By Dave D’Alessandro/Star-Ledger Columnist on August 20, 2013 at 6:00 AM, updated August 20, 2013 at 6:10 AM
In March, his career arc was a glorious sweep with no end in sight – fourth place at the Honda Classic, 16th place at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, another top-25 in Puerto Rico. The big money was coming in, his rankings were climbing, and suddenly Erik Compton was more than just an athletic anomaly.
He was literally constructing a path from anomaly to miracle.
“And then,” he recalled Monday, “I caught a cold.”
Big whup, right?
It is for a guy who had two heart transplants before he turned 30.
He is everything you expect from a professional athlete: He is smart and poised and charismatic and dedicated and enormously competitive, but there’s the ongoing concern of having to swallow more than a dozen pills – anti-rejection medication, mostly – every day. That leads not only to fatigue, but also to your immune system going to DEFCON 1.
“So my game hit a downward spiral for about five weeks, after Bay Hill,” Compton said, referring to the Palmer tournament. “I came back pretty well, I just didn’t have many top finishes – I missed a couple of cuts right on the numbers.
“But sometimes I’ll catch a cold or infection, and it will require a few more doctor visits to readjust the medication, because fighting an allergy is different from those with a normal immune system. It’s an adjustment.”
He used that word – adjustment – as if he talks about a different route to take to work when one encounters a traffic snarl. It’s more than just a clogged nose in Compton’s case, of course. He just chooses not to regard it as something very relevant.
Yet it’s a reminder that this 33-year-old Floridian is the guy everyone will root for at The Barclays this week, not only because he’s the only pro athlete in history on his third heart, but because he embodies how adversity makes a man.
“He gets sick every year at the same time, but he won’t complain,” said Compton’s mentor and lifelong friend, the legendary South Florida golf instructor Charlie DeLucca. “Every spring, same thing: The flowers are out, the grass is cut, and his immune system is so weak from the pills he has to take, his allergies won’t let him breathe.
“If they could just get his allergies in check, do you know what it would do for his career? I’m 72 and I’ve seen every great player, and I’m telling you nobody can play better than him. It’s not even his heart at this point – in fact, he has the biggest heart of anyone I ever met.”
And to think, he hasn’t had his own heart for 21 years, Compton will remind you.
He has the biggest heart of anyone I ever met.” – Charlie DeLucca, Erik Compton’s friend and mentor At age 9, he was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a condition that prevents the heart from pumping efficiently. He called it “devastating, for a kid who lived for sports, and suddenly I had to curtail every activity,” he said.
So he had his first transplant in 1992, took lessons from DeLucca along the way, and authored his first miracle as an All-American at the University of Georgia. But the heart failed in 2008, and in May of that year, it had to be replaced – “barely in the nick of time,” as Compton puts it.
“So I was given the gift of life twice,” he said. “Doctors didn’t put limitations on me, but did they think I had the mental drive to continue to do this for a living? I don’t know. But this is why my life has to be dedicated to educating people on the importance of being an organ donor.”
That’s what he’ll do today. He’s partnered with the NJ Sharing Network and New York Donor Network to host the Barclays Youth Clinic for transplant recipients and others awaiting transplants.
One of the kids who will swing today is Joe DiSanto of Hillsborough, a sophomore at Monmouth University who had a heart transplant at age 12 and two years later was winning medals at the Transplant Games.
In a phone chat, Joe told us, “Erik just proves you can do anything – it makes you (reassess) your goals, and it’s just so inspiring for me, as a teenager who just enjoys golf on the weekends.”
But consider the urgency of the message: There are 118,000 Americans awaiting organ transplants, including 5,000 of them in Jersey alone.
There were only 14,000 organ donors nationwide last year. The waiting list grows by one every 10 minutes. And for too many, time runs out: Each day, 18 people on the list die.
Remarkably, just one person can dramatically change the heartbreaking arithmetic, because one donor can save up to eight lives and restore the health of 50 others through tissue donation.
That’s why Compton, married with a four-year-old daughter, spends so much time raising awareness through Transplant Foundation Inc., a non-profit dedicated to funding transplant research, and as the national spokesman for Donate Life America.
So if you happen to see a guy on the course this week at Liberty National with a blue-and-green logo that reads “Donate Life” on his sleeve, he won’t mind if you pull on that sleeve and ask him about it.
“It’s a great week to be here in New Jersey,” said Compton, ranked 117th in the FedEx Cup standings as the four-event playoffs begin. “I have a chance to be in the playoffs, and to clinch my card, and I get to visit a new venue to share my story. I want people to know that I’m proof that the more we talk about this, and get involved, the better chance others have for a normal life.”
“As long as there’s not a lot of pollen, he’s healthy enough to win this week,” DeLucca predicted. “But regardless, this is a young man of tremendous will. It’s a wonder that he’s just living, but to play at his level, that’s a miracle.”