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Minnesota's Maresh eyes spring return after heart surgery

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Sam Maresh has his first follow-up appointment this week, and other trips to the doctor will follow. He's less than a month removed from open heart surgery and isn't allowed to run, do push-ups or lift anything heavier than the TV remote.

But when Maresh talks about returning to the football field for Minnesota, it's hard not to believe him. Most people, including doctors, will attach the word "if" to Maresh's football future, but the talented linebacker who headlined the Golden Gophers' highly touted 2008 recruiting class speaks with a tone of certainty.

"I think I'll be able to play spring football," Maresh said Monday afternoon. "That would be pretty amazing, but I think I can do it. That's the kind of person I am. I'm always anxious, and I'm ready to go out there as soon as I can.

Until June 2, all signs pointed to Maresh being on the field for Minnesota's season opener Aug. 30 against Northern Illinois. The prep star was expected to compete for the starting middle linebacker spot as soon as he set foot on campus. As the Gophers rebuild the nation's worst defense, Maresh figured to be an integral part of their plans. On National Signing Day, coach Tim Brewster called him "the flag bearer for the University of Minnesota."

But the day after Maresh graduated high school, during a routine physical required of all incoming players, doctors detected a heart murmur. Further testing showed Maresh had aortic valve regurgitation, a condition that causes blood pumped out of the heart to leak back into it. Maresh was born with the condition, but it hadn't been diagnosed. The decision was made to repair or replace the valve.

"It was really weird," Maresh said. "To hear that, I didn't want to believe them at first. I've been so active and never had any problems with anything, so it was just a shock to hear. No symptoms at all. I was playing sports all through high school, since I was an eighth grader, and then this happened. I'm lucky I made it through."

Doctors first told Maresh that it would take a year for him to fully recover, but before the surgery, it was determined that a full incision of his sternum would not be needed. It meant his recovery -- and a possible return to football -- would be easier.

Before having surgery June 26 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Maresh got a phone call from Los Angeles Lakers center Ronny Turiaf, who underwent a similar procedure in July 2005. Turiaf returned to the Lakers just six months after the surgery and helped them reach the NBA Finals in June.

"He was just there to comfort me and tell me everything's alright, 'Listen to the doctors and do what you're supposed to do, and you'll be fine. You'll get back at it,'" said Maresh, who had undergone no other surgeries. "Just to hear from somebody that's been through it and he's doing well and still playing, it's a good feeling, really comforting."

Just two days after the surgery, Maresh was walking around the clinic and asked his doctors if he could go home. They made him wait another two days but took notice of his fast healing.

"They were more shocked than I was," he said.

Doctors placed Maresh on "full disability" after the procedure, and though he has lost 15 pounds in the last three weeks, he's moving well and making progress. Minnesota's coaches have called and visited, and Maresh recently received a get-well card signed by all of his teammates.

When the Gophers open preseason camp in August, Maresh will be there.

"It's going to be pretty hard to sit on the sideline, but it will be good to be a part of the team," he said. "For me to sit back and watch and learn from other people, it's going to help me when I start playing again."

When. Not if. Maresh has little doubt about returning to field, and neither should we.