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Season in seclusion, Part 2: Sanctions put the East High Leopards in crisis

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 4 2014 9:40 a.m. MST

Malena Johnson, mother to East High's football team member Korey Rush, consoles team members at the high school in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012. Top-ranked East High School's football team will be forced to forfeit seven games this season, including four of its five region contests, after they played four ineligible players.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Editor's note: This is the second of three-part story about the 2013 East High Leopards football team from two-a-days to its runner-up finish in the 4A state playoffs. Read part one here

Sina Suesue became enamored with playwright author Tennessee Williams studying English at the University of Utah. Her husband, Helaman, fell in love with the Smoky Mountains during an extended stay in the South. The couple was pregnant and pondering birth names when one suggestion seemed obvious.

Tennessee.

Nine years later, the young boy’s health declined. Twice Tennessee nearly succumbed in Sina’s arms. “One of the times he was with my wife and he got really cold,” Helaman said. “ ... His heart went to a place where he passed out and the nurse literally had to jump on his bed and resuscitate him.”

Procedures confirmed he had cardiac arrhythmia as his rapid, irregular heartbeat exceeded dangerous levels approaching cardiac arrest. The only stabilization was an electrical pacemaker, which confirmed Tennessee’s worst fear: no football.

“I felt like I couldn’t do anything, like I was paralyzed,” Tennessee said. “Football is something for me and when they told me I couldn’t play anymore, it was like I couldn’t do anything.”

Years passed before he underwent an ablation surgery in 2009 to burn the disruptive tissue. “It cured my heart situation,” he said, referring to the removal date for his pacemaker. “It’s going to be weird without it. When I go to the airport I’m still going to think that I have to get hand-checked, but I can go through the metal detector.”

Medical personnel cleared him for physical activity. He dreamt of the day he’d finally leave the grandstands. With the power of a battering ram at 6-foot-2, 295 pounds, he quickly earned the starting spot at right tackle as a junior. “I was on the football field,” he said. “I was in the moment.”

It was walkthroughs the night prior to the Highland game in 2012 when East coach Brandon Matich delivered the news of his ineligibility.

“I thought I was going to get in trouble with my grades,” Tennessee lamented. “Coach (Matich) pulled me aside with my dad and told me I was ineligible. He said something with your papers went wrong and you can’t play for the rest of the season.”

He clenched his hands in the same bleachers he prayed many times to avoid, and the man known for breaking down defenders broke down himself. “Honestly, I felt like the world was going to end,” he said. “When I heard that I started bawling; I was crying because that was my first year back.”

Tennessee had transferred to East, where his father was coaching. He previously played three freshman games at West, but discontinued when his pacemaker activated.

“I was already up here (at East), so when him and his mom decided he could play when he got his approval from the cardiologist, my mindset was, 'He’s been out for a year and a half,'” Helaman said. “That’s why when I filled out my paperwork it was under the impression that he was fine.”

Tennessee and teammates Dwayne Finau and Lorenzo Manu, who’d transferred from Highland and West, respectively, under similar “hardship” assumptions, were ensnared in a vortex of controversy.

“People can say what they want about what happened last year,” Helaman said. “It was one of those things: I didn’t expect him to make that kind of a comeback. Even being out here on the field is a miracle in itself. I’m grateful that I still have my son, and he’s playing the game he loves.”

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