Tyreese Breshers: From Possible Death, To A Diploma
April 18, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - How good was Tyreese Breshers? How good could he have become for the Huskies?
He was an all-section scorer, rebounder and shot blocker in high school in South Central Los Angeles. As a junior he averaged 17 points, 11 rebounds and a state-best six blocked shots per game. As a senior he again had 20-point games - while playing on a broken shin.
In his Washington debut in 2010, the forward started 11 consecutive games and finished fifth all-time among UW freshmen with 26 blocks. He averaged a team-best 3.1 blocks per game, despite being just 6 feet 7 and in constant knee pain.
"I knew what my gifts were," he says, without bravado.
But how bad could it have gotten for Breshers had he played another season beyond that one?
"The worst consequence was," he told me this week, "I could die."
The fact he is not only still alive but about to graduate from college is the result of a remarkable combination of proactive medical care, a wide-ranging support group stretching from California to Seattle, and the 22-year-old's determination to find hope and accomplishment amid what at the time seemed to him to be a hopeless sentence.
"I have tremendous respect for Tyreese for the ways he has handled his situation, continued to support his team, and found other productive avenues at the university," Dr. Jonathan Drezner said.
He is the UW team physician and specialist in cardiac care who in the summer of 2010 diagnosed Breshers with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy heart disease, ending his basketball career prior to his redshirt sophomore season.
"Not every athlete could approach such adversity with as much maturity as he has," Drezner says.
Last week at the Huskies' season-ending basketball banquet on the floor of Alaska Airlines Arena, the departing senior revealed for the first time the heart condition that killed Hank Gathers is why he was forced to give up basketball at the age of 20.
The worst consequence was I could die.Gathers, the former scoring star for Loyola Marymount, collapsed on LMU's home court in 1990 after experiencing an abnormal heart rhythm following a dunk in a game. An autopsy discovered he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
The Mayo Clinic defines HCM as "a disease in which the heart muscle (myocardium) becomes abnormally thick -- or hypertrophied. This thickened heart muscle can make it harder for the heart to pump blood. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy may also affect the heart's electrical system."
Essentially, the heart muscle grows so large blood can't pass through it easily. Irregular heartbeats often result.
Reggie Lewis is another basketball player who died from HCM, while as the Boston Celtics' leading scorer in 1993. Former Portland Trail Blazer Kevin Duckworth, NFL defensive end Gaines Adams, marathon runner Ryan Shay, recent NHL draft pick Alexei Cherepanov, and Major League Baseball pitcher Joe Kennedy are other athletes who have died from what Breshers lives with today.
For nearly two years -- since his diagnosis when he was in the best shape of his life, primed to become a small-forward extraordinaire some were already comparing to Gathers and to Charles Barkley -- Breshers kept his diagnosis to himself, his family, his teammates and his girlfriend, Huskies volleyball player Bianca Rowland.
He didn't want the attention. Never has. But on the night last week that coach Lorenzo Romar was honoring him plus fellow departing seniors Darnell Gant and Brendan Sherrer in front of a couple hundred members of the team's extended family, Breshers broke his silence.
He calls it a huge weight off his shoulders.
"I still get a lot of people come up to me saying, `Oh, sorry, man. Is it your leg? Is it this, is it that?'" he said Monday, seated in the lower seats of the otherwise empty arena that never truly became his college home floor. "There was a lot of speculation. No one ever knew. ... Answering those questions was hard for me."
"Hopefully, I don't have to explain myself (anymore). Hopefully."
"I JUST BROKE DOWN, STARTED CRYING"
UW's renowned medical staff found first signs of Breshers' enlarged heart muscle days after he arrived on campus for the Fall 2008 quarter.
"It was found when - well, see, that's where the story gets really random," Breshers said, speaking with occasional emotion in his voice.
Not every athlete could approach such adversity with as much maturity as he hasHe arrived at Washington with the year-old fractured shin. He had missed 12 weeks of working out from while in a cast, from the end of his senior year in high school in the late spring until the start of college in September of 2008. Yet the leg still would not heal.
He decided to have a metal rod inserted in the lower part of his left leg soon after he got to UW. Part of the pre-surgery preparation for general anesthesia included an electrocardiogram (EKG) test on his heart. UW Medicine also had, by the time Breshers had arrived on campus, recently started its EKG screening program for baseline testing on all Huskies athletes.
Bresher's first EKG showed "some abnormal findings that could be consistent with a heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy)," according to Dr. Drezner.
"But it wasn't enough to say I couldn't stop playing," Breshers said. "They said they would monitor me."
"Cardiac imaging is used to look more closely at the heart size and thickness. His initial work-up was within a normal range," Drezner said. "A study that had long-term follow-up in athletes with a markedly abnormal EKG and a normal initial structural evaluation showed that about six percent of these athletes may go on to develop the structural findings consistent with a cardiomyopathy.
"In consultation with our cardiology team, there was no definitive evidence at first of a cardiomyopathy, and he was allowed to continue participation with close, serial follow-up evaluations."
Breshers never had trouble with his heart before that. But he had a prudent reaction to Drezner's news he'd be constantly monitored: "OK, cool. Better be safe than sorry."
He sat out the 2008-09 season redshirting and did limited workouts while enduring knee pain that was the result of the shin surgery. His first season playing for the Huskies, in 2009-10, was what he called "an all-right season for a freshman, I guess."
With doctors monitoring his heart, he finished fifth all-time among UW freshmen with 26 blocks, behind record-holder Spencer Hawes' 54. After Breshers tied his career-high with 12 points and had four blocks against San Francisco in late December, Romar put him in the starting lineup at Arizona State on Jan. 8. He stayed there for 11 consecutive games, becoming an inside force for a team that eventually won the Pac-10 tournament title in his hometown and then advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
Breshers spent part of that ensuing summer back home in Los Angeles.
"I worked out hard (at home)," he said. "I could actually get into a workout. I lost 10, 15 pounds. I could run again. I felt I increased my vertical (jump). The last time I could jump was in high school."
At the peak condition of his life, Breshers got his preseason physical upon his return to campus in late summer 2010. A couple days later, he was working out at the North Gym inside Hec Edmundson Pavilion with Huskies guard Scott Suggs - "I shot good that day, really good that day," he says, smiling. He then walked downstairs and across the arena's main floor to keep the appointment he had made that morning to see basketball trainer Pat Jenkins.
He was surprised to find Dr. Drezner in the trainer's office, too. He got startled again when they closed the door behind him.
"OK, this is weird," Breshers thought. "What's going on?"
Drezner told the redshirt sophomore he had become one of that six percent of athletes whose hearts enlarged to cardiomyopathy.
"I thought it was a joke," Breshers said Monday. "Or, I was thinking it was some kind of test (of his reaction), a survey or something." It didn't seem like it that morning, and it still may not strike him as such today, but he was lucky in some hugely important ways. Few universities understand the potential for sudden cardiac incidents better than UW. And Breshers had one of the leading experts in that field treating him. Drezner's principal research is on the use of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in athletic settings, emergency preparedness for sudden cardiac arrest and the secondary prevention of sudden cardiac death in young athletes. He has been a force behind Seattle Public Schools recently installing AEDs in its buildings. He authored internationally recognized studies on cardiac issues, including one published last year by the American Heart Association. He was the lead author in a study of deaths of NCAA athletes from 2004 through '08. Among other findings, he and UW colleague Dr. Kim Harmon learned African-American athletes had a sudden cardiac death rate of one in 17,696, compared with one in 58,653 for Caucasian competitors. The risk for males was one in 33,134, compared with one in 76,646 for females. Basketball had the highest risk of sudden cardiac death, with a rate of one in 11,394. The risk of sudden cardiac death in Division-I male basketball athletes was about one in 3,000.
Breshers fit all those categories - and had just been diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
Plus, on New Year's Eve 2002, Huskies women's guard Kayla Burt had cardiac arrest in her apartment. Her teammates helped save her life. She played another season and a half with a defibrillator installed in her chest and with Harmon monitoring her closely, until the device fired twice in front of Harmon during a game. That ended Burt's Huskies career - and set a precedent for how UW provided cardiac care to its athletes.
Breshers benefitted from that precedent.
It likely helped save his life.
"What Kayla's case (and others) did provide was a framework to work within," Drezner says. "The university, specifically the team doc, has the authority to make participation decisions related to athlete safety."
That's why Drezner was in the Jenkins' office that summer morning two years ago. He talked to Breshers for almost three hours. He showed him pictures showing a normal heart and one with HCM. He showed Breshers images from his cardiac MRI. Romar was out of town but was connected to the conversation via speaker phone.
Breshers' immediate reaction to being told his dream was over: "I feel too good. There's no reason for you to tell me not to play basketball."
To that point, Drezner agreed.
Tyreese appeared to be in great physical shape. This makes it even harder to imagine how such an elite athlete could harbor a serious heart condition."Tyreese appeared to be in great physical shape," he said. "This makes it even harder to imagine how such an elite athlete could harbor a serious heart condition."
It was a life-or-death disconnect.
"It didn't actually hit me until I called my mom," Breshers said. "I just broke down, started crying."
Hours after he shot the lights out with Suggs, Breshers was in the middle of the Huskies' locker room sobbing uncontrollably, weeks before what should have been the continuation of a promising career.
"I just thought about not being here," he said. "When they told me, my mom flew up the next day - I don't how much that cost - and ... I don't know, I just wanted to be around my family."
His mother Vickie still lives in the home where Tyreese grew up, in Gardena. That's about 10 minutes from where he played at Frederick K.C. Price III School in South Central L.A. She also raised his brother Brandon, now 28, and sister Tori, a senior at Narbonne High School in the Harbor City area of Los Angeles.
His UW doctor will always remember the day he ended Breshers' career.
"I remember that Tyreese took a moment to himself with his mom Vickie on the phone. Then I believe we spoke to Vickie as well," Drezner said. "It was really important that Tyreese and his family understood that we cared for him and were going to take care of him while at UW, no matter what.
"I'll never forget that morning," said the former team doctor at the University of Pennsylvania. "This was one of the hardest moments in my career as a team physician."
Breshers considered leaving school immediately to be with his family in L.A. But he decided doing so after he had started the new academic quarter was "unreasonable for me in the long run."
He knew quitting then probably meant he'd never go back to school, anywhere. His life could have spiraled from there.
"And those guys are my teammates, but they've become my family over four years," he says of his Huskies. "They are the ones I come to when I can't talk to my mom about something."
Plus, he says with a smile, his driven mother would never let him quit UW.
So he stayed.
Romar still marvels over that decision.
"Most people probably would have hung it up, quit and gone home after you take away their dream. Tyreese stayed. I am proud of him for that," the coach told the banquet audience last week. "He deserves a lot of credit."
Like it did for starting lineman Colin Porter last month when degenerative arthritis in both shoulders forced the junior to give up football, Washington told Breshers he would remain on scholarship so he could finish his degree.
Yet fall quarter after his diagnosis was the worst of his college career. His grades suffered. His fitness suffered. His attitude suffered.
"I didn't want to do anything," he says.
He credits Lisa Bruce, a learning specialist from UW's acclaimed Student Athlete Academic Services (SAAS) office, for keeping him going academically.
"I would say, `I can't do this," Breshers said. "And she would say, `Just hang in there. Just get your degree. That has to be your motivation now.'
"Ever since I began playing, since I was four or five years old, basketball has always been the motivation for school for me. Not school for basketball. That's why I'd never really put forth the effort in class. I did the minimum to where I was able to keep playing, to meet the requirements for playing. So I had to learn to deal with that, too."
Bruce deflects the credit back to Breshers.
I'm willing to give blood, sweat and tears (for basketball). But I'm not going to die for it.""The easy thing to do would have been to just go home, but he chose the more difficult path," she said. "It helped that his mom was so supportive, and that the coaches kept him close to the team. But in the end it was Tyreese's own determination and strong character that kept him from quitting."
Breshers could have sought a second medical opinion. He could have transferred.
Why didn't he?
"I don't take dying lightly," he said.
"It's hard for me to say basketball is just a game, because it's not just a game for me. But I'm not willing to die over basketball. That's where I draw the line. I'm willing to give blood, sweat and tears. But I'm not going to die for it."
"GRIEVING - I DON'T EVEN KNOW IF THAT'S THE RIGHT WORD"
A few weeks after the diagnosis ended his career Breshers turned on the TV and by chance came across a documentary on Gathers' death.
"I was actually sitting at home when I was kind of grieving - I don't even know if that's the right word. I was watching ESPN and they had a '30 For 30' on him," he said. "It helped, (but) it kind of hurt."
"It was eye-opening, that's why it hurt," Breshers says. "I would never want my family, my friends, all my coaches to have to (go through that). What if that happened to me? I hate being the center of attention, and I would never want that to be the center of attention having to do with me."
I asked him how much he appreciates UW giving him the opportunity to keep his scholarship and finish his degree.
"I appreciate it now," he said. "But when I was going through it, all I could think about was playing basketball. I wasn't thinking about the fact that I was able to stay around."
Romar didn't just invite Breshers to stay on scholarship. He had him at every practice, every game, every road trip. He was the one casual fans would wonder about while seeing him on television at the conference and NCAA tournaments. This formidable-looking, 6-7, 260-pound dude in street clothes was sitting midway down the bench looking like he could help the Huskies that night.
"I think he saw more than that if I was not able to be around the team that would have fueled even more depression," Breshers says of Romar.
I saw Breshers in all the Huskies' practices and team hotels, on the bench and in the locker rooms the last two seasons. He was usually silent with headphones on, except for when he would playfully shoot from halfcourt at the start of road practices. I couldn't help but wonder what was going through his mind, a 21-year-old in his athletic prime denied the chance to do what he loves - yet watching as teammates got to pursue their dreams a few feet away from where he sat, every day.
"The first year especially was REALLY hard," he says. "The first year, I didn't help out anybody. I don't know if I was a distraction, I don't know if the coaches would say I was a distraction, but I know I wasn't there for team purposes. I was there just to get away from here. From everything."
Adding to his pain: The guard-dominated Huskies could have used exactly what Breshers was providing. He had strength and tenacity in rebounding and on defense inside, with the versatility to step out to make mid-range jump shots.
"The thing that hurt me more than anything was knowing that I still can play. I still feel like I can play," he says. "I still feel the same when I was walking around two years ago. But then when I start running and my heart starts beating fast that's when I know I can't play. But I can still jump. If I worked on my shooting I could still shoot like I did.
"I just can't run for more than two minutes. My heart beats harder now. I can feel it through my arms and legs. I can feel it in my fingertips."
He and others with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can live normal, healthy lives as long as they keep their heart rates managed. Breshers rides the exercise bike now instead of running, as long as he doesn't exert to the point of straining.
Some with his condition are prescribed "beta blockers," as Gathers was before he died. Breshers isn't taking medication. He has a mandate to avoid any physical exertion that pushes his heart rate above 140 beats per minute.
His mood and attitude U-turned this past season, thanks to the arrival of seven freshmen on what was the youngest team Romar has had in 10 seasons leading Washington.
I just can't run for more than two minutes. My heart beats harder now. I can feel it through my arms and legs. I can feel it in my fingertips.""This year, travel was a lot easier because I saw myself more as a coach, especially with all these freshmen," Breshers said.
That ignited the spark in Breshers to coach.
"Since I can't play basketball," he said, "I'd rather help other people with basketball."
AN ACE SUPPORT TEAM
Breshers is set to graduate with a bachelor's degree in American Ethnic Studies. Those who shared his journey to graduation know it's no routine diploma.
"I'm so excited to see him graduate in June, but sad because I will miss having him around," Bruce said. "I know he will do good things with his life because of who he is."
Breshers wants to coach in basketball camps this summer, hopefully in Romar's at Washington or perhaps again at Seattle Pacific University across town, where he has worked before. Then he hopes to network his way into beginning a college coaching career this fall - an endeavor that is next to impossible without a college degree.
Breshers says Rowland, his girlfriend for years, is a large reason why he'll get that paper in two months.
"She was probably there for me more than anybody outside of my family, after I was told I couldn't play. She and I have been through it all," he says, with a chuckle. "I think I've cried more to her than anybody else."
Breshers also has what he considers an ace in the hand life has dealt him.
"I know God played a huge part in this," he says.
Connect these dots with him to find out why:
Breshers broke his shin at the start of his senior year. He still excelled with 20-point games at Price School, "but I was not ever able to run the court."
He came to UW and had the surgery to insert the rod in his leg, but then his knee "all of a sudden" started hurting. That kept him from playing or even running in his first season with the Huskies. So he redshirted.
Then came the heart diagnosis. Without that ... well, he knows exactly what could have happened.
"It was God's way of keeping my heart rate down, because I was never able to run," he says, raising his eyebrows.
"It's a huge coincidence. Or something else happened. And I think it's God."
Breshers says he always thought it was cliché to say, "God has something planned for you." Then this happened to him.
"I couldn't run. Why was I good enough to get a scholarship, but then I couldn't run?" he asks.
"He has something planned for me. And I'm along for the ride."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.