Setting My Own Limits

Chris grew up playing every sport available, from baseball and football to water polo. When High School started, with more competitive play, his cardiologist didn’t think he should continue. Still, Chris found a way to keep his favorite sport in his life, despite his CHD.  He told us a bit about his experience in a recent interview.

Conquering CHD: Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself.

Chris: My name is Chris Hawkins. I was born and raised on the southside of Chicago, and I still live on the same block, across the street from my parents. I was born with D-TGA and had a Mustard repair. Luckily, the only issue I’ve had since my original surgery was in my late twenties when I went into A-Fib and had to have an ablation. I work full-time at FedEx, recently retired from coaching, and now take road trips on my motorcycle. I just finished a two-week, 5,000 mile trip through ten states and visited some amazing places I will never forget. 

Conquering CHD: How did you get into playing football and how old were you? 

Chris: I originally started playing little league baseball. During one particular game, I remember rounding first base, going to second, the second baseman was blocking my path, so I ran through him, knocked him over, and headed to third. When I slid into third, I remember hearing someone say, “You should be playing football.” I always enjoyed watching football, but never thought of playing. It was hard enough to get permission from my cardiologist to play baseball. I remember doing a ton of tests and him refusing to sign off on football. Somehow my parents got someone willing to sign the physical and I started playing my 5th-grade year. I still remember my first practice, I thought I was going to die. We never ran that much in baseball. 

That winter I went for my heart checkup and told my doctor I was playing football. He went into the hallway and talked to my parents. I don’t know what was said, but from that point on, as long as I did well in his test, I was allowed to play. By my third year, I was starting at defensive end. I still was not the greatest player, but I was smart. Each week we would meet in the coach’s house and watch a film of our next opponent. I would bring a notebook and write down everything. I would study to the point that come game day I knew every play the other team was running. We were playing the Elgin Vikings, I was standing by Coach May and calling out every play.I remember the coach yelling at the defense, “You guys can’t stop them, and I got a kid over on the sideline calling out everything they’re doing.” One of the kids who always stuck up for me, Barry Gardner, who ended up in the NFL, said “Well maybe you should put him in.” And that’s how I got my spot as a starter. I kept my position by studying, not by athleticism. I started to enjoy the chess match between the coaches and the challenge of figuring out what to expect play after play. I basically became a coach on the field. By the time I was in eighth grade I was playing four sports, baseball, football, water polo, and swim team. I was in amazing shape. I believe that had something to do with why I’m doing so well right now.

Conquering CHD: What was it like having to stop playing football?

My freshman year of high school was when my cardiologist decided that was enough and refused to allow me to play football. I was not happy, I was finally good at it, not great but good enough. I guess luckily for me, the high school I tested into didn’t have a football team, so I put my focus into baseball. In the spring, I tried out and made the team, but my cardiologist refused to sign off on the sports physical. He said high school sports were too competitive and too much of a risk. I remember him arguing with my father,  telling him that I might get hit in the chest with a pitch, which could stop my heart.

So with no sports and no motivation, my grades bottomed out. Sophomore year, my parents transferred me out to an all boys school, they thought the girls were a distraction. It was mostly a lack of motivation to be in school and not compete in sports. I understand now that back then, doctors really didn’t know what we were capable of, and they were only trying to protect me. I mean we were still basically guinea pigs. 

Conquering CHD: When did you get involved as a coach, did you find it rewarding? 

My father asked the football coach at my new school if I could at least practice with the team but the coach said it was just too much of a risk. So when my father got a coaching job at another local high school, he got me a coaching position too. I was a sophomore at Marist High School and an assistant freshman football coach at Leo High School. It was great, I got to do football drills and workout with the team while teaching the game. I wasn’t calling plays, but I was a good offensive/defensive line coach, and after a while, I became the defensive coordinator. 

Next, I coached two years of youth football.  The little kids reminded me of the fun of the game more so than just trying to win. They played for the joy of the game alone. Later, I took a head sophomore coach position at St. Laurence. I was hired by someone I coached at Leo. He introduced me to the team and their families saying, “Coach Hawk is a very demanding coach. He will also out scheme any opponent he faces.” I was pleased to think someone who played in the NFL and who I hadn’t seen since high school remembered enough about my coaching to hire me.

I coached there for seven years, while my father was still coaching at Leo. My first game and win at St. Laurence were against him. We faced off a total of five times, and I won each time. Another coach called it “The Hawkins Bowl.” 

Conquering CHD: What are you up to now, have you put football behind you?

After St. Laurence, I coached at Oak Lawn High School for two seasons but then realized that I needed to start enjoying my life more. I was working full-time at Fedex and coaching. During the season, I was getting five hours of sleep a night at most. On Friday nights, I’d get even less. I never took vacations, because I had to use vacation time for off-season camps, tournaments, and playoffs. Coaching high school in a good program is a very demanding schedule, not to mention the long hours at my full-time job. It eventually took a toll on me, plus, in the back of my mind, I knew there would come a point where my heart might prevent me from keeping up with it all. Seeing other CHD adults struggle with their health, I wondered how much time I had before my own health faded. So I chose to walk away, learn how to ride a motorcycle, take a vacation, and just relax. I miss coaching, I still watch coaching videos and share drills with other coaches. I may go back to it, but for now, I am enjoying my free time.

Conquering CHD: What would you tell parents of kids with CHD about possible limitations when it comes to playing sports?

I would say listen to the doctor but also listen to your child. Your child knows their limit when it comes to activities. Some sports are different, like boxing may be pushing it, but baseball and football, with all the protective gear now, may be possible. Let them try. Let your kid be a kid, let them run and play. They will stop when it becomes too much for them. Just watch them and be there to help them when they ask. 

My previous ACHD cardiologist told me kids have more relaxed restrictions now, I like to think it’s due to my generation of CHD kids pushing past the limits they placed on us.

Chris Hawkins is a 44-year-old adult with CHD,  living in Chicago with his dog, Okami. Chris and his twin brother were both born with D-TGA. His brother passed away shortly after birth. Chris studied engineering at Western Illinois University and is a Board Member for the Illinois Chapter of Conquering CHD. Now that he is no longer coaching football, Chris spends his spare time with family and friends and taking road trips on his motorcycle.

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