Las Vegas Sun

June 22, 2021

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His heart was in the game

Over a plate of lettuce wraps, former UNLV soccer player Simon Keith realized, come November, he will have lived with his second heart longer than his first.

When he received a heart transplant at Papworth Hospital in England in 1986, he thought, "If I get 20 years out of this, I'm good."

"Well guess what? I'm not good," he says. "I want more than 20 years. I know my 10-year-old son wants me to have more than 20 years, 'cause I'm at year 21.

"I need at least another 20."

The only athlete to play a professional team sport after receiving a heart transplant, Keith, 42, believes that knowledge will stun friends, colleagues and others he's met in Las Vegas during the past 15 years.

"They have no idea of my past," he says. "But it's not my style to stand up and pound my chest."

Until recently, he had limited discussing his unique medical history to a few delicate words with daughter Samantha and son Sean. Daughter Sarah will be a sophomore at UNLV.

"I know now, today, as I sit here," Keith says, "I'm far more comfortable than I've ever been with the whole process."

Keith thought about returning to Papworth last July, on the 20th anniversary of his life-saving surgery, to show the small village near Cambridge to his wife, Kelly. He remembers a corner store. No stoplights.

He looked into flights. Didn't do it.

"I'm not a big sentimental guy," Keith says.

Built in the 1920s as a sanitorium for tuberculosis patients, Papworth is world renowned for its accomplishments and advancements in heart transplants.

The interior of the square, red-brick hospital is drab, gray and cramped. Elms and weeping willows surround a cluster of dwellings where patients convalesce with their families. The centerpiece is a duck pond.

The lush grounds were designed to encourage patients to venture outside.

Born in England, Keith moved to Canada with parents David and Sylvia and two older brothers when he was 2.

While he was playing soccer for the University of Victoria in 1984, an illness lingered after a game out on the cold prairie. Doctors diagnosed myocarditis, a deterioration of the heart muscle, and recommended a transplant, just not yet.

So he returned to his birthplace to bypass those Canadian obstacles when Terence English, the head cardiologist at Papworth, agreed to admit him.

English had assisted Christiaan Barnard in the first heart transplant in South Africa in 1967.

In grave condition 18 months after that first diagnosis, Keith received the heart of a 17-year-old Welsh soccer player who had died on the pitch from a brain aneurysm.

The vital characteristics of the organ were a flawless match for Keith.

Sylvia Keith knows the name of the player whose heart Keith carries, but Keith has never asked and doesn't want to know.

"You look back on it and gain perspective as you get older," Keith says. "I was so naive, cocky and arrogant, all good things at that age. No question, I got the perfect, perfect heart for me. Perfect."

A bulletin board by the Papworth nurses' station documents the hospital's many patients. There is no other newspaper story of someone who played a professional team sport after receiving a heart transplant.

"I'm waiting for the day," Keith says. "This kid will be dragged through the media mud ... it's not fun. It's bound to happen, right?"

Former UNLV coach Barry Barto knows Keith is a great story.

"What dreams are made of," Barto says.

Keith returned to Victoria, British Columbia, after his operation, then needed to leave. The constant attention suffocated him. Older brother Adam, who had been playing soccer at UNLV, told Barto he had a brother who was pretty good.

Only thing is, Adam Keith said, his brother had a heart transplant the previous year.

Barto gave Keith a tryout, liked the striker's cerebral style and nose for the goal, and Keith became a Rebel when UNLV was released from liability.

"We jumped through a lot of hoops to make that happen," Barto says. "Once that happened, he was treated like any other player.

Barto winced only when Keith, who wears a pacemaker to monitor his heartbeat, occasionally fielded a hard pass off his chest.

"He took it in stride," Barto says. "We almost forgot about it when he was out there playing."

The Keiths played on UNLV's last two NCAA tournament teams, in 1987 and 1988, with Simon Keith earning All-Big West Conference first-team honors as a senior.

He was picked by the Cleveland Crunch in the first round of the old Major Indoor Soccer League draft in 1989. Sports Illustrated highlighted him in its Milestones section.

Keith quit the game after two seasons; he wanted to score goals ; media everywhere always wanted to score another interview with the kid with the new heart. Travel demands and paltry pay added to that decision.

Like many UNLV athletes, he resettled in Las Vegas to raise his family and start a merchandising business.

A night before the interview, he ran into three former Rebels teammates.

"They're from other places, but they put down roots here," Keith says. "That's what this city is all about."

Keith felt he already had roots in Las Vegas. Barto and the rest of the program were invaluable to him.

"Those people took an enormous risk," he says. "We signed waivers, but the legacy of that ... talk about luck.

"I've had a lot of luck."

After 20 years, the 5-foot-8 scorer who played at 170 pounds looked dramatically different to former friends and teammates. Keith had to introduce himself to nearly everyone in the room at a Victoria Vikings team reunion three years ago.

"It takes its toll," he says. "Maybe I don't look so good sometimes, but it's part of being me, man. It's just part of the deal."

Doctors tell Keith he should live to collect Social Security.

He takes seven pills every morning to combat rejection, and to ease the burden on his kidneys and immune system. He recently received his seventh pacemaker, a procedure that didn't go so smoothly.

"Maybe I'm just getting older," he says.

For several years, he conducted youth clinics and toured the country to promote organ-donor cards, and to comfort and inform heart patients.

On a swing through Shreveport, La., Keith surprised Mohsin Hakim, the Egyptian surgeon who had performed his transplant and was pleased to hear about Keith's good health. Hakim later suffered a fatal heart attack.

For almost 21 years, Keith has experienced few side effects from his medication or complications from other illnesses.

"A lot of recipients I have interacted with have real issues," he says. "I've been really fortunate."

He plays ice and roller hockey, and he shot 85 at Rio Secco the other day in 108-degree heat. His one act in soccer is purely selfish - he coaches his son's regional Olympic Development Program's Under-13 team.

"I want to spend time with my son," he says. "That's it, Dude, I don't miss the game at all, not one bit."

A friend recently prompted him to dust off a 275-page manuscript about his life that a ghost writer produced about 10 years ago, which might lead to book and movie projects.

Keith is more open to those possibilities than ever, as comfortable as he was talking about his life over lettuce wraps.

"Maybe I'm ready," he says. "For some reason, it feels right."

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