When Shawnee Mission West High School senior Andre Maloney collapsed on the football field Thursday night, his former teammate didn’t panic.
Justin Fetzer grew up with Maloney. The two had played basketball and football together since the fourth grade.
“It’s Andre,” Fetzer remembers thinking. “He’ll be fine.”
A day later, Fetzer was part of a mournful procession into Maloney’s hospital room at Research Medical Center — one of many friends and family members who filed somberly toward Maloney’s bedside to say goodbye.
Maloney, 17, a star wide receiver and cornerback who less than a year ago helped Shawnee Mission West win its first state championship since 1985, died Friday evening after suffering a stroke during a football game Thursday at Shawnee Mission South District Stadium. He had verbally committed to play football at Kansas next fall.
“There’s a bond there that can’t be broken,” Fetzer said. “He’s a brother to me. Seeing someone who’s usually so into everything suddenly out of it, it’s mind-boggling.”
Karla Montoya, Maloney’s cousin, said doctors informed the family earlier Friday that Maloney was unlikely to emerge from the vegetative state he entered after the stroke, and the family chose to stop further treatment.
“He’s been an athlete since the day he could walk,” said Montoya, 20, who was raised by the same grandmother as Maloney. “It would be unfair for us to hold on to him.”
Maloney was taken off the football field Thursday night in an ambulance after he became disoriented on the sideline during SM West’s 37-34 loss to Leavenworth.
The ambulance transported Maloney to the emergency room at Overland Park Regional Medical Center before he was transferred to Research Medical Center, where doctors discovered a blood clot in his brain. Maloney underwent three hours of surgery, but physicians were unable to successfully remove the clot, Montoya said.
Hospital spokeswoman Denise Charpentier said Maloney died Friday evening.
“It’s shocking to me because you never expected something like that to happen to Andre,” said Kez Demby, a teammate of Maloney’s last season. “When people see Andre Maloney, they think football. The thing that stood out to me was his goofy smile. Anytime he was smiling, you just had to smile too.”
The vast majority of strokes typically affect elderly adults, but they are far from unheard of in children and teens.
“Strokes are more common in young people than you might think,” said Kansas City physician Coleman Martin, an interventional neurologist at St. Luke’s Hospital’s Neuroscience Institute.
Montoya, a student at KU, attended Thursday’s game, during which she noticed “something wasn’t right” with Maloney on the sideline after he scored on a 63-yard touchdown reception. Maloney was untouched on the play — and even celebrated his touchdown in the end zone, teammates said — but stumbled when he returned to the bench.
As he reached for a water bottle, SM West coach Tim Callaghan said, Maloney “got dizzy and lost functioning.”
Maloney grabbed a teammate for support as he staggered backward, but he ultimately collapsed, Montoya said.
“I rushed to the field, and Andre is laying there” Montoya said. “He was conscious, but you could tell he wasn’t clear. He was mumbling. It didn’t make sense.”
On Friday afternoon, Montoya, family members and a host of SM West football players jammed into a private waiting room in the intensive care unit of Research Medical Center, which has a dedicated neurological ICU at the Midwest Neuroscience Institute.
They took turns visiting Maloney in small groups. Some of them spent the time saying goodbye.
As they waited and prayed, players and family members shared stories.
“We’re just talking about how he was as a player and a person,” Montoya said. “I’m just in shock. There’s no reason why he should leave us. Of all people, he’s the last person this should happen to.”
Teammate Isaiah Macklin spent the day at the hospital.
“It was really sad to see him like this,” Macklin said. “Everyone looks up to him. He’s really a great guy.”
At SM West on Friday afternoon, about 200 students gathered on the football field for an after-school vigil. They sat on the field and stood in small circles, hugging and holding one another.
At the end of the vigil, student Lincoln Omollo summoned the throng of classmates, who then gathered in a large cluster and prayed.
After they finished their prayer, the students raised their hands and shouted, “Viking pride!”
Omollo said students were shocked that Maloney’s condition had worsened.
“We miss him, but he wanted us to be happy,” said Omollo, a senior who runs track. “He would want us to still keep going for him. We have to be strong for him.”
Omollo said Maloney was well liked and respected among his peers.
“I looked up to him and tried to be like him up to the point that this was the year I was going to try to race him, just to see how I measured up to him,” Omollo said. “But I won’t get that chance.”
Maloney enjoyed a breakout year in football as a junior last season. He was an honorable mention All-Metro performer in 2012, catching 24 passes for 518 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also made 42 tackles with four interceptions and 12 pass breakups as a safety and returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
“He was so fast,” SM West athletic director Don Perkins said. “I can only think of one time he was every overthrown on a pass.”
Maloney played just about everywhere on the field last fall — kick returner, punt returner, cornerback, wide receiver — but it wasn’t until the 2012 state quarterfinals that Callaghan added another position to Maloney’s resume, one that came with a much bigger spotlight.
He lined up Maloney at quarterback in a special “wildcat” formation — a decision he now credits with helping the Vikings win their first state championship since 1985.
“It was a way of getting a great athlete the ball any way we could,” Callaghan said. “He could play anywhere you put him on the field. It made you wonder why we hadn’t used it more often.
“In fact, we were about two weeks away from rolling it out this season. That’s a shame to think about now.”
Kansas coach Charlie Weis expressed condolences in a series of Twitter messages Friday night, saying: “We knew from the moment we met Andre just how special he was and he will never be forgotten.”
About 800,000 strokes occur each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the incidence of stroke is rising in the U.S., the death rate from strokes has been decreasing for decades because of better treatments.
Stroke nonetheless ranks as the fourth leading cause of death overall, taking about 133,000 lives each year.
Martin, the physician, explained that strokes are commonly the result of congenital heart abnormalities, in which children are born with a “hole,” or passage, in the heart that is supposed to close upon birth.
“In 80-plus percent of us, that hole seals up, but in some it stays open,” Martin said.
Strokes can be caused when blood clots pass through the hole and travel directly to the brain.
Strokes also can be caused by aneurysms, weak spots in vessels that rupture and consequently leak blood into the brain tissue. Aneurysms frequently go undetected for years.
“A high school physical isn’t going to give you signs of these,” Martin said. “You’re not going to pick it up on a sports physical.”
The same often goes for the congenital heart problem, which generally requires a special echocardiogram to be detected, Martin said.
At Children’s Mercy Hospital, James Roberson, a physician in the Center for Sports Medicine, said that although not everything is known about the effects of sports concussions on the brain, he knew of no research, studies or current data linking concussions to strokes.
And there is no known evidence to support the notion that Maloney had suffered any head trauma.
“I think it is important to know that there isn’t any known correlation between strokes to concussions,” Roberson said. “There is no evidence in anything anyone has studied or published so far.”