Gorman: 'Just cross the finish line this time'
Tim Keefer always believed coaching sports was a greater calling, his own way of saving lives.
Little did the former Oliver High School football and basketball coach know that sports would twice save his.
Keefer discovered that he had kidney cancer only after breaking his nose while playing basketball in gym class.
Then two athletes resuscitated Keefer by performing CPR after he collapsed and went into cardiac arrest while running the Brookline Breeze 5K last Aug. 11.
A coaching lifer who is an assistant for Hempfield High football and Seton Hill University basketball, Keefer believes he's alive thanks to lessons learned in the athletic arena.
“It's funny,” said Keefer, 56, of Perryopolis. “All those years, I taught CPR in health class and showed all those films of a guy choking. That was me. It's a cliché, but sports do teach more.”
Active with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Keefer preaches overcoming adversity by being relentless. His mantra: Finish the job.
So it should come as no surprise that Keefer plans to run the Brookline Breeze again Saturday, one day before the one-year anniversary of his brush with death.
“I'm still on the clock,” said Keefer, who collapsed 400 yards from the finish line. “I didn't finish last year. My wife (Pauline) says, ‘Just cross the finish line this time.' ”
The cancer was Keefer's first test. While at the hospital for his nose, his high blood pressure necessitated more tests. A CT scan showed a speck on his kidney. He had a tumor the size of a silver dollar removed March 12, 2012.
Keefer's wry sense of humor before running the Breeze last year foreshadowed a near-fatal moment.
From the starting line, Keefer took a photo of Brookline Boulevard's steep incline and forwarded it to his wife, along with a note: If I don't make it back, you know why.
“He does that all the time,” she said. “He's a jokester. I didn't think anything of it, but after everything that happened, you think, ‘He shouldn't have run this race!' ”
“Little did I know,” he said.
Keefer was cruising to the finish when he dropped near Brookline Boulevard and Whited Street.
That's when Colin Hackman, a meteorologist from Wilmington, N.C., rushed to the rescue and found that Keefer had no pulse.
Hackman had learned CPR two weeks earlier for his other job, as a high school cross country coach, and started doing chest compressions.
Soon, he was joined by a paramedic, Rizieri Valles of Green Tree, who had wrestled at Keystone Oaks. Valles cleared mucus and vomit and gave Keefer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
The men, who had run the race, worked on Keefer for four minutes until an EMS crew arrived and transported him to UPMC Mercy.
Keefer spent five days in the intensive care unit and had a defibrillator installed in his chest. He was back on the field in time for football season.
Amazingly, after two near-death experiences, Keefer has no signs of cancer and no damage to his heart.
His story gets better.
Keefer's son, Zach, and daughter-in-law, Lisa, were expecting their first child and were broadsided while driving home from visiting him in the hospital. Keefer's first grandchild, Addilynn May, was born a week later, on Aug. 18.
Now retired, Keefer baby-sits his granddaughter and jokingly calls himself a “manny.”
“That,” he said, “was the greatest rehab ever.”
Keefer's sons Zach and Nick — who also coaches football at Hempfield —will run the Brookline Breeze with him. Keefer plans to see Hackman and Valles, who didn't quit until they saved his life, before and after the race.
Pauline and daughter Lauren will wait for them, cheering from the finish line.
“Hopefully he makes it over,” Pauline deadpans, matching her husband's wit and raising it. “I'm not walking it because I don't want to go into cardiac arrest.”
Keefer laughs, reminded that he didn't quit when his first Oliver basketball team went 0-19. The Bears played for the City League championship the next two years. You better believe he's running this race.
“When your son or daughter plays a sport, they're learning about life,” Keefer said. “That's what we're trying to teach kids: You finish.
“I'm running this race. This time I'm going to finish it.”