Vanderbilt near and dear to Spear's heart

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Vanderbilt’s Carey Spear earned second-team All-SEC honors last season as a place-kicker.

The Commodores’ third-year coach, James Franklin, looks at Spear and doesn’t see a kicker. He sees a football player.

“He’s a football player who happens to kick, and I’m talking everywhere,” Franklin said. “You ought to see him on testing day in the weight room. You’d think he was a D-tackle with his approach down there with all the chalk flying and everything.

“He echoes everything we’re trying to do here.”

The dependable Spear connected on 20 of his 24 field-goal attempts last season, and was 14-of-14 inside 43 yards. He was also perfect on extra points.

But for him, the fun starts after he kicks off. That’s when he transforms into a black-and-gold blur with absolutely no regard for his body.

His hit on Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson last season was priceless. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Spear knocked himself silly when he launched himself into Patterson, who probably thought it was a linebacker plastering him.

It took a few seconds for a wobbly Spear to get back on his feet, but it’s the kind of fighting spirit that has embodied this program’s rise under Franklin.

It’s also the kind of hit that you rarely see kickers laying on potential first-round draft picks, especially kickers who had to give up competitive soccer in high school because of a heart rhythm disorder.

Spear was diagnosed with Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), a condition that would cause his heart to beat frighteningly fast, particularly when he was engaged in any kind of physical activity.

“From my sophomore year in high school, I started to have problems,” said Spear, whose first love was soccer. “I’d be on the field, and my heart would start to flutter. At first, I kept it to myself because I wanted to play. But I’d get light-headed and wasn’t nearly as explosive as I wanted to be.

“I finally told my parents a year later.”

Spear, who’s from Mayfield Village, Ohio, had two different surgical procedures in high school to try and correct the problem. Neither was successful.

He’d also taken up kicking on the high school football team, but because of his health issues, had pretty much given up on his dream of playing collegiate soccer.

The good news for him was that he was accomplished enough as a kicker to draw some attention from several larger schools. He was leaning toward going to Michigan as a walk-on. But just prior to signing day, Vanderbilt and then-coach Bobby Johnson came through with a full scholarship offer. Spear had been on the Commodores’ radar after visiting campus the summer prior to his senior year of high school.

“We lost touch a little bit during my senior season, but it couldn’t have been a better fit,” Spear said. “I knew I wanted to kick in environments where there were 80,000 people in the stands, and I wanted to go to a school that valued academics.”

Medically, it was also the right fit.

It was at Vanderbilt that Spear was introduced to Dr. Frank Fish, a noted cardiologist in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Spear served as the kickoff specialist his first season at Vanderbilt and was still having episodes. He’d debated about whether or not to tell the staff about his condition because he felt it might jeopardize his scholarship.

“It was a bold step,” Spear recalled. “I didn’t know if it was the right thing to do, but they appreciated my openness. They knew it was bothering me and limited what I could do that first season.”

Spear remembers vividly meeting with Fish for the first time and how confident Fish was that he could fix the problem.

“It was a seven- or eight-hour surgery, and I had it just before Christmas break ended in January,” Spear said. “Dr. Fish walked in the next morning and said, ‘We got it this time.’

“I just looked at my dad, and we were both filled with relief.”

It’s been more than two years since that surgery, and Spear hasn’t had any more episodes since. He’s not on medication and rarely even thinks about those scary moments any more when his heart would start beating so fast that he could barely catch his breath.

“He couldn’t be at a better place, to be in the hands of coach Franklin and have that medical facility right next door,” said Spear’s father, Tom Spear.

Likewise, it’s been neat for Fish to see Spear, a two-year co-captain for the Commodores, bounce back from the surgery with so much success.

“It’s a condition that comes up not infrequently among active athletic individuals,” Fish said. “Generally speaking, it’s more of an annoyance than a risk. Arrhythmia can cause life-threatening episodes. His was more of a bother, particularly being a place-kicker where there is so much pressure and focus on that single moment.

“It’s always fun to see one of your patients go out and engage in a normal lifestyle again. The fact that he’s playing football here at Vanderbilt adds to the excitement.”

Spear, who’s maxed out at 320 pounds on the bench-press, has only dialed up the intensity now that he’s been symptom-free for two years.

He’s proven that he’s Mr. Clutch on field goals, but relishes the role of Mr. Kamikaze on kickoffs even more.

“He loves to be physical and mix it up,” said Spear’s father. “You should have seen him play soccer. He got his share of yellow cards.”

Spear has one final season to give back to a university that has touched his life more profoundly than he could have ever imagined when he came to Nashville three years ago.

“It’s been remarkable the way God had a plan for me from the beginning,” said Spear, who’s taken mission trips to Haiti and Peru during his spring breaks.

“I found a football family, coaches and a training staff that cared about my health before they did performance, and I don’t know how much you see that these days with the pressure that exists in college sports. The surgeons here are second to none, and they changed my life.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m here.”