By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Long before Jesse Sapolu won four Super Bowls as an offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers – host for Sunday’s Super Bowl – he was told he couldn’t play sports.
Born in Samoa, Sapolu had contracted rheumatic fever as a child.
“It was so painful, my dad had to carry me to the bus stop,” he said.
The condition went undiagnosed for years and left Sapolu with a tear in his aortic valve, the flaps that open and close with each heartbeat to allow blood to flow from the heart.
In fifth grade, the family then living in Honolulu, Hawaii, Sapolu was told sports were off limits. He’d even have to sit on the sidelines during physical education classes.
By ninth grade, Sapolu was 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, and desperately wanted to play football. So he went to a local clinic for a sports physical, confident his condition wouldn’t be detected, and got the paperwork he needed to join the team. He convinced his parents that the doctor said it was fine for him to play.
He quickly gained acclaim for his skills on the field, playing in high school and for the University of Hawaii, never revealing his heart condition.
In 1983, Sapolu was drafted by the 49ers and underwent a detailed physical exam that uncovered his condition. After additional consultations and tests, Sapolu was cleared to join his teammates at training camp two weeks later.
“The doctors decided to see how things went because I had already been playing football in high school and college,” he said.
Sapolu had tests done every year as doctors watched for any changes to his condition, which had caused his heart to enlarge. While the condition could be repaired with an artificial or pig’s heart valve, such surgeries would require taking blood thinners and would rule out a football career.
Sapolu’s torn valve meant his heart had to work harder. During preseason conditioning and other intense physical exertion, Sapolu recalls getting short of breath and occasionally feeling tightness in his chest.
“I saw other people breathing hard and figured I just had to push through it,” he said. “I was a 21-year-old kid thinking, ‘I’m too close to my dream, I’m not going to blow it now.’”
Sapolu knew his heart condition was to blame for the symptoms and accepted the danger he was putting himself in.
“Death didn’t scare me,” he said. “All I could remember was how painful it was to sit next to the teacher in the fifth and sixth grade and not being able to participate [during P.E. classes].”
In 1996, Sapolu’s annual echocardiogram came back with news that his condition was deteriorating and he’d need surgery to replace the faulty valve. A year later, he had a procedure using a heart valve from a cadaver. Immediately after surgery he noticed a change.
“It was like I was finally breathing fresh air after breathing through smog,” he said.
The so-called Ross procedure meant Sapolu wouldn’t require blood thinners and could return to the football field. Five months after the surgery, Sapolu played his 15th and final season in the NFL.
Sapolu went on to various coaching jobs and wrote a book, I Gave My Heart to San Francisco, in which he revealed his heart struggles. He now works with the 49ers and runs a lineman camp called Men in the Trenches.
Sapolu and his wife, Lisa, have three sons, all of whom played college football, one daughter and a granddaughter.
Nearly 15 years after his first valve replacement, Sapolu got a new valve in 2012, this time an artificial valve that requires him to take blood thinners but is expected to last longer.
As a volunteer for the American Heart Association, Sapolu rode the nonprofit’s float in the 2016 Tournament of Roses Parade.
“It is my hope that doing my part can make a difference,” he said.
Photos courtesy of the Sapolu family and San Francisco 49ers