All Heart: Gators assistant battling back
Volunteer assistant coach Joe McCabe was dying.
On the final stretch of pavement that signals the end of a comfortable walk from Goose Creek High School’s practice field to the locker room, McCabe’s legs began to give way. He was weaker. He was heating up; signs of a stroke or heart attack.
That’s when the nearly 40-minute nightmare started, less than 100 feet away from the locker room door. The same thoughts rolled on a loop in his head.
“All I could think was that I’ve got grandchildren. I’ve got two more children I want to see get married,” said the 48-year-old McCabe, who helps coach the program’s running backs. “I want to grow old with my wife. I didn’t want to leave yet. That’s what it felt like.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
McCabe did know all that stood between him and sudden death was an electronic gadget he had put in two years ago.
He guessed maybe it was failing him.
McCabe has an implantable cardioverter defibrillator next to his heart. The device also acts as a pacemaker. Either one responds if the heart beats too slowly or too fast.
On Nov. 5, 2012, the Monday after Goose Creek’s 31-23 win over rival Stratford, the device went haywire, sending McCabe’s life flashing before his eyes and shocking many others. McCabe received 53 electrical jolts in 45-second intervals, each giving birth to more worry for the longtime Gators assistant coach and a growing number of players and coaches showing up at the scene.
His heart medicine wasn’t working properly and McCabe’s heart rate revved up to 300 as a result.
So, the pacemaker was putting in overtime to keep McCabe alive.
“They say it’s going to save your life but I didn’t know what it was going to feel like,” McCabe said. “They said it could feel like a mule has kicked you in your chest.”
Eventually, an ambulance carried McCabe to Trident Medical Center where personnel got the pacemaker under control. He survived the scare that day.
But one crucial war remained - the one with himself.
At the heart of McCabe’s problems was poor health habits. He weighed 330 pounds and admits he wasn’t taking care of himself.
Looking back, it shakes him to know he nearly left them all behind: Wife of 22 years Kipley, step children Josh and Ryan Heavener. son Zachary McCabe and three grandchildren, including one that lives with him and Kipley.
Since the incident, McCabe has methodically taken 67 pounds off a frame better suited to carry a 185-pound man.
“I’ve never drank so much water in my life,” he said. “I’ve got too much to live for in front of me.”
That includes members of the Goose Creek Gators’ football and baseball teams. McCabe has been a volunteer assistant at GCHS for 15 years and stuck with the programs through thick and thin.
He jumped in with the Gators when they were at their lowest point on the football field, joining Chuck Reedy’s staff for the 2002 season.
The Gators were 0-11 in 2001 and won just one game in Reedy’s first campaign.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Reedy said. “There wasn’t a guarantee it was going to be a successful ride … we’ve had a lot of people volunteer through the years but very few of them have stuck with it.
“We consider Joe to be one of our full-time coaches and one of our family.”
To see McCabe fallen over in the bushes while waiting on the ambulance was difficult to take in for Reedy.
“It impacted everyone because we think a lot of Joe,” Reedy said. “Just seeing the situation he was in and not being able to do anything about it was very scary. It does get your attention. It reminds you how precious life is and how short it can be.”
McCabe said he received over 9,000 Facebook acknowledgements after word of the episode spread.
He worked up the courage to return to the school the Monday after Goose Creek’s playoff victory over Conway, exactly a week after the incident, and was welcomed back with a standing ovation.
“I went into the coach’s office and everyone stood up,” McCabe said. “When I got down the hall, the kids were coming out, shaking my hand and hugging me. That just builds you up.”
Tuesday was the first anniversary of the incident and the recent arrival of fall weather serves as a reminder too.
“Like last night, it was basically the same kind of weather,” McCabe said during a practice last week before the West Ashley game. “It was cold. It’s kind of weird.
“I don’t call them demons but I’m getting through the scary parts of it, getting through day to day now.”
McCabe continues to give it his all to keep his weight down. His blood pressure was perfect at the last checkup and the heart muscle is functioning 42 percent better. McCabe takes 13 pills a day, six in the morning and seven at night.
He wants to live longer for his two families. He carries both of them with him at all times.
“I love what this program has done,” McCabe said. “Watching it grow from where it was to where it is now has been amazing.
“Everybody thought they would give up on it.”
When McCabe thinks back about all that he’s been through with the Gators, this one day almost two years ago sticks out in his mind.
While shopping at Costco the Sunday after Goose Creek won its first football championship against Greenwood, McCabe was easily identified as part of the Gator Nation because of his clothes.
“Somebody comes over to me and wanted to know if I was a coach,” he said. “Then they said ‘wear it proud today.’”
That’s an every day thing for McCabe.
Only the clothes are getting smaller.