On May 31, freshman Jaylen Riley went with many of his future Independence teammates to get what he thought would be a routine physical before his first high school football season.
During his screening, however, nurses found that his blood pressure was abnormally high – approximately 180/167.
Jaylen and his parents, Nicole and Markell, met with pediatric cardiologist Dr. Gonzalo Wallis five days later. Wallis told Jaylen, 14, that his left heart valve was leaking backward into his heart, causing it to enlarge.
Jaylen would need open-heart surgery.
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“Before (Wallis) even said anything, my worst fear began to make me numb and I blurted out, ‘Are you are going to have to cut my baby’s chest open?’ ” Nicole Riley recalled. “I was frozen at the realization that my son was going to have to have this major surgery. ...
“The scary thing is, this was never detected in any physical activities, as he has been a very energetic young man. He plays a sport year-round, and there was never any indication of a problem.”
“When I heard that I would have to have surgery, I went silent, and then I started to cry,” Jaylen said. “I just thought about not being able to ever play football again.”
On Aug. 21, however, there was Jaylen – on the field for Independence’s junior-varsity season-opener against South Mecklenburg High.
‘Cool, calm and collected’
Jaylen and his parents met with surgeon Dr. Benjamin Peeler less than a week after meeting Wallis, and discussed the specifics of his surgery, which would take place June 23.
Jaylen says he wasn’t nervous.
“I was cool, calm and collected when I went into surgery that morning,” said Jaylen, whose nickname is “J.J.”
“I believed in the doctors and I knew they would do the best they could to fix the problem.”
Markell Riley said that is how his son approaches nearly everything.
“When he was going to the hospital for surgery, you would have thought he was just going out to lunch,” Markell Riley said. “I don’t know exactly where he gets that from, but I think it’s his older brother, Javon, because he is the exact same way.”
Peeler was able to repair the heart valve.
Three days after surgery, Jaylen was discharged from the hospital sore and tired, but ready to be a normal teenager as soon as he got home.
“I remember going to football workouts and just watching and looking at the wide receivers do drills, and I wanted to go out and help them so bad,” Jaylen said. “It was horrible to have to stand on the sidelines, especially because it was supposed to be my first year at Independence.
“I had always looked forward to playing for Independence, like my brothers.”
Putting on the jersey
Jaylen is the third Riley brother to put on a “Big I” jersey, joining Javon, 24, who won two state-championship rings under coach Tom Knotts, and Markell Jr., 20, who played for Knotts and former head coach Bill Geiler.
Jaylen, 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, expected to be one of the top receivers in his Patriot class. After surgery, he thought he would have to sit and watch this season.
Then Independence offensive line coach and head junior-varsity coach Hal Brown asked Jaylen if he could play kicker, which Jaylen played growing up.
In late July, his doctors and parents agreed Jaylen could play kicker if he ran off the field immediately after he kicked: Jaylen would have to wait at least six more months until he could endure contact on the field.
“To finally put on that Patriot jersey and to know I was going to able to play felt great. It’s still hard to explain how good I felt,” Jaylen said. “After all I had been through, it was kind of hard to believe.”
Jaylen was cleared to run Aug. 1 – seven weeks after surgery – and cleared for kicking and normal activity Aug. 18.
On Aug. 21, Jaylen played in the JV team’s season-opening 33-21 win against South Mecklenburg.
The next game, against North Mecklenburg on Aug. 28, Jaylen kicked the ball off, ran off the field, then noticed the opposing returner break into the open field.
Jaylen’s instincts took over and he ran back onto the field. The Independence coaching staff and entire sideline pleaded with him to get off the field, which he eventually did – without contact.
“I immediately went over to Jaylen and said, ‘Do you want your momma to come out of the stands and kill me?’ ” Brown said, laughing.
Jaylen is eager to get back on the field with no restrictions.
“We are looking forward to him being a stellar wide receiver for us next year,” said Brown, the last remaining assistant from the Knotts era at Independence. “He’s definitely a special kid, and I think he will have an even better story three or four years from now.”
Heart of a champion
The Rileys say they couldn’t have gone through the surgery without the help of so many friends, family and supporters.
Nicole Riley said her church family at New Beginnings; the church family at Have a Life Ministries; the Mint Hill Mountaineer and Charger football family; the Lash Group, where Nicole works; Europa Sports, where Markell works; and the Northeast Middle School and Independence football families all have been a huge part of the recovery process.
She also encourages parents to sign their children up for “ Heart of a Champion Day,” a free sports health-screening program for high school students offered by Carolinas HealthCare System; that’s where Jaylen learned about his condition.
Nicole Riley says she took Jaylen to be screened at the insistence of her son Markell Jr., and now “knows it saved Jaylen’s life,” and could do the same for others.
“It’s definitely a surreal thing to see him out on the field even now,” Nicole Riley said. “We know it’s a gift from God, because we easily could have lost him.
“You never think something like this will happen to you or your family, but it can happen to anyone. To have Jaylen back and healthy, it’s a true, true blessing that we will never take for granted.”