Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett
MONTREAL — Jonathan Telfort, is a 6-foot-2, 183-pound sophomore guard on the McGill men’s basketball team. Pound-for-pound, he’s one of the strongest players on the team and arguably, one of the better athletes. A measure of physical fitness. Rapidly approaching his athletic prime. In a bit of cruel irony, just before the peak of his athletic prowess, he was left low and powerless.
In McGill’s Love Competition Hall, on the evening of Nov. 17, 2014; in a controlled scrimmage organized to prepare the Redmen for their upcoming schedule in the RSEQ conference, no different than any other he’d experienced before, everything changed.
This is a man known for his love of competition. The opponent was College Edouard-Montpetit, his old junior college team. Telfort was about to show out, show off. Show how far he’d come. After a five-minute stint on the court, the 21-year-old Telfort relives what happened next.
“I was on the bench and suddenly I felt really tired and dizzy. I looked down and I was saying to myself to come down. I closed my eyes for a second just to relax for a bit and I lost consciousness”
Telfort doesn’t recall what happened next but team captain Vincent Dufort does.
“He started leaning left and right onto the guys next to him as they tried to push him back to his normal sitting position, when all of a sudden he collapsed.”
“It was definitely a moment in my life that I will never forget,” recalls Redmen head coach David DeAveiro. “The players began calling me and when I looked over, “JT” was reaching out as he was sliding down towards the floor… off the bench onto the floor. We laid him down on the (court) and began to see if he was responsive. There was no response.”
Dufort remembers the scary scene “We all backed off to give him space as he gasped for air, while the coaches grabbed his hands and repeatedly said ‘Stay with us JT’.”
“I remember telling my assistant coach to call 911” said DeAveiro.
Rola Abouassaly and Tiffany Moey, who are both staff therapists with the McGill Sport Medicine Clinic, were on the scene and immediately began CPR. Luckily the portable defibrillator, was close by at the Winsor Clinic, about 20 yards away from the court.
“She recognized that JT needed the defibrillator immediately. The two of them continued to work on JT until an Emergency Medical Response team arrived in an ambulance minutes after the call was place. Still no response (from Telfort),” DeAveiro added.
Two other staff therapists from the Winsor Clinic rushed in to help. The medical team continued to give CPR and a number of shocks with the defibrillator. Telfort did not appear to have a pulse for perhaps 10-12 minutes but they continued to work on him.
Although they were helpless the players were still on edge. “It was not something that was easy to watch but the coaches acted quickly and told us to leave the gym and go to the locker room” said Dufort, a senior.
With the medics worried about the physical health of Telfort, a local player from Boucherville, located on Montreal’s south shore. Coach DeAveiro turned his attention to the mental health of his players.
“I cleared the gym and sent our players to the locker room. I didn’t want them watching as JT wasn’t responding to any of the CPR. The response unit continued to perform CPR but he wasn’t responding. I remember having to call his dad and informing him that he needed to rush to the gym because JT was unconscious. I went downstairs to our locker room and we huddled together and said a prayer for JT. I ran back upstairs hoping that he would have responded but it wasn’t happening. I sat at the other end of the gym, couldn’t bear to watch, it had been too long and now I was worried that he might have brain damage. I feared that we were losing JT.”
That same fear was shared in the locker room according to Dufort.
“All I can remember then was a dead silent room full of 18 guys impatiently waiting to hear from them,” he said.
Coaches stress about time all of the time. Time management, recovery time, pace of play, whether it’s monitoring the shot clock or a stop watch, a basketball coach is acutely aware of time. DeAveiro knew all too well his young student-athlete, an electrical engineering major, was running out of it. Time stood still for the solemn coach.
Then the ambulance technician administered shots of adrenalin to the heart.
“Suddenly the sound of joy from the paramedics as he responded to what was perhaps the final shock from the defib. It was a miracle!” said DeAveiro.
“The lord has a plan for JT. It wasn’t his time,” said DeAveiro. “The paramedics and our staff saved his life. I ran downstairs and shared the news with our team. You can imagine the sense of relief. These guys love JT.”
He was whisked off to a nearby hospital where the emergency doctor on duty said that the quick thinking and subsequent actions by the collaborative medical team saved Telfort’s life.
“After about 30-45 minutes, coach came down and told us that they managed to get JT in a stable condition and that he was being taken to the hospital, and we all prayed for him together. Coach briefly explained to us what had happened and told us it was nothing short of a miracle. The guys decided it would be best to all stay together for the evening until we heard more news from coach,” recalled Dufort who then became the liaison from the coaching staff to the rest of the team regarding their fallen teammate’s condition.
“We all went to Tom (Lacy) and Christian’s (McCue) place and waited for him to call me with more details so I could let them know what was going on.”
As the team huddled at the on-campus apartment, they worried about their second-year guard and what the day’s events meant for his short-term and long-term future.
First, at the Royal Victoria hospital and then after being transferred to the Montreal General hospital, Telfort was put through a battery of assessments, including tests of his family members to see if the issue was genetic.
All the while, Coach DeAveiro was by his side.
“One of the great things about McGill is that the hospital is right next door to the gym,” he said. “JT was in the recovery room when his parents arrived at the hospital. He was conscious but could not recall any of what happened. He continuously asked me what had happened even after I had explained it to him three or four times. I began to worry again until the doctor told me that was normal.”
Telfort was quickly back to normal, forever an optimist naturally making the best of his time as an in-patient.
“The room there was pretty nice,” he said sounding like a student used to the perils of dorm life. “I had my own room with a bathroom, a TV and a nice view over Montreal. Despite the waiting and all the tests, I had a pretty great time at the hospital.”
Dufort marveled at the positive attitude of his fallen backcourt mate “We visited JT in the hospital the next day in groups of 3-4 at a time, and the nurses couldn’t believe how many people were coming in to see him. It was amazing to walk into his room and see a huge smile on his face like nothing ever happened. He was laughing with us and making jokes. He even texted me late the night before, saying ‘I’m alright and I can’t wait to get back to practice to kick your butt!’.”
Sadly the practice butt kicks would be oral, not physical from now on. The news given to Telfort could have been much worse but certainly wasn’t good.
“After all the multiple tests that I have been through, they did not find any heart defects or abnormalities. They do not know why it happened. In case it happens again, they put an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator into me.”
Since the root cause wasn’t found, a decision was made not only to operate and install the defibrillator, but also that this young student-athlete couldn’t play competitive basketball ever again due to fear of a recurrence.
DeAveiro’s reaction shows Telfort is more than a loss on the court.
“I was saddened by the news from the doctor that JT could no longer play. He is such a great kid and teammate. He had worked hard throughout the summer to improve his skills. We were hoping JT would become our defensive stopper. He is in such good physical shape, strong and fit. I never thought anything could stop JT. He is a young leader for our freshmen. Players look up to JT because he leads by example and never complains about anything.”
Similar sentiments were shared by his teammate Dufort.
“Obviously we were all very happy to see that he was okay, but it was also very sad to find out that someone so dedicated and who loved the game of basketball so much wouldn’t be able to play again. Jon is a great teammate and an awesome guy to have in the locker room. He is always challenging himself and others around him through his work ethic and his love and joy for the game rubs off onto everyone.”
Being around basketball now is more torturous than joyous for Telfort, who feels trapped in a body with the ability to play but is unable to.
“If you are any kind of competitor, it is really hard to watch the sport you love knowing that you could not play it for a long time,” he said.
Basketball was his life. In many ways it still is. It certainly was his identity, his id and ego. But how does one feel about a sport that both almost took his life and in many ways gave him back his life?
“I definitely think that basketball saved my life in a way. If it was not for this sport, I would probably not know that I would have been at risk for a cardiac arrest,” reflects Telfort.
Constantly conflicted with a sport you put your heart in to and now your heart can’t withstand. With no real cause, no specific ailment to hang the blame on. No certainty to whether or not he could play again unscathed. So why not totally walk away? Why not divorce yourself from the sport cold turkey; cut out the pain of being close to basketball but not being able to touch it when it continually eats away at you inside?
Because Jonathon Telfort wants to pick up the teammates that laid him down. He doesn’t want to walk away from the men who walked into his hospital room with cookies and companionship, multiple times a day. He doesn’t want to divorce the family that helped save his life.
“I treat my teammates as my brothers. We have been through a lot of ups and downs but we always managed to get through it as a big family. Those guys who I compete with are the same guys who will always support me. We are strongly united as a group. As l said, I consider them as my family. I feel honored to see that they have dedicated this season to me and they are working hard in practice.”
Any coach worth his salt wants to instill values in his players. However, you never really know if that desired culture exists until crisis reveals it. DeAveiro is proud of how his program embodied the values he hoped to instill.
“The players dedicated the season to JT. It was totally their initiative. We have always preached family and this was a fallen brother. These kids play for each other. It’s a big part of the success we have experienced over the last three years. Our guys had to be kicked out of his hospital room by the nurses. We were thrilled when he came home and he was right back at practice in a couple of days. He wanted to be around the team and we were all so happy to see him. He comes to practice every day, on every road trip, he is still a very big part of our team. He is the quiet voice in the locker room but when he speaks, he has everyone’s attention. He went and got a tattoo on his shoulder and arm reminding him of the day and how blessed he is to be alive.”
If they are to continue to have success Telfort might be even more influential as a motivator then he would have as a defensive stopper, Dufort explains.
“He always shows up in good spirits, doing anything he can to help make us a better team. I think as soon as it happened we all told ourselves that this season is for him. JT is one of the hardest working guys on the team. He gave us everything he had every day, and we dedicate this season to him by returning the favour and giving every ounce of what we have into every minute of playing time.”
Telfort is a constant reminder that the precious time on the court isn’t an infinite resource. It can all be taken away in an instant, thus shouldn’t be taken for granted.
The impact on him, on his teammates and on Coach DeAveiro will be felt far after the 2015 season.
“When something like this happens, it has a lasting effect on you” said Coach D, who one senses is still effected by the scary incident that happened months ago. “It puts everything in perspective, just how quickly things can happen and change your life forever. It is a moment in my life that I will never forget. I often dream of that night, I don’t believe it will ever leave me. I am just so grateful that JT is still with us.”
Dufort concurs. “Although it was through unfortunate circumstances, it definitely did bring the team closer together. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in basketball. It’s such a huge part of our lives that we can forget that it’s just a game and I think this allowed us to take a step back and understand that. We’re all very competitive people and play to win championships and put up banners, but things like this make you realize that what really matters is the friendships you build and the memories you make along the way.”
Whether or not the two-time defending RSEQ champions three-peat in the next month and advance deep at the CIS Final 8 national championship, one can tell that this incarnation of the Redmen are better, more unified, more grateful than they ever were before.
The McGill memory of Nov 17, 2014 was both a nightmare and a miracle. Such is the prognosis for Jonathon Telfort. For the players that carry on in his stead, any late game time-out or do-or-die situation won’t feel as tense as that day. Any pressure that a single-elimination format brings, won’t be overwhelming. Because of the manner that a single player was taken off their active roster but not removed from their heart.