Jets rookie returns from open-heart surgery, gets 'a second chance at life'

Xavier Coleman missed out on much of his high school football career but earned a scholarship from Portland State. Jennifer Buchanan/USA Today Sports

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Xavier Coleman grabbed his gray New York Jets minicamp T-shirt at the neckline and pulled it down to reveal the middle of his chest. And there it was, a six-inch vertical scar -- pinkish in color, visibly raised above the skin.

"It's kind of hard to miss," the rookie cornerback said Friday, laughing.

The scar tells a remarkable story, which began more than seven years ago in Portland, Oregon.

Coleman, an emerging high school star, fainted in a religion class. He fainted again a few days later in the shower, and soon he was in a doctor's office being told his football career was over and that no college would want him to play sports. He was 14 years old.

Doctors discovered Coleman was born with a serious heart condition, something called bicuspid aortic valve disease. His aortic valve had only two flaps instead of three, a deformity that affected blood flow. He could play noncontact sports and wouldn't need surgery until he was in his 30's or 40's, the doctors said, but football was out of the question.

The condition worsened, and Coleman underwent nine hours of open-heart surgery on July 20, 2012. His lungs were deflated and his heart was placed on a bypass machine during the operation -- "the scariest time in my life," his mother, Christine, said in a phone interview.

That Coleman made it from the operating room to an NFL locker room is "extremely surreal," he told ESPN.com on the first day of rookie minicamp. No matter what happens over the next few months, he's already a success. He once was a frightened kid who used to place a hand over his chest to make sure his heart still was beating, and now he's a professional athlete, an undrafted free agent trying to win a spot on the Jets' roster.

"In his eyes, he got a second chance at life," Christine said. "That's what drives him."

Coleman was on his way to a stellar high school career when the original diagnosis was delivered on Dec. 23, 2009. He was shattered by the news that he couldn't play football. When the doctor left the room, he threw a chair, ripped cushions off the exam table and tossed books around the room. His mother was in the room. She didn't try to stop him; she let him vent.

"It was like the Boobie Miles scene from 'Friday Night Lights,' when he's told he can't play football," Coleman said. "I was ripping down things off the wall and throwing things around the room because football is what I always wanted to do."

To satisfy his competitive fire, Coleman continued to play basketball and run track at Jesuit High School, returning to his cardiologist for semiannual checkups. In June, 2012, an echocardiogram revealed trouble. His aortic valve started to leak and his heart, working at 40 percent capacity, started to fill with blood. He needed an immediate repair.

In a pre-op conference, Coleman's cardiologist told him there was a 95 percent chance he'd be able to fix it, allowing Coleman to return to football. If that didn't work, he'd have to insert a mechanical valve, and that would mean the end of all sports.

"When he came out of surgery, that was the first question he asked," Christine said of her son. "I remember it as clear as day. He looked at me and said, 'Did they fix it?' They did, and there was almost like a glimmer in his eye."

Christine choked up on the phone.

"When he was first diagnosed, it just takes your breath away," she said, her voice cracking. "We didn't sleep much and there were a lot of tears. We tried to be strong for Xavier, but he knew we were scared."

Once cleared to return, Coleman worked himself back into football shape and returned for the final two regular-season games of his senior year, the prelude to a four-game postseason run. The stadium was packed, with 40 family members in the crowd, hoping -- praying -- everything would turn out OK.

It was better than OK.

Only four months removed from open-heart surgery, Coleman intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown.

"It was very emotional," Coleman said. "I scored and I looked around and I was like, 'This is not real.' I looked over to the railing and I saw my mom, and she was crying."

"The entire stadium erupted," Christine said. "I'd never seen anything like it. It couldn't have happened at a better time. Even the coach was crying."

With only six games of high school tape, Coleman received only one scholarship offer -- from Portland State, where he wound up playing 45 games and intercepting nine passes over four years. He attracted NFL scouts with his 4.49 speed in the 40-yard dash and his 40-inch vertical jump, but he was ignored in the draft. His house, filled with relatives waiting for his name to be called from the draft in Philadelphia, was quiet that day.

Near the end of the draft, the Jets were among 10 teams that expressed interest in signing him as a free agent. When it was a done deal, the party started -- a party more than seven years in the making. People screamed and hugged and celebrated.

"My husband and I both had tears in our eyes," Christine said.

"We can't believe what he's done," she said. "To have heart surgery when he was 17, I think it gave him a different perspective on life. To have a chance to play in the NFL, this is what he dreamed about."

Coleman studied NFL rosters, looking for the best opportunities for a cornerback. He opted for the Jets because he believes he'll get that shot. He also felt a connection with their coaches. In the words of his mother, "His heart was set on the Jets."

If you don't know this by now, Xavier Coleman's heart is good and strong -- and should never be doubted.