STAMFORD — The trip to the cardiologist in Darien on Friday would bring good news for Terry Forrester. He has been cleared to return to school this week. So there he’ll be Monday walking the hallways of the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering.
Twenty-five days after open-heart surgery.
Eighty-two days after one of the most frightening moments in Connecticut high school athletics.
“I feel good,” Forrester said.
Tywan Jenkins, defensive coordinator for the Stamford High football team, is young enough to be Forrester’s brother and old enough to be a mentor for a bright, talented athlete. Jenkins gave Terry a poem recently, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.
“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I think whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.”
Such is the first verse of the short 19th-century Victorian tribute to stoicism and fortitude in the face of adversity.
“Terry has dreams, and my thing to him was if you believe and you fight past the negative, you can make it. Unconquerable,” Jenkins said. “My biggest thing for him is to have hope. A 17-year-old kid with hope is the strongest thing we know.”
This was Nov. 21, the night before Thanksgiving, the fourth quarter of the city championship rivalry game between Stamford and Westhill. Forrester had a strong senior season at safety, but he had lost his starting quarterback job until near the end of the year. Playing on this final night of his high school career, he remembers throwing a screen pass thinking his running back would score and suddenly getting hit by a rush of fatigue.
Forrester went to the sideline to get the next play, returned to the huddle and said he started having trouble breathing. He got over center and felt dizzy.
“I thought I was going to pass out over center,” Forrester said. “I snapped the ball, handed it off and went back to the sideline. The last thing I remember was going, ‘Coach! Coach!’ ”
Coach! Coach! That’s what Jenkins remembers hearing, too.
“And then Terry just fell,” he said. “It was the scariest moment of my life. He was unresponsive. We didn’t know if he was breathing.”
The ambulance was parked outside the end zone at Boyle Stadium. Jenkins, who has forged a strong relationship with Forrester over the past two years, didn’t wait. He and a Stamford player sprinted over, grabbed the gurney and sprinted back with it.
Terry’s mom, Karen Samuels, did what any loving mom would do.
“I jumped the fence to get to my little boy,” she said.
“I’d never seen a mother run so fast,” Jenkins said.
Head coach Jamar Greene, Jenkins, Samuels, the athletic training staff and emergency personnel, they all converged.
“Terry wasn’t saying anything, his eyes were turning over,” Karen said. “I was hitting his feet, going, ‘Don’t let him fall asleep.’ ”
“It was like he was breathing through a straw; we could have lost him,” Jenkins said. “Out of all of us, Karen was the calmest. She was like, ‘We’re gonna be good. We’re gonna be fine.’ I was freaking a little and I know it helped calm me.”
Karen Samuels asked for a sheet to keep her boy warm. She can admit now, “I almost had a heart attack, too.”
As Terry was gathered into the ambulance, the black No. 2 Black Knights jersey was cut open. His shoulder pads were cut open. His helmet came off. They got him oxygen. His life was saved. He was brought to Stamford Hospital.
“I wanted to go immediately,” Jenkins said. “But we had a few more minutes left in the game. I talked to Coach Greene. Terry’s mom, our athletic director, Chris Passamano, and athletic trainer already went. I brought the defense together and said, ‘Guys, we’ve got to get this this shutout for Terry. Get the offense the ball.’ That was the mission.”
Final: Stamford 19, Westhill 0.
“We had that moment,” Jenkins said.
He immediately jumped in the car and headed to the hospital.
There were some explanations. Terry was dehydrated. His pads were too tight and could have pinched the blood flow. He was excited about the game and didn’t drink any water. Karen said there had been a few episodes growing up and dehydration was seen as the culprit. Terry was released that night from the hospital.
Tests a week later would tell a different story. He had a congenital heart defect involving valves that had diminished blood flow.
“When my mom found out that I needed open-heart surgery, she was pretty devastated,” Forrester said.
Jenkins saw Forrester at the senior banquet. He was waiting for a ride outside. He was tearing up. Jenkins asked him what was wrong.
“I have to tell you something,” Forrester said. “I have to have open-heart surgery. I’m scared.’”
“He also wanted to keep it private,” Jenkins said. “He didn’t want to people to see him as weak.”
Terry Forrester was anything but weak.
“Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.”
The open heart surgery — coronary unroofing, Terry said — was performed Jan. 17 at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York-Presbyterian and it was a success. Jenkins made good on his promise to be there with his family when Terry awoke.
Having had quadruple bypass surgery in 2005, permit me to say the first few moments upon awakening are not pretty. Tubes are stuck everywhere. I thought I was suffocating.
“It was so scary,” Samuels said. “When he woke up, he was strapped down. He was throwing up at the same time.”
“I don’t think I was prepared for it,” Jenkins said. “A kid I’d seen laughing, one of the strongest, fastest kids on the team not be able to speak. They had cracked open his chest bone. It just killed me.”
Jenkins, who played at New London and at Southern Connecticut, has amassed many friends. There is a certain magic in his voice. Members of the nearby Columbia football team were going to visit Forrester at Morgan Stanley Children’s, but he was released too soon. So Jenkins had another idea. Fraternity brothers, former teammates, kids he helped send to college would send Terry video encouragement. Everyone from Stamford’s Kelly Bryant, who recently transferred from Clemson to Missouri, to the Quinnipiac basketball team, lots and lots of guys from around the country. It was powerful and overwhelming.
“Just wanted to put a smile on his face at a bad time,” Jenkins said.
“Coach said he had something pretty cool for me,” Forrester said. “I was shocked he knew so many people. It was great.”
Now the recovery begins.
Forrester said he’d like to run track in the spring. It’s unclear whether he’ll be cleared. That might be wishful thinking. There is hope he’ll be ready to play football next fall. Utica and Plymouth State have been among the interested.
“I don’t want to stop playing football,” Forrester said.
He led Stamford in interceptions. He and Quran Langston did a terrific job containing Ridgefield’s Jackson Mitchell, who’s committed to UConn. Having played quarterback has helped his reads as a defensive back. He’s probably better suited as a safety in college, Jenkins said, but he does have that rocket arm.
“Terry was the first kid I met when I took the job at Stamford two years ago,” said Jenkins, a special education teacher in Norwalk. “He was in the weight room. That relationship stuck from the get-go. I was only 24 at the time. People kid me I might as well adopt that kid. We talked about college. He said a lot of guys he knew didn’t go. College isn’t a question now. It’s an expectation. That’s how much he has grown.”
Invictus. Terry Forrester has lived William Ernest Henley’s poem.
“I’m so proud of him,” Samuels said. “He’s a strong little boy.”
That he is, Karen. He’s a strong young man, too.