KENT: Kent State tight end Kyle Payton often thinks about the day when he drank a Red Bull that sent his heart racing.
He was 16, a sophomore at Hilliard Davidson High School, and he and a friend had spent the Sunday before spring break at a Columbus area shooting range. When they returned home, his buddy gave him one of the energy drinks.
Although Payton’s supraventricular tachycardia likely would have found another trigger, that started a four-year ordeal that included five surgeries, hundreds of EKGs, a stay in intensive care and talk of a pacemaker.
“He was never in a life-threatening situation. At least that’s what the doctors told us,” Payton’s father, Brian, said by phone Monday. “When you’re there beside his bed at night and he’s asleep and you look up at the heart monitor and his heart’s beating 220 times a minute, as a parent, that’s a little scary. We went through this a couple times and he handled it a lot better than I did.”
Samantha Payton frequently goes back to the Red Bull day as well. But after Payton sat out the 2013 and 2014 seasons, she watched her son return to play as a fifth-year senior for the Golden Flashes, who end the season at noon Friday against the University of Akron at InfoCision Stadium.
She survived an “emotional roller coaster” that hopefully ended with Payton’s last surgery in September 2013. Then she saw her son lose his roommate, mentor and “the big brother I never had” in teammate Jason Bitsko, who died of an enlarged heart in August 2014. So Samantha now looks at their first trip to the emergency room and sees positives.
“It could have happened on the football field and then he’d completely ignore it because he’s locked in when he’s playing. I think about that stuff all the time,” Samantha said.
During a 30-minute interview at the M.A.C. Center on Nov. 19, Payton said his priorities have changed. Although he will train for Kent State’s pro day even though he has virtually no college stats, he said football is no longer No. 1.
God is calling the shots for him now, which has taken away all the anxiety of what the applied engineering major will do after he graduates in May.
His priorities were different in the spring of 2009 when his heart problem first surfaced. At that point, and for several years after, the hope of playing football again kept him going and sent him to the depths of depression when he couldn’t.
That first night, when Kyle told his mother his heart was fluttering and she told him to lay beside her as she watched television, Samantha didn’t realize the severity of the situation. Hours later, the whirlwind began.
Medication at the emergency room at Dublin Methodist Hospital didn’t slow his racing heart. A failed ablation at Riverside Hospital revealed a birth defect that gave the signal to his heart an extra path. Before surgery at Cleveland Clinic, the Paytons were warned that the surgeon could poke Payton’s heart when going through the pericardium.
“They said, ‘That’s about a one-in-a-million chance,’?” Payton said.
One in a million happened.
A close call
Shortly after he was released from the Clinic, Payton worked his full shift at Smoothie King despite having trouble breathing. Hours later, he needed emergency surgery because the hole in his heart had leaked more than 2 liters of fluid into the pericardial sac.
“He said, ‘If you had waited from 12 to 24 more hours, you might have gone into cardiac arrest and died,’?” Payton said of the surgeon. “I said, ‘Glad I got here.’?”
Before the hole healed, Payton said he had at least 10 painful bouts of pericarditis. He was diagnosed with early-onset high blood pressure, which affected his kidneys.
“That was our life for about six months,” Samantha, a marketing consultant in Columbus, said by phone Monday. “He’d get fluid around the sac, do treatments with steroids. The last thing I was thinking about was football and all he was thinking about was football.”
That fall, Payton helped Hilliard Davidson go 14-1 and win the Division I state championship. His team was runner-up his senior year. Payton also played his first two seasons at Kent State without incident.
During the spring game in 2013, Payton said he almost passed out because of pain in his chest and believes his heart rate was at least 220. He was diagnosed with atrial tachycardia.
“The doctor said, ‘We can try to ablate it but we’re not sure it will start firing correctly. We’re not sure why. We’ve never seen anything like this,’?’’ Payton said of his surgeon at Ohio State. “The guy had been a cardiac surgeon for 20 or 30 years. He said, ‘If it doesn’t start firing we’re going to have to do emergency open heart surgery and put a pacemaker in.’
“I was like, ‘Can I play football with a pacemaker?’?”
Miracle of heart
Payton said what was supposed to be two-hour procedure stretched into five.
“They ablated what they thought was wrong. My heart stopped. No signal was firing. It went like a movie, I guess, that’s the way I was picturing it,” Payton said. “Everybody kind of took a deep breath, ‘Oh, man, what’s going on?’ Then out of nowhere, my heart started firing correctly. That’s nothing short of a miracle to me.”
That was Payton’s last procedure. But his road still had obstacles ahead.
While redshirting in 2013, Payton said he trained to be an All-American. Then during his second day of 2014 spring practice, Payton caught a ball going across the middle and was hit in the head by linebacker Elcee Refuge. Payton turned upfield and ran before falling on his face. The concussion’s symptoms stayed with him through the summer.
“Because I held football so high priority-wise, I struggled with some depression for a while,” Payton said. “I ended up failing too many classes. I was ineligible.”
During the 2014 season, Payton’s weekends became party time. Although he said alcoholism runs in his family, he didn’t realize he was drinking too much until he hit rock bottom this spring.
“God revealed to me that ‘Football’s not No. 1; I am.’ Once I started to realize that, I realized that maybe he’s taking football away from me to get my priorities right,” Payton said.
Although he played mainly special teams this season, Payton became a leader for Kent State even as others besides his mother questioned why he wanted to return.
“Part of me was wondering, ‘Why in the world would you come back?’ I think he’s had five heart surgeries,” said former KSU defensive end Nate Vance, a Stow product who’s now a full-time intern with the Browns in fan experience and special events.
“He said, ‘I think I’m going to come back and try to finish this thing out.’ I said, ‘You’re a grown man and you can do what you want, but remember that your life is more important than football. We’re not dealing with a knee injury, we’re dealing with your heart.’ He was set in his ways. I said, ‘If you ever feel like it’s starting to mess with you, just stop.’ He promised me that at least.”
Neither close friend Vance nor his parents know what Payton will do next. Payton dreams of owning a custom car and motorcycle shop. A trip to Haiti in 2014 and one scheduled for next spring to the Dominican Republic ignited thoughts of missionary work. Engineering may prevail, but Brian, an elevator mechanic, can see Payton coaching the sport he once put above all else.
Payton, who turns 23 on Dec. 12, has no fear of the future.
“I felt like college was never going to end. I never felt like I was going to play football again. I never thought I was going to be to the point in my relationship with God that I am now,” Payton said. “If God’s brought me this far, I can’t imagine how far he’s going to take me.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.