Simpson moving on after basketball
On a sweltering late-July Saturday in his hometown, Jay Simpson enters the Park Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church not knowing what to expect.
Surrounded by scores of family and friends, Simpson and girlfriend Karidia Shelby participate in a dedication ceremony for their son, Kye, born July 2.
“I’ve never been to a dedication ceremony before,” Simpson said.
The day is supposed to be all about Kye and welcoming him to the church. But as the pastor speaks, Simpson can’t help but let his mind wander. The day’s sermon, which focuses on perseverance and overcoming hardships, resonates deeply with Simpson.
“I needed it,” Simpson said. “I’m so glad I was there to be a part of it. It just felt like it was meant to be. I was supposed to be there.”
On Feb. 23, playing basketball for Purdue during the second half of a game at Nebraska, Simpson’s 6-foot-10, 250-pound body collapsed to the floor. He wasn’t hit. He didn’t trip. He just went down, momentarily losing consciousness.
“We were going back on defense and I was calling out a ball screen for Terone (Johnson), and the next thing I knew, I couldn’t feel my legs,” the former Champaign Central standout said.
After blacking out briefly, Simpson opened his eyes to Purdue coach Matt Painter and athletic trainer Chad Young at his side.
“He had a scared look to him,” Painter said. “The way he went down was different. He just kind of folded like a lawn chair. A slow drop.”
Back home in Champaign, Simpson’s mom, Eulawnda Biggers, was watching on BTN. When her son went down, Biggers positioned herself directly in front of her television repeating one phrase.
“Get up, please get up,” she recalled. “That was a scary moment. I didn’t know what to think. I thought he just had a dizzy spell or something.”
Across town, Champaign Central assistant coach Corey Taylor, Simpson’s childhood mentor, had the same reaction as Mom. Watching the game with his wife, he immediately grabbed his phone and dialed the numbers of Simpson and Young.
“I was so nervous, I just wanted to talk to somebody,” Taylor said.
Back on the Pinnacle Bank Arena floor, Simpson told Painter and Young he was OK and pleaded to stay in the game. They weren’t having any of it. Young took Simpson into the training room, where he and the Nebraska athletic trainer put Simpson through a concussion test, which came back negative.
After the game, Simpson called Mom and Taylor to let them know he was fine.
“He kept saying everything was good, but I knew it was something more than that,” Taylor said.
Simpson returned with the team to the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, Ind. The next day he was put through a battery of tests at a local hospital. Results showed Simpson had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a thickening of the heart muscle that causes the heart to work harder to pump blood.
Knowing this condition would end Simpson’s career, Purdue and the player sought a second opinion in Indianapolis.
“I was in denial,” Simpson said.
With his career on the line in the game he spent the last 15 years of his life obsessing about, Simpson pursued a final opinion from Dr. Barry J. Maron at the Minneapolis Heart Institute.
Simpson and Young boarded a private jet at 6 a.m. March 5 and landed in Minneapolis an hour later. Simpson underwent six hours of testing.
Maron, a renowned cardiologist, confirmed the HCM diagnosis.
Simpson’s basketball career was over. With three-plus years of college eligibility remaining, the redshirt freshman would never again suit up for the Boilermakers.
“I just broke down,” he said. “I was like, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking
Simpson called his mom to break the news, crying into the phone.
“Hearing me cry, she started to cry before she even knew what exactly was happening yet,” he said.
On the other end, Mom delivered a refrain Simpson has heard countless times since his diagnosis.
“I just told my son God has something bigger planned for him,” she said.
Simpson’s next call went to Shelby, back home in Urbana, five months pregnant with their child.
“I was asleep; I missed the call,” she said.
When she woke up, she had a text message that read, “I can’t play anymore.”
“I was scared to call back because I didn’t know what to say to him,” Shelby said.
The collapse at Nebraska, while scary, ultimately could have saved Simpson’s life.
HCM has claimed the lives of many athletes. Former Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers collapsed on the court during a game in 1990 and died shortly upon arrival at a hospital. He was 23.
Former Boston Celtics guard Reggie Lewis collapsed on the court during an offseason workout and later died at 27. His death was attributed to HCM.
There is no cause for it — and it is often asymptomatic until sudden death.
“It’s a genetic thing,” said Dr. Ken Bodine, a board-certified cardiologist at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana. “Sometimes it’ll run in families, and other times it can just be a sporadic thing and one guy will have it.”
The best way to detect if a patient has HCM is to perform an echocardiogram, an ultrasound to produce images of the heart. Because most who suffer from HCM are usually asymptomatic, that test is performed if there is suspicion of something wrong or after an incident such as the one Simpson experienced at Nebraska.
“The tissue around the upper part of my heart is a centimeter-and-a-half too thick,” Simpson said. “If I’m doing too much cardio exercise, it could cause my heart to explode or just stop.”
It is not recommended, Bodine said, for Simpson and others who have been diagnosed with HCM to participate in high-intensity activities such as basketball or football. Cycling and other aerobic activities are OK with the proper guidance.
“It’s not like you can’t do anything for the rest of your life,” Bodine said. “The high-intensity stuff can get you into some trouble, though.”
Bodine estimated that 1 in 500 people have HCM.
“It varies in the severity,” he said. “Some can have it their whole life and not be symptomatic, and it could kill others. Luckily for this guy (Simpson), he survived it.”
The diagnosis was hard on Simpson and his mother.
“It’s scary, but I think about it every day,” Biggers said. “I’m lucky to still have my son.”
In West Lafayette, at the apartment he and Shelby share — she’s a student at nearby Ivy Tech — Simpson hangs with Kye at every turn: holding him, playing with him, trying to make him giggle.
“He has changed me a lot. He gives me hope, gives me energy,” Simpson said. “Some days I wake up and I just don’t want to do anything, but I see him and I have to. I don’t want him to grow up struggling.”
Simpson committed to Purdue before his sophomore season at Champaign Central. Painter stayed on him about his physical conditioning, yet he arrived at Purdue overweight after spending his senior year at La Lumiere Prep in La Porte, Ind. Simpson also dealt with asthma and high blood pressure.
“We attacked all those issues when he got here,” Painter said. “He made some serious strides in all those areas.”
When the news broke of the HCM diagnosis, it started to make sense to Painter why Simpson, despite working so hard, couldn’t go full speed all the time.
“I always would say, ‘I’m not a doctor, but something just doesn’t add up,’ ” Painter said. “He couldn’t do some basic things that came natural to him, and it now makes sense why he was the way he was as a player.”
Simpson and Young flew from Minneapolis to Madison, Wis., for that night’s game against Wisconsin when the team was informed that Simpson’s career was over.
Painter has given countless pep talks before big games and during tough times.
This called for something different.
“This is one of those things where your talk isn’t really going to make a dent,” Painter said. “That initial shock, they just sit there. He was good, Jay was fine, but we had to make sure everyone around Jay knew what was going on so they could help him.”
Simpson was starting to progress on the court during his second season at Purdue.
He had 14 points and six boards in the season opener against Northern Kentucky and reached double figures against Siena. Against Boston College in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Simpson scored eight points and pulled down eight boards. In his lone game in Champaign against the hometown Illini, Simpson helped Purdue to a win with seven points and three rebounds in 10 minutes. He averaged 4.3 points and 3.6 rebounds while playing 12.0 minutes per game.
“That was probably the hardest part for me, seeing all the hard work that I put in over the years, and I was just starting to get in the flow of things on the college level, and it was coming natural to me,” he said. “It was just gone, and I felt like I put in all that work for nothing.”
Taylor, who began working with Simpson on the basketball court when Simpson was in eighth grade, was a regular at Purdue practices.
“You could see his body change, and he was getting faster, and it just looked like it was all coming together for him. It was awesome to see,” Taylor said. “He was really going down the right path.”
A regimented one at that.
His routine included a mandatory team breakfast, class and practice at Mackey Arena. After a team weightlifting session and time in the training room’s cold tub — those aches and pains were a constant — he’d end the night with a team dinner and tutoring until 10 p.m.
“I didn’t really have time for anything else,” Simpson said.
Now there’s free time. In between summer-school classes, he chills with Kye and Shelby and saunters to Mackey to watch the current Purdue players compete in an open gym.
“It’s so different now,” he said.
No longer playing, Simpson remains at Purdue. Painter was quick to tell Simpson the school would honor his scholarship, allowing him to finish his degree in organizational leadership and supervision with a communication minor.
“I thought that was really cool. I appreciate Coach Painter for that,” Biggers said.
Simpson said his grades have improved, and he’s on track to graduate.
“I don’t care what would have happened with basketball, but he was going there to get an education,” said Taylor, a teacher at Franklin Middle School in Champaign. “I was so happy they’re honoring it and allowing him to finish his academic career there. He’s doing well, and that’s where his main focus is right now.”
For Painter, the decision to honor Simpson’s scholarship, which doesn’t count against Purdue’s allotment of 13, was a no-brainer.
“When you recruit kids and you talk to their families, you talk about different scenarios, usually with regard to injury, but never really something this serious,” Painter said. “We made a commitment to him, and we’re honoring that. We want to make sure he’s keeping his focus on his academics because that’s where his future’s at.”
Simpson can be around the team as much as his schedule allows, but he’s under no obligation from Painter to be there. Mom, worried that without basketball her son might stray, was happy to learn of the opportunity.
“I kind of figured he might get off path with everything that was happening to him,” Biggers said.
Simpson said coaching might be in his future. He’s thought about starting a business.
“I feel like he’ll be a great coach,” Taylor said. “We talk about him coming back and walking around when he’s done there and inspiring others, especially with so much going on in our community. I feel like people can see him as somebody who has been places.”
Simpson already has started picking Painter’s brain. The next step is to educate up-and-coming basketball players.
“I’m going to let them all know, at least the ones I can talk to, not to take it for granted because the same thing that happened to me can happen to you. You just never know,” Simpson said.
Through all of it, Simpson has learned quite a bit about himself.
“I’m tougher than I thought,” he said. “I didn’t think if you took basketball away from me that I would have a plan or be able to function.”
Kye has heard all about it.
“It really just taught me not to take anything for granted, to go hard at everything,” Simpson said. “That’s what I want to (instill) in him at a young age.”