion prevention, but this [sudden cardiac arrest] is killing kids," Infante said. "It could happen to anyone. There was a kid that died in gym class 10 miles from where I grew up. Whatever we can do to prevent this from happening again, we're going to continue doing."