Put yourself in his shoes for a minute: you’re a newly graduated, highly-coveted 17-year old football player, about to start your freshmen year of college. You left your native Florida to go play some west coast football for Pete Carroll and the USC Trojans. You have been working out and training hard, dead set on proving that, even if only a freshman, you’re ready to get your feet wet and record some playing time.
You arrive at ‘SC and get to work, setting yourself apart from the rest of your freshmen class. You’re 215 pounds and are clearly one of strongest guys, and your 4.31 40-yard dash time hints at what you are going to do on the field. Academically, your first two classes are a challenge but not too much so, and you start to think that you are really ready for college.
Then one day, your physical results come back and the team doctors are concerned about a heart murmur, but you keep working out and think nothing of it. The doctors are not willing to diagnose you after further tests, as they are not sure if what they think they see is the result of the peak physical shape you’re in, or if it’s…worse. So they put you on a plane and fly you to Minnesota, to see Dr. Barry J. Maron, a world-renown cardiologist.
On the spot Dr. Maron confirms what the USC doctors feared, your worst nightmare that you never even saw coming: you have a heart condition that will prohibit you from ever playing again.
Before it even started, your college career—and professional one, for that matter—is over. Everything you have worked for, your passion, your life, your love—ripped from your hands in the blink of an eye. You tell yourself it’s not real, but the 33-percent chance of dropping dead on the field should you continue to play football tells otherwise.
So you must return to USC—your new home, where you were supposed to embark on new journeys with new teammates—knowing that the future there as you once saw it is over.
What would you do?
Many of you might consider transferring, but the likelihood of another doctor going against the word of Dr. Maron is slim to none. Many of you might walk away from USC just to get away from the place that will always be a constant reminder of where your dreams shockingly blinked away to a reality you weren’t prepared to face. Many of you still might slip into a spiraling depression for a period of time, and really, no one would blame you.
But if you’re Frankie Telfort, you stay the course, become a student coach at USC, and bite the bullet no matter how hard it is to swallow.
Before, Telfort was a student-athlete. After, he was just a regular student, having been sidelined to a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Per the Library of National Medicine, this is a condition where the heart muscles become too thick. Often times, only one part of the heart is thicker than the rest. As a result, the heart has to pump harder so that blood can circulate through the rest of the body, and on the flip side, it can often make it harder for the heart to relax and fill with blood. One would think a condition this serious would come with warning signs, but in most cases, patients go symptom-less. Like in Telfort’s case, many people do not know they even have it until it is detected in a routine physical, or worse, when they suddenly collapse or even die, due to the abnormal heart rhythms.
Telfort had been playing football for most of his 17 years of life, playing with this condition that literally could have killed him at any moment. Of course now, he sees that the detection of the heart murmur saved his life but before, it all but ended it.
“It was a weird transition from being a football player to being a regular student,” Telfort says, reflecting on his freshman year. “Having to watch all my friends in my class go through football, and I had to take a backseat. It was tough.”
Telfort could have walked away from the game entirely after, but he elected to stay on as a student coach, a decision that at times was like pouring salt into an open wound. “The first year was really hard for me because I was learning so much about the game of football and trying to take the backseat as a coach,” he remembers. “The first couple of games were hard, too. Watching everybody play and getting frustrated when a linebacker made a mistake and thinking I could have done better. It’s hard to describe how it felt.”
Still, Telfort never shied away from his decision.
If staying around the game wasn’t a challenge in and of itself, another struggle was his time off the field. For two months Telfort couldn’t lift weights or do intense workouts, as the doctors wanted to monitor his heart. He had a considerable amount of anger and hurt and frustration built up, and didn’t even have the ability to take it out with exercise.
The hardest part of it all was when he would think about before, and what could have been.
“Trying to sleep at night after that, dreaming about football, dreaming about home. I definitely related football with Miami because that’s what I was known for.” Telfort was the first guy out of Miami to come to USC in decades, and now he was three thousand miles away from home trying to navigate his new life after.
“I had a lot of goals and to see them all go away without being able to have a hand in what happened, it ate away at me.”
If he said he wasn’t depressed for a while in the immediate aftermath, he would be lying. In spite of it all, he somehow managed to not let it interfere with his education. “I knew that was important to take advantage of my scholarship. I never let the present impact my future. Throughout my life I had been tested by other personal things before, which I now see as God testing me for this point in my life,” he says.
His teammates really rallied around him in his time of need, most specifically his roommates at the time, De’Von Flournoy and T.J. McDonald. They had seen glimpses of what Telfort could do before, and they were there for him after. “They were my rock on the team,” Telfort says. Though he was so far away from his parents, they too helped him shoulder his burden and supported the decisions he made at ‘SC. “If I have anyone to thank, it’s them. I model my strength after my mother. She is the strongest person I know.”