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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | Eric Sondheimer

Hein Takes Inside Track on Life After Close Call

May 24, 2000|Eric Sondheimer

On the eve of Taft High's bid to win City championships in boys' and girls' track, Coach Mel Hein has never so thoroughly cherished the sound of a starter's pistol or the sight of a teenager crossing the finish line with arms raised in triumph.

There are other things he appreciates, such as the relaxing view of the Pacific Ocean from his home in Topanga and cuddling his 3-month-old granddaughter.

When you've faced death and survived, your outlook on life changes. Family becomes more important. So does enjoying things that make you happy. Teaching and coaching give Hein a special feeling of fulfillment.

"It's beautiful," he said. "It's great to have the opportunity to work with kids and watch them grow and to mold them into young adults."

Nine months ago, his Taft students almost lost him.

On the morning of Aug. 30, he went outside to pick up the newspaper from the driveway, came back into his home and complained to his wife, Judy, about a terrible headache.

He asked for an aspirin. Judy had no medical training other than her instincts from 37 years of marriage and raising three boys. She sensed something was seriously wrong. Instead of going to the medicine cabinet, she dialed 911.

Mel had become groggy. He didn't know it then, but every minute away from the hospital was endangering his life. He was bleeding in his brain from a ruptured aneurysm.

Paramedics arrived and carried him from his upstairs room in a stretcher.

Mel called out to Judy.

"Call the team and tell them I may not be at practice today," he said.

He was transported to West Hills Hospital and Medical Center and underwent 6 1/2 hours of emergency brain surgery.

Arriving to offer support at the hospital were family, friends and neighbors. His son, Gary, 35, who played football at Taft and California and is a lawyer, came from the Bay Area. Son Cody, 28, who played on Taft's City Championship volleyball team in 1990 and is the women's coach at Florida Tech, flew in from Melbourne, Fla. Son Curtis, 32, who played football at Taft and USC and works for an escrow company, was in Mexico. He left his truck and dog to get to the hospital.

Thanks to Judy's quick action, valuable time was saved and the surgery was a success. Doctors repaired the bleeding vessel, with no permanent damage. Hein was transferred to UCLA Medical Center and spent close to a month in the hospital.

He returned to teaching and coaching at Taft after Thanksgiving with no physical problems other than having less stamina and some memory loss. At 59, he's grateful to be going strong.

"The doctor said 90% don't make it and 10% that do are afflicted by problems," he said. "I think anybody who comes that close to dying, it makes everything that much nicer. I'm closing in on 60 and still feel I have more productive years ahead."

Another Taft coach, assistant Kenny Mitchell, suffered a stroke last May that resulted in paralysis in his right arm. This year he returned to coaching the sprinters. That's two close calls for coaches Taft athletes admire, respect and need.

What a life Hein has lived. He once held the U.S. indoor pole vault record with a mark of 16-5 3/4 when he competed for USC. His father, Mel, was one of the greatest football players of the 20th Century, an eight-time All-Pro center for the New York Giants and charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Hein was a junior high physical education teacher for many years, preferring to watch his son's games rather than coach. In 1986, he came to Taft, joined the track and cross-country programs, and athletes have benefited ever since.

Taft's girls' team won City Championships in 1998 and 1999. The boys' team is heavily favored to win the City title Thursday night at Birmingham behind sprinter Fred Williams, hurdler-long jumper Chris Morgan, high jumper Fernando Lopez and distance runner Daniel Clements. The girls' team also is favored to win it all, led by sprinter Erin Reed, hurdler Deneeka Torrey and high jumper Schquay Brignac.

What does it mean to have Hein as coach?

"He cares about you," Morgan said. "He makes sure you do your best every time. He prepares you mentally and physically."

Teachers and coaches sometimes don't know the impact they have until years later, when students become adults and reflect on their high school experience.

Many students have thanked Hein through the years. But last September, Hein had a chance to express his gratitude to a former student, Shon Cook, a neurosurgeon at UCLA.

Cook ran track and cross-country at Taft, graduating in 1990. Ten years later, it was Dr. Cook helping his former coach recover from brain surgery.

"Thank you," Hein told Cook on the day he checked out of the hospital.

"Oh, you're welcome," Cook replied. "Coach, you've done so much for so many."

*

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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