The mark of a warrior

Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Thomson star Tim Daniels had open-heart surgery when he was 8 years old because only one side of his body was getting oxygen.

Thomson guard Tim Daniels knows how much a signed ball can lift the spirits of a sick kid.

It did for him 10 years ago, when he received a ball signed by the Thomson basketball team. That's the team where his father -- and his namesake -- played.

That's the team he thought looked so cool when the players wore their hoods as they took the floor. That's also the team Daniels is a major contributor for now.

It was 1998 when that ball widened his eyes. He was a lot like any other 8-year-old kid then.

It is a symbol of why he's a lot like most 18-year-old boys now -- and of why he's not.

"I'm like any other kid playing basketball," he said. "Maybe I want to win more."

Then there's that other thing.

"You could say I'm like any other kid playing who had open-heart surgery when he was 8."

Was he was too young to remember it all?

The only thing that really mattered to him was he had to play basketball with a catcher's chest protector for a few years.

Heart to heart

Tim Daniels Sr. knows a fear behind taking a routine trip to the doctor.

His son had lived eight years with a heart murmur that led to a greater worry. He was referred to a cardiologist for further testing. Nervy mothers will feel affirmed it was only found after a second opinion that Veronica Daniels insisted on.

He had partial anomalous pulmonary venous return and an atrial septal defect. Those are clinical words for a small pin-sized hole in his heart. It needed to be repaired because only one side of his body was getting oxygen.

"He was basically living eight years off just one lung," Tim Daniels Sr. said. "The doctors said it was a miracle he could keep up to run and didn't show any signs of fatigue."

Daniels was excelling on one lung.

The word the Daniels family uses to describe it is devastating. Surgery was the only option.

"They said the risk factor was like 80 or 90 percent success," Tim Daniels Sr. said. "They said it would vary as he got older."

This is a basketball family. It knows the tragic stories of Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis.

"No doctor detected the ills in those players when they were young," Tim Daniels Sr. said. "It was our family miracle his doctors caught this when he was young."

Daniels has slight memories of it all. Just the stuff that matters the most to 8-year-old boys.

"They told me I wasn't going to play any sports that year," Daniels said. "But I did. Football, basketball and baseball."

The surgery was in June. Daniels was on his football team by November.

"When they were ready to take him back for surgery the doctors asked me and my wife if we wanted to walk back with him," Tim Daniels Sr. said.

Then they asked young Tim.

"I got this," he said. "I got it."

"Be a man," his father said. "Grow up."

The parents watched their son roll off. It's hard to define how they could be so proud and so worried at the same time.

Marksman

Daniels said it took about 30 sutures. The scar looks like a river on a map. It cuts through his breast plate, snaking down to his belly. He's usually asked about it in locker rooms.

Daniels used to wear T-shirts and tank tops to hide it. But a scar like that doesn't stay hidden for long.

"They'd all ask what happened when they saw my scar," he said. "They would wonder what happened. When I said open-heart surgery they would just go blank on me."

He could usually fire a bounce pass into the mouths left agape.

"They thought I was lying," Daniels said. "Or fooling. It's like a shock to everyone at first."

Daniels cut through some of the best defenses in the state leading his team to the Elite Eight last season. He averaged almost 27 points per game in the state playoffs. He's averaging 20 points and eight assists this year.

It wasn't the only scar in his collection. Daniels had a knee-to-knee collision playing junior varsity football in ninth grade at Richmond Academy. He was the quarterback who didn't get felled by a hit, just odd timing.

The patella in his knee was torn away from his growth plate.

"Between the knee injury and the open-heart surgery, I've got to say the tougher thing was the knee," Daniels said. "It was hard to bend, and I needed my knee to bend to jump on the floor to go after loose balls and stuff."

Full circle

Tim Daniels Sr. is an assistant for the Thomson team. He shakes his head when his son shakes defenders.

"I can't believe it," he said. "That's the big thing with me and my wife. To see Tim keep up with guys that haven't went through such physically demanding things like a major knee surgery and open-heart surgery. To still be one of the top players in the area, to me, that is just incredible."

The American Heart Association has proclaimed February as "American Heart Month" since 1969.

Daniels has been talking about sharing his story with young kids a lot over the past year. He wants to speak to children on the mend from major surgeries.

"I want to tell them there's hope in all things," he said. "I want them to know bad luck and a bad break is not the end. I want them to know no problem is unbearable if they put God first, live life and work hard."

It's no shock to know that a young man who says things like that also gets A's and B's in the classroom. He even cites his father as a role model.

Daniels is being recruited by Coastal Carolina, Florida A&M, Georgia College and Georgia Southern. He has no offers, but he's not sweating it just yet.

"Life is full of blessings," Daniels said. "Just give your all and go all out. Don't go through life at no half-step."

Reach Jeff Sentell at (706) 823-3425 or jeff.sentell@augustachronicle.com.

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