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April 7, 2013

The heart of a champion

Confusion. Indecision. Doubt.

Name the word that best describes being in a state of mental disarray and that's where Matt Hegarty found himself on the afternoon of Nov. 8, 2012, two days before 9-0 Notre Dame took on Boston College in Chestnut Hill.

"It was just a really confusing day," said the 6-foot-4 , 291-pound junior center from Aztec, N.M. "You wake up, you go to class, you write notes in your book like you normally do, and then it kind of does a 180 on you."

A 180-degree turn for Hegarty on that fall Thursday was diagnosed as a "mini-stroke," a result of being born with two holes in his heart.

"We were doing walk-through next to the weight room, just like we always do," Hegarty said. "It was really out of the blue. It just catches you off-guard because you really have no idea what's going on.

"What I remember is just being confused. I remember telling Conor (Hanratty), 'I forgot what I was going to say.' Then you try to figure out if you got enough sleep last night or what's going on."

Hegarty did the practical thing. He went to see trainer Rob Hunt, and the medical staff quickly arranged for tests on Hegarty to determine the cause of the episode. On Dec. 14, some five weeks later, Hegarty had surgery to correct the problem, and since then, it's been a gradual return to health, and now full speed ahead.

The football player in Hegarty never relinquished his dream.

"The scary thing is the unknown," said Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. "You understand an elbow, you understand a knee, you understand an ankle, you understand shoulders, but you don't have much experience with a guy's heart.

"He's a miracle of modern medicine. He has such determination to be in there battling. He's really special that way. A lot of people would have hung up their gear, but he never even thought about it."

If the medical staff didn't close the door, Hegarty was going to keep pushing forward.

"As long no one ruled it out as a possibility, I looked at it as that was my goal," said Hegarty of continuing his promising football career. "There was a chance I could come back and I treated it as such.

"How does this affect me health-wise? How does this affect me football-wise? That was a priority for me and I made sure I stayed in it mentality. You don't want to drift with stuff like that because then you're out on the edge. I tried to stay in it as much as I could and stay with it physically because I knew it was what I wanted to do."

If the medical staff told him he could ride a stationary bike, that's what Hegarty did. If they said he could work on the elliptical today, he did it as hard as they would allow.

"When you see his attitude about it and the smile and determination on his face, you say, 'Okay, let's go to work,'" Hiestand said. "The way he's handled it and his approach to things has been outstanding."

Hegarty has put himself in the running for playing time on the interior of the offensive line. A tackle in high school, he made the transition inside with the same nonchalance and determination that he has overcoming his health issue.

"At first, you move around and you say, 'Oh, that's a different position,'" said Hegarty of his shift to center. "But you do it a few times and it becomes regular business for you.

"It is a little weird in the sense that you think, 'Hey, I've got to block a little differently.' But offensive line is offensive line. You're still going to have to put your head in there and drive somebody out. It comes pretty naturally when you get used to it."

There is no greater test for a college center than going head-to-head with Irish nose guard Louis Nix III. In fact, that's how Brian Kelly knew he had not one, but two legitimate center candidates in Nick Martin and Hegarty. Both have withstood the Nix test.

"It's a great opportunity because he's obviously one of the top guys in the whole country at that position," said Hegarty of the spring confrontations with Nix. "You know if you can hold your own against him, Saturday during the season is probably going to be your easiest day of work. You get hardened playing against a guy like that. It's hard to find a guy out there that will challenge you as much as he would."

Hegarty is in quite a battle with his offensive line mates. Martin has adapted well to the center position and appears to be nailing down the starting spot. But Martin has played guard, so if he and Hegarty are the two best candidates for the two interior line spots, Martin could bump over. If tackle Ronnie Stanley emerges, he may nudge Christian Lombard to the interior, giving Hanratty, Hegarty et al another obstacle to overcome.

Hegarty is a good football player who in some years at Notre Dame would have the inside track for a starting job. But compared to what he went through in November and December, this hurdle is a mere jump up on a curb.

"I feel like I'm on track," Hegarty said. "Whatever I was allowed to do when I was out, I pretty much did to the furthest extent. I made sure I was hitting it as hard as I could to try to keep up.

"Now, I feel like I'm moving in the right direction. If I could handle what I went through, I can handle this."

All it requires is a little bit of heart. Make that a lot of heart.





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