Varsity Notebook: Near-death experience give coach inspiring story to tell

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Hempfield football coach Rich Bowen looks at assistant coach Tim Keefer with disbelief -- Bowen is amazed when he sees Keefer's energy level and enthusiasm.

"He has had such a positive influence on everyone, including me," Bowen said. "It's just hard to believe this guy was dead for four minutes on Aug. 11."

If the WPIAL gave out a comeback coach of the year award, Keefer would be the runaway winner -- and it would have nothing to do with wins and losses. But it would have everything to do with surviving and inspiring.

Keefer had been head coach at Oliver High School for five years, but, when the school closed in June, his coaching future was up in the air. That's why he feels fortunate to be coaching with Bowen at Hempfield. Then again, Keefer simply feels lucky to be alive.

Keefer agreed this summer to take an assistant's job at Hempfield, where his son, Nick, is an assistant coach (another son, Zach, is an assistant at Frazier). Aug. 11, two days before the official start of high school football practice in Pennsylvania, Keefer was running in the Brookline Breeze, a 5K event in the Brookline neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He was 400 yards from the finish when he collapsed from a heart attack.

"They said I was dead for four minutes. I had no pulse," Keefer said.

This was nearly five months from the day he had part of a kidney removed because of cancer. It's hard to believe what Keefer went through when you see him bounce around the field at Hempfield.

"I'm not trying to be a hero or anything," said Keefer, 55. "But I'm just ecstatic to be coaching. Here's the thing. I see what happens sometimes to some guys who have heart attacks and strokes. To me, I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I can still do things."

Keefer gets emotional when he talks about that August day, when two men who already had finished the race stopped and did CPR on him until paramedics arrived. Keefer was hesitant at first to be interviewed for this report, but he wanted to recognize those two men who he believes saved his life. Keefer said the two men don't like to have their names publicized, but Keefer has talked to both. They are his "heroes."

"I've sent them gift cards, but what do you give people who saved your life?" Keefer said. "The point I'd like to make about those two is they were athletes when they were younger and they saved my life because they said they were just doing what coaches always told them to do -- don't quit. They didn't quit on me. The one who was giving me chest compressions was exhausted but kept going. ... I get emotional when I even talk about it."

Amazingly, Keefer said he has no heart damage. "It was all an electrical type of problem in my heart."

After the heart attack, he had surgery and a defibrillator was placed in his chest. He never had to take chemotherapy or radiation after the kidney surgery.

Due to the heart problem and the surgery, Keefer couldn't raise his left arm above his head for weeks, but he still coached. He was allowed to start jogging this week.

"Between doing a little jogging and walking, I'm up to about 4 miles a day now," said Keefer, a retired physical education and health teacher.

In his career, Keefer also had been the head boys basketball coach at Oliver for a decade, the girls basketball coach at Belle Vernon for a few years, the men's basketball coach at Penn State-McKeesport for a few years and a high school football assistant.

"I'm just so glad to be coaching again," Keefer said. "I missed a few weeks of preseason practices and I felt bad about that."

Bowen said: "He was only out for two weeks [after the heart attack]. The kids took to him right away when he started here. He's totally positive and totally upbeat. With what he has been through, he's really a motivational guy."

The 'Deal' for hoops

Gene Deal has been Shady Side Academy's athletic director for 23 years and also had coached the football team for eight seasons a while ago. But now Deal will try his hand at basketball.

Deal is the new boys basketball coach at Shady Side Academy. He succeeds Terence Parham (129-69), who resigned after eight seasons.

"I think it will be fun to get back on the other side of the desk," said Deal, 57. "Terence did a great job, and we have some good, young assistant coaches who might be ready to be a head coach in a year or so. But I didn't want to put them in the situation of having to coach a real young team like we have. It can be hard today on coaches -- if they're not quite ready.

"I told the kids, though, the last time I coached basketball I was in North Carolina and Michael Jordan was a freshman."

That was in the early 1980s at Gaston Day School, a private school in Gastonia, N.C. One of Deal's coaching opponents was Chuck DeVenzio, who coached at Providence Day School in Charlotte. DeVenzio was a legendary former coach in the WPIAL whose 1967 Ambridge team was one of the greatest in WPIAL history.

"I didn't know who Chuck was. I only knew of his son, Dickie," Deal said. "Well, Chuck beat me twice in the regular season in North Carolina, and we got to play him again in the playoffs. I stalled the ball and went four corners on him. I remember we were winning, 12-9, at halftime. Chuck always used to have a towel on his shoulder and as we were walking off the court at halftime, Chuck hit me with the towel and said, 'Start playing basketball.'

"He got a technical for that. But he ended up winning the game, 28-24."

'Crusade' of sisters

The Bishop Canevin girls soccer team is 6-1-1 and family business has played a role in the success.

The Crusaders have three sets of sisters on the team. Margaret Clarke is a senior and her freshman sister, Caroline, is the starting goalkeeper. Rebecca Vanek is a junior and her sister, Samantha, a freshman. Julianne Hart is a junior and her sister, Megan, a freshman. All six have started at least one game this season.

Arnie's grandson excels

Sixty-five years ago, a Latrobe High senior named Arnold Palmer won his second consecutive WPIAL boys golf championship.

Now his grandson is one of the top contenders to win the title.

The Class AAA individual championship is Wednesday at Fox Chapel Golf Club, and Latrobe senior Will Wears, Palmer's grandson, is one to watch. He finished 10th the past two seasons and 11th as a freshman. At a WPIAL semifinal Tuesday, Wears tied for first when he shot a 74 at The Links at Spring Church in Apollo.

The WPIAL Class AAA and AA girls championships will be Monday at 3 Lakes in Penn Hills.


Mike White:


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