Emmanuel Olojakpoke, a center on the University of Akron men’s basketball team, played five minutes in a game against the Buffalo Bulls on Jan. 9, 2018, and had open-heart surgery the next day.

It cost the team depth in their frontcourt and Olojakpoke the rest of his season, but it could have cost him something far more valuable — his life.

Olojakpoke subbed out of the game against the Bulls at the 11:03 mark of the first half and knew something wasn’t right.

He reported problems with his vision to Mike White, a UA assistant athletic trainer, immediately after getting to his seat.

“The first thing I thought I was like, 'Well, I can't see. I got to get out of the game,' ” the junior forward said after a recent practice. “I got out the game, sit down on the sidelines, and I told Mike I still couldn't see. And I just sat there and I was just thinking ‘What happened?’ until the doctor came to see me.”

White, who has been certified as an athletic trainer for four years, recognized that something needed to be done.

“He just came out of the game and reported that he lost vision temporarily, so everything was completely black, and from there he was feeling lightheaded — kind of just not normal. His vision did come back, but those two things combined was, like, that doesn't really seem right.”

Dr. Ted Shaub, the team’s cardiologist from Summa Health and a UA fan, was in the stands that night. He took a look at Olojakpoke in the locker room and directed him to come to his office the next day.

Finding the issue

Shaub learned that the on-court incidents weren’t isolated. Olojakpoke recalled similar instances earlier that week on the court, Shaub said.

“When I talked to Emmanuel, this time he gave me more information. He told me about the lightheadedness, and actually passing out the day before coming into [the hospital],” Shaub said. “And at that time, his exam was OK, and when we evaluate competitive athletes, we do a pretty thorough history, and not only that as an exam. And his exam actually was OK. I did an [electrocardiogram], which was clearly abnormal.”

Quick decisions

Shaub detected a growth on the mitral valve leaflet of Olojakpoke’s otherwise healthy heart, a scenario for which he and other doctors had no explanation then or now. Parts of that growth had been detaching and causing Olojakpoke’s issues, so surgery was imperative.

“This mass that we saw was breaking off, causing these neurologic events. And I looked at Emmanuel, I said, 'This has to come off. You've had four significant neurologic events in the last 48 hours.' I said, 'The next could be lethal.' "

The then-sophomore provided the expected response.

“And his comment was, like most athletes, 'Well, I have a game on Saturday.' Well, it doesn't work that way. I recalled ... but athletes are a different breed of people, they're just ... they want to play,” Shaub said. “Like most young folks, they're like they can overcome anything. But this was frightening to all of us. And it needed to come off.”

Olojakpoke went in for an 8 a.m. appointment that day. About five hours later, a surgeon recommended by Shaub was cracking open Olojakpoke's chest for open-heart surgery.

Emotions in motion

Olojakpoke is the antithesis of the modern athlete. There is little in the way of ego. The first character trait noticed about the 6-foot-8, 190-pound Houston native is a humble nature that could explain the calm, borderline soft-spoken demeanor.

Some around him said they feared for his well-being. That includes Shaub, White, coach John Groce and teammates Daniel Utomi, who has known him the longest from their days in Texas together, and Jimond Ivey.

Groce recalled his reaction the night Olojakpoke asked to come out of the game.

“No player has ever said that to me, in my time as an assistant coach and head coach over 25 plus years." Groce said. "So obviously when you hear that and you're in the middle of the game and you hear that, your instincts ... I should say automatically, I assume most people would say, 'Ugh, that's not good. You're done, you're done.' ”

Shaub said Olojakpoke took the information about what he faced with little problem, which could explain his ultimate reaction to what he was going to endure.

“I was just trying to stay positive through it all. I knew I'd be fine,” Olojakpoke said. “And my mom gave me confidence, too. She said it'll be fine. So I just stayed positive, and I stayed the course.”

Olojakpoke said his Christian faith played a significant role in how he approached the issue, but he did worry if he would play again.

Given the cautious way his team — as Shaub, who Olojakpoke sees regularly, refers to as himself, White and Groce — has approached his return, that’s not surprising. It was close to nine months before he could take part in full contact drills and there was a setback that was eventually corrected. He returned to full-time practice in late September.

The return

It’s just been in recent games when the promise Olojakpoke showed before his illness has returned. Minutes have trended upward the past two games and, defensively, he’s showing flashes. But there can be more.

“He has a whole other gear. He's starting to show it, too,” Utomi said. “Man, he'll get there, though. He is always going to block shots. Once his motor gets back 100 percent, you'll know he's back.”

Ivey agreed.

“He's starting to block shots again, so that's a good thing,” he said, “but I think towards the end of this conference schedule, you'll see the real E-man even more.”

Groce said the team will continue to work with him to get him where he wants to be.

“I think the last week or two, it's the best I've seen him move and motor and play in practice and in the games that he's gotten in,” Groce said. “I know he wants to get back to that level and he's working at it, we're doing everything we can to try to help.”

Olojakpoke said he’s feeling about where he was prior to his surgery, but recognizes there’s another level he can achieve. But there’s no discounting what he’s been able to show teammates who remain from last year’s team. They did what they could to ensure he wasn’t forgotten the rest of last season.

“We had a towel on the bench that had his number on it, 22, so whenever a guy went in to substitute in for another player throughout the course of the game they handed that player the 22 towel,” Groce said, “then they would bring that to the bench. So that was the way in which we subbed to keep him in our thoughts.”

Offering guidance

Olojakpoke might have provided the team a key lesson in life and basketball.

“He was just doing what he loved to do, playing basketball and that just happened,” Ivey said. “So, like, it made me look at life differently. Anything can happen. You can't take anything for granted and stuff like that. It was an eye-opener for myself and for my teammates I believe.”

Utomi recognized the significance of the situation.

“It's a life-changing injury. I mean, the kid almost could've died. And the thing, once that happens, is this wakes you up. It's like a wake-up call,” Utomi said. “You can't just take anything for granted. Maybe it was God telling him, 'Hey, you can't take this for granted. I want you to recognize.' I mean, I don't know. All I know is it's life changing. You can just never look past that.”

The uncertain future provided Olojakpoke with similar thoughts and those thoughts have changed the way he approaches the game.

“Before I had surgery, what's the word, [I was] lackadaisical, I guess,” he said. “And then now, I just try to push myself more, than I did before. Because I had it taken away from me once, and now, let's say it does happen again, I don't want any regrets on the court.”

George M. Thomas can be reached at gmthomas@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.