On Jan. 2, football fans across the nation were at a standstill while doctors worked to resuscitate 24-year-old Damar Hamlin after he collapsed on the football field following what appeared to look like a standard tackle. Doctors said Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest possibly due to commotio cordis, a “remarkably rare” condition in which he sustained blunt force trauma to his chest in the exact right spot and at the exact right moment during his heartbeat, which caused his heart to have an arrhythmia. While Hamlin is now on the road to recovery, many are questioning whether he will ever be able to play at maximum level again.
A few months before that, on Oct. 2, 2022, former Houston Texans Defensive End J.J. Watt stunned fans when he announced on Twitter that he suffered a cardiac event.
“I went into A-Fib on Wednesday, had my heart shocked back into rhythm on Thursday and I’m playing today. That’s it,” he posted just hours before taking the field to play in an Arizona Cardinals game. The 33-year-old, who was a new father, retired after his last home game of the 2022 season, officially ending his 12-year NFL career.
And just like that, in a field where people say “you gotta have heart” mentally to succeed, these “gladiators” were sidelined because their physical “hearts” placed their lives at risk.
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A Houston coach knows all too well what his fellow athletes were experiencing.
At 6 feet 5 inches tall, it is impossible to miss Joseph Randolph when he enters a room. Black, athletic, and handsome, he gets the stares, followed by the unavoidable question: “What basketball team do you play for?”
His reply, once a sad answer to provide, is “no team professionally.”
It definitely wasn’t for lack of skills, because Randolph has proven since childhood to be a natural-born athlete, but just like Hamlin and Watt, his own heart caused the “heartbreak.”
Randolph was 13 years old when he came home one day from playing basketball and his heart was racing. As hours passed and it didn’t slow down, he knew something was wrong and alerted his mother, Cheryl Randolph, who rushed him to the hospital.
Doctors gave him medication and the symptoms went away, but his mother had a gut feeling that she needed to keep her son from playing sports. She made the tough decision to restrict him from strenuous activity.
“My mom would no longer let me play and every time I went to school, because of my appearance and height, a coach would try to persuade me to play, and it just made it more difficult for me to understand, or make them understand, that it just wasn’t going to happen.”
For 12 years, Randolph resisted the urges to join teams, but when he reached his 20s, he decided to give it another try and started working out to possibly play overseas, but his body “betrayed” him once again.
“Irregular heartbeat, I could barely sleep at night, could barely walk a couple of feet without having to stop and bend over, gasping for air. I was weak and lethargic,” Randolph described.
Another trip to the hospital revealed, this time, there would be no medication to make the symptoms go away. He was diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation and needed emergency surgery to place a lifesaving defibrillator in his chest.
He now sees a cardiologist, Dr. Jasvinder Sidhu, of the DeTar Medical Group, every three months.
“He’s extraordinary, he’s a Godsend and, in some ways, I look at him as a best friend,” he said. “The amount of care that he’s given and has shown me leaves me at a loss for words.”
Randolph said, if it wasn’t for Dr. Sidhu, he wouldn’t be here today.
“In my situation, there is no medicine that you can take, this is not something dealing with arteries or unhealthy eating habits,” he explained. “This is an electrical issue and the only thing that can fix it is a defibrillator to make the heart have a normal rate again. Anytime I get to a dangerous heart rate, my device will “fire off,” basically shocking me back to a safe rhythm.”
After one medical episode a few years ago, Randolph found himself alone and crying in his hospital room, having a conversation with God.
“I asked Him why would he would give me a talent and not allow me to use it? I never watch TV, but on that day, I turned to C-Span and, ironically, they were showing a conference or forum on student athlete safety in sports, speaking about concussions and cardiac arrests,” he said.
Randolph said the message from there was clear.
“I had to understand that it just wasn’t in the plan for me to play professionally, but it was something I could help others with. It all started to make sense.”
Randolph now is placing his focus on the next generation of athletes.
“The ones who have the heart issues, the ones who don’t take a sport seriously. The ones who don’t understand it is a blessing to do something you love while you are healthy,” Randolph said. “Don’t take it for granted because there are millions of people, myself included, who wish they had the opportunity that you have.”
Randolph is currently a teacher at Willowridge High School, coaching girls basketball and volleyball. He previously served as a coach at Meyerland Middle School, the Boys & Girls Club, Patrick Beverley’s summer basketball camp and other AAU teams.
The Missouri City native graduated from Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama with a degree in Public Relations and Communications, and a minor in political science. He also has a Master of Educational Administration from Lamar University and is currently working toward completing his Doctor of Education in Global Sports Leadership from East Tennessee State University.