Impact Player

Football places Vanderbilt's Oren Burks in position to tackle society's pressing questions

Story by Rachel Stark
Photos by Jamie Schwaberow

Track and field practice on that balmy North Carolina afternoon, the day after Labor Day in 2016, began with 30-meter speed drills — sprints that entail accelerating for 20 meters and running at top speed for 10.

Wingate junior Isaiah Kyle, a high jumper and commercial and community recreation major, collapsed during a 2016 workout. His heart stopped for 12 minutes before responders could coax it back to life. Doctors warned he might never be able to compete again, but Kyle was undeterred. After 36 hours in a medically induced sleep and months of testing, Kyle returned to the sport he loves. He finished as the runner-up for the 2017 indoor national championship and is determined to finish atop the podium before he graduates.

One flight of Wingate teammates ran two reps, then balked at a third. It was the first day of practice, after all.

But sophomore Isaiah Kyle itched to continue working. Three months earlier, he had cleared the high jump at 6 feet, 10¼ inches at the NCAA Division II Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships, finishing sixth despite a nagging pain in his foot. Five days later, the All-American was on an operating room table in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a surgeon scraped bone from Kyle’s heel to rebuild the damaged sesamoids — pea-sized bones that make jumping and bouncing possible — beneath his big toe.

Crutches came next, followed by a walking boot. For months, Kyle’s recovering foot held him prisoner, forcing dreams of improving his first-year high jump performance into hibernation.

On the day Kyle was at last cleared to run, jump and lift with his teammates again, he chided his teammates for wanting to skip the last run: “That’s not how you win a national championship.” So for a third time, they stepped to the edge of the school’s lacrosse field, where cones were set up as the drill’s starting line. They sprinted toward midfield, faster and faster as they approached full speed. They crossed the finish line, relieved that drill was done.

Then, Kyle’s heart stopped, and he fell to the grass with a thud.

High jumper Isaiah Kyle’s heart stopped for 12 minutes during practice in September 2016. But months later on his first day back at practice, he jumped 6 feet, 10 inches.

When the heart stills, the blood it was pumping through the body’s corridors comes to a rest. The oxygen within that idle blood is no longer en route to the lungs and the muscles that guide respiration, so breathing ceases soon after. And with neither fresh oxygen nor a mechanism for storing reserves, an oxygen-deprived brain begins to die in minutes — as little as three, but certainly within six.

At the Wingate track complex, athletic training intern Jacob Deese was kneeling over Kyle at midfield within a minute of his collapse. No pulse, the trainer found. No breathing. He gave instructions: You, call 911. You, get the AED.

Twelve minutes would pass before Isaiah Kyle’s heart would resume its rhythm, aided by the trainer and emergency responders who kept his chest cavity filled with a supply of air and his blood circulating through his veins while they willed his heart to restart with the help of an automated external defibrillator. Kyle would spend another 36 hours in a medically induced sleep while doctors monitored his recovery and prepared his parents to meet the unrecognizable person he might be when he awoke — if he awoke.

In those minutes and hours — and even in the months that followed, as doctors sought explanations for what caused Kyle’s heart to stop and investigated whether it could happen again — the college sophomore’s survival was all that mattered to his families, both at home and at Wingate. But from the moment doctors pulled Kyle from his sleep, he awoke with a “Hey, Mama” as if groggy from a Saturday morning sleep-in and wanted to return to the track. Surviving wasn’t enough for him because mere survival doesn’t win a national championship.

The people who cared about him and for him — parents, doctors, coaches, teammates, athletic trainers — had to learn to cope with Kyle’s comeback, even if the thought of him running and jumping again made their own hearts skip a beat.

Kyle says he won’t be satisfied until he wins a national championship.

Growing up in Morristown, Tennessee, Kyle played football in the fall and basketball in the winter. His family tried to make travel basketball work in the spring, but with Kyle’s dad, Gary, on the road as a truck driver and his mother, Jackie, then working as an undercover police officer, the family couldn’t manage the schedule.

“You know what?” Isaiah told his mother. “Let me try track.”

Jackie Kyle was surprised track could capture her son’s attention. “He’s as slow as a turtle,” she recalls thinking. “He wasn’t a runner.”

Kyle played football and basketball growing up but discovered the high jump in seventh grade – and was hooked. Submitted by Jackie Kyle

But running isn’t what her son had in mind. He began watching YouTube videos of high jumpers, modeling his approach and form after accomplished Olympians. Competitiveness drove him from novice to high school standout. After his best friend topped Kyle’s height at the conference meet in seventh grade, “I thought, ‘I’ll never let him beat me again,’” Kyle says.

When Kyle arrived at Wingate, he hoped his time and training there would launch him to the sport’s highest levels. While he is pursuing a commercial and community recreation degree at Wingate and plans to one day coach or work in the recreation field, he dreams of reaching the Olympics and perhaps competing professionally.

That day on the lacrosse field, when Wingate track and field coach Travis LeFlore heard the cries of his team and spotted his star high jumper motionless on the grass, he knew a life was at stake — but also a dream.

Two days later, as doctors prepared Kyle’s family for what they might face when he awoke, that dream felt distant. He might not wake up at all, the doctors said. He might not recognize his parents. He might have lost a little memory, or a lot. His personality might be altered.

So by the time he awoke and greeted his mother, Kyle’s family and coaches already had abandoned high jump dreams. Kyle, meanwhile, oblivious to discussions of donated organs and lost memories, was ready to pick up his goals where he had left them on the lacrosse field.

Only 10 percent of patients survive an episode like Kyle’s, his cardiac electrophysiologist, Dr. John Warren Holshouser, told the family. Kyle was in the 1 percent who survive without brain damage.

“We don’t know what happened to you, but you did die,” Jackie Kyle recalls the doctors telling her son. “You went into cardiac arrest … and we have to figure out what’s causing this so it doesn’t happen again.”

Undeterred, Kyle asked when he would be able to jump again.

The answer: maybe never.

Doctors found no heart defect or genetic cause for Kyle’s cardiac arrest and have compared it to a lightning strike.

In that moment, Jackie Kyle says, she could see her son’s dream fading. “He was just devastated,” she says. “That took several hours to absorb and comprehend.”

It would take months, though, for the Kyles to work their way through the remaining barriers. Electrocardiograms, genetic tests, stress tests — nothing pointed to a fundamental problem that led doctors to believe his heart was faulty. Instead, they compared his cardiac arrest to a lightning strike.

Doctors installed an internal defibrillator designed to shock his heart back into action should it ever need the encouragement. Then, in January — just four months after Kyle’s cardiac arrest — they gave him clearance to return to his sport and his dreams.

The indoor track and field season was still underway when Kyle returned to action. And while doctors offered reassurance and Kyle himself was excited and ready, those responsible for him remained nervous. Caragh MacDermott, then Wingate’s athletic trainer for track and field, even accompanied him to a follow-up doctor’s appointment, asking whether there were special instructions for doing CPR on someone who has an internal defibrillator. The answer: Act as if you don’t know he has it.

Kyle’s parents, meanwhile, worried what impact the episode might have on their son’s self-worth. “He does not like to lose,” Jackie Kyle says. “I always want my baby to do well, but I don’t want him to ever feel like he’s lost because he has had this issue. I don’t want him to forget the athlete that he is.”

On Kyle’s first day at practice, MacDermott and LeFlore hovered near the high jump area. They wanted to keep an eye on their charge, but were also eager to see what he might accomplish. “I kept asking him how he was feeling,” LeFlore says. “He said, ‘Coach, Coach, I’m good.’ Once he told me that a few times, I’m like, ‘All right, I’m not going to ask him anymore.’”

Kyle took a first jump — he looked good, but the coach had kept the height easy. For the second jump, he moved up the bar to 6 feet, 8 inches, and Kyle still cleared it.

Finally, LeFlore tried him at 6 feet, 10 inches. Clear again.

Across the lanes of the track, LeFlore and MacDermott caught each other’s eyes, sharing a moment of mutual disbelief that Kyle had collapsed in cardiac arrest and then, after four months of recovery, nearly matched his All-America mark.

“All right,” LeFlore told Kyle, “let’s get you to a meet.”

At his first competition, just days after that jump, Kyle’s effort of 6 feet, 8¾ inches was enough to provisionally qualify for the NCAA Division II Men’s Indoor Track and Field Championships. Then, in March 2017, Kyle’s successful jump of 7 feet, 2¼ inches put him in a position to capture the title. He led the competition after his final leap, but Saint Martin’s Mikel Smith’s subsequent attempt bested Kyle’s mark. “I’m super happy for him,” Kyle says of the bittersweet end to his comeback indoor season. “Heartbroken at the same time. … I had a lot of fun, but, yeah, it hurt.”

With the added security of a surgically installed internal defibrillator, Kyle has returned to normal practice and conditioning.

Kyle has three more shots at a national championship: The 2018 Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championships, followed by the indoor and outdoor championships in the 2018-19 season, his senior year. He finished seventh at the 2017 outdoor finals, then a disappointing 10th at the 2018 indoor championships.

He is already a four-time All-American. He already has come back from the dead. He already has defied doctors’ expectations. Still, he remains far from satisfied.

“I definitely had a realization — life can be here one day and gone the next,” Kyle says. “But sports? That’s been my life. That’s what kept me out of trouble. That’s what drove me when I was growing up.

“I’ll never push my body to the limits of something that’s going to hurt me or kill me, but a national championship? It means the world.”

Jackie Kyle’s goals for her son, on the other hand, are more restrained. She understands that her son’s ability to overcome fear and doubt as he clawed back from a death scare marks a bigger victory than any he may ever achieve in a competition. Even if he never wins the title he hopes to, reaches the Olympics or turns pro, she says, he already has triumphed.

“I know society has still retained a thoughtful, sweet, intelligent young man who knows the value of life,” she says. “I’m very confident that he’s going to do great things in this world.”