Simpson: "I feel very fortunate to be alive"

Jay Simpson understands how HCM could've taken his life. The former Purdue center is grateful it was diagnosed before tragedy could strike.

WEST LAFAYETTE - Rapheal Davis pondered the question for a moment, pausing to be sure he could capture the magnitude of what has happened to dear friend and Purdue men's basketball teammate Jay Simpson.

It has been exactly a week now since the 6-foot-10, 250-pound redshirt freshman center learned that he has a heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which took the lives of high profile basketball players Hank Gathers, Reggie Lewis, Kevin Duckworth and Jason Collier.

Simpson, who fought through a broken foot, asthma and stamina issues to become a significant contributor as a Boilermaker, tumbled to the floor in a recent game at Nebraska, scaring coach Matt Painter and most fans who were watching the contest on TV.

The big man from Champaign, Ill., visited with three cardiac specialists in the next week before it was determined he never will play competitive basketball again.

Davis, with whom Simpson spent his senior year at LaPorte La Lumiere before coming to Purdue, expressed a sentiment that anyone who knows Simpson would be comfortable sharing.

"It's like when you are little, and you see your little brother, and you see his toys get taken away," Davis said. "Everything he loves to do gets taken from him. You know he is sad, but you try and be there for him ... be a good big brother.

"I know it hurts right now, but he has a good family and good support. He has a good girlfriend and things like that. He know he has me when he needs me. He is just trying to take it day by day. He can still live a great life. He can stay at Purdue, be on scholarship and get his education, which to me is the most important part of being here."

Simpson, who was averaging 4.3 points and 3.6 rebounds as A.J. Hammons' backup, shared his life-changing experience on Tuesday afternoon in his first public meeting with media members since the episode at Nebraska.

"It has sunk in a little bit, but it didn't right away," Simpson said. "it took a few days for me to realize that it was actually over. It's hard, but I am trying to stay positive. I want to get more in touch with God and my family. Everybody is telling me that everything is going to be OK, but that is just hard to take.

"It is very important for me to stay involved, because during the past two years, everybody has created a bond. We all share the same dream."

Then in an instant, that dream was gone.

"When I fell, I really didn't know what was happening," Simpson said. "When I got back up, I told (the trainer) that I was all right. He asked me if I wanted to go to the locker room, and I said I was OK. That is all I can remember."

During the next week, Simpson was seen by three doctors, including a specialist in Minneapolis. He did not want to think about the possibility of never playing again. He thought he could get some medicine that would cure any condition. He fully anticipated being able to return to the court in two weeks.

But on March 4 after undergoing an entire day of testing in Minneapolis, a doctor delivered the news that Simpson's career in competitive basketball is over.

"I do feel blessed, because usually a person with this is dead," Simpson said. "The doctors said it is hereditary, but I had no clue. It was news to me."

Simpson said he has yet to ask doctors if the heart condition is linked to his struggles to get into college basketball shape. He was born with asthma but does not know if that ailment masked HCM.

"I have to stay positive and get my grades up," Simpson said. "I want to get my degree as quickly as I can and start my (professional) life."

Simpson wants to be with the team every day while he remains in school. He wants to attend every game. He will meet with a cardiologist again soon to determine what physical activity he may do but has to be prepared for the reality that even a pickup basketball game may not be in the cards with this condition.

Simpson had been familiar with HCM, having watched a documentary about Gathers. He knew everything about Gathers and how the former Loyola Marymount star died.

"I feel very fortunate to be alive," Simpson said. "I thank God every morning now when I wake up."

As coach Matt Painter said Tuesday morning, what happened to Simpson is disappointing, but it is not tragic. With proper monitoring, Simpson should live a very long and productive life.

He said Tuesday that he will pursue a career in sports broadcasting, even smiling as he talked about that potential path.

It is a shame that Simpson could not pursue a path that would have included many years on a basketball court, but it certainly is a blessing that the fall to the court on Feb. 23 in Lincoln, Neb. did not take his life.

Painter is correct in saying this chapter is disappointing, yet it is far from tragic.

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