By Kane McGuire
Exavian Christon played in his 100th career game as a Bulldog on Wednesday. Pretty remarkable considering there was strong doubt he would never make it past 40 games.
For that reason, you have to go back to Nov. 28, 2018.
The Louisiana Tech men’s basketball team was preparing for their first practice since returning from a LONG trip to Newark, Delaware (both literal and figurative).
Making it seem longer than just the 1,200+ mile trek was the two narrow losses in the Delaware Invitational to host Delaware and UNC Greensboro.
There was also spending several hours at a Cracker Barrel in New Jersey because the bridge crossing the Delaware River closed temporarily because of a chemical gas leak at a nearby plant. True story.
(I think assistant coach Duffy Conroy and forward Oliver Powell are still battling it out in checkers)
By Exavian’s account though, Nov. 28, 2018 started out as a normal day. The sophomore, who had started all seven games that season and was leading the team in scoring, was feeling a little fatigued, from both the exhausting road trip and having flu-like symptoms since returning to Ruston.
Everyone knew it was going to be a tough, defensive-oriented practice. Both opponents shot over 53 percent from the field, so yeah, definitely focusing on defense.
No matter. Exavian was amped and ready to go. After warmups, stretching and their usual meeting at midcourt, the team quickly got into their drills. First, cone slides. Next, some full-court zig-zag slides. Exavian and Derric Jean were partners.
“We start in the corner, dribble to the elbow and you had to cut them off. Dribble to half-court, cut them off, and so on,” said Christon. “We were trying to get everybody excited, get everybody going because it was the beginning of practice.”
Meanwhile, head coach Eric Konkol was roaming the middle of the court, encouraging guys to get lower and go faster. Athletic trainer Emily Eunice was sitting at the scorer’s table, her usual spot, monitoring practice.
Exavian and Derric went down and back once, finishing at the right base line by the stat board.
“I’m celebrating hard,” Christon said. “Then I started feeling lightheaded. I bent over to try to catch my breath. When I bent over, it went all downhill from there.”
At first glance, it looked like he was stretching, hands on the ground. Then he collapsed.
Instantly, everybody went into overdrive.
Eric and Emily sprinted over to Exavian. Duffy sprinted to the tunnel to grab the AED defibrillator. 9-1-1 was called. Gerald Jordan, then head of the sports medicine department, came out from the hallway. Players were huddled around, stunned, praying.
“I turned him over, checked his pulse and there was nothing,” said Eunice. “We did the first shock with the automated defibrillator. Gerald and I then did two-person CPR. He started with chest compressions and I started with air. We did three or four rounds and got him back into a rhythm. The ambulance got there soon thereafter.”
“I don’t know if it was one or two minutes, but it felt like days for him to come to,” said Konkol. “Once he was back, there was jubilation. As a team, we huddled everybody together and had some moments of conversation in a circle, arms around each other.”
After being asked a series of questions. What’s your name? Where are you? What day is it? Exavian was put on a stretcher was put on a stretcher and taken to Northern Louisiana Medical Center.
This was actually not the first time he had an episode similar to this. Back when he was 15 at an elite camp at Henderson State, he collapsed and needed chest compressions. After two nights of doing a series of tests, the doctors could not find anything wrong with him so they thought this episode was due to dehydration because his potassium level was really low.
“I knew it was going to be a longer road ahead this time,” said Christon. “I knew they were going to take a deeper dive into what went wrong. My mom got here and I promise she was here in like an hour and 30 minutes [from Hot Springs, Arkansas]. There were about 12 doctors and nurses all in my room around my bed. I got hooked up to all kinds of things.
“We got started immediately.”
What followed were countless trips to Shreveport. Visits to Houston. And several trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
For a long time, he had to keep on a wearable defibrillator – a tank top that wraps around your chest with pads that connect to wires controlled by a device – that could only be taken off to shower.
“There were nights I would wake up and I’d be tied up in the cords because I had to sleep with it too,” recalled Christon.”
The doctors performed series of stress tests. They even went in through his groin with a scope and up to his heart to try to speed it up really fast to recreate the episode.
All the while Emily was by his side every step of the way.
“We bonded,” said Eunice. “Going to all of the appointments with him, it really shaped our relationship. He became more than just an athlete to me. Exavian is a very special person who has a special place in my heart.”
Regardless of where Exavian had to go, what he had to do and even though there was never a diagnosis found as to why his heart stopped, getting a defibrillator implanted was the plan from the beginning. “That was the plan because I knew I wanted to get back on the court and have some type of normal life.”
“There were so many unknowns for so long,” said Konkol. “I can’t remember a specific conversation other than just talking about him working with the best and what was potentially next. All along, it was his hope that he could play again.”
After adding four scars across his chest and abdomen from getting the implant and some heart ablations, the setbacks did not stop.
The first setback was the lead failure of the defibrillator. He had to go back up to Minnesota to add two more leads to get it fixed after it became faulty. After being cleared to practice again, his defibrillator shocked him during a workout, shutting him down another time from basketball activity.
“When I first started getting back to basketball, it was like putting your toe in,” said Christon. “Then it was putting all five toes in. Then a foot. Eventually, I jumped all the way in.”
It was the second game of the 2019-20 season – almost a full year since Exavian collapsed – that the Bulldogs had built a healthy lead over Wiley College in the TAC.
Coach Konkol slowly drifted down the team bench towards Exavian with a few minutes left in the game.
“I asked him if he wanted to taste the court,” said Konkol. “I told him to think about it.”
“It was scary because I was not expecting to play that night,” said Christon. “It felt like everything was racing through my mind. I ended up giving him a little head nod and he put me in. Most nervous I have ever been on a basketball court.”
Exavian checked in with 1:47 to go in the game. “I was scared to run down the floor. I was scared to exert too much energy. Low key, I was scared to shoot too.”
With about a minute remaining, he attempted a turnaround jump shot off an in-bounds pass that hit off the rim. On the next offensive possession though, he settled behind the three-point line in the right corner, receiving a jump pass from Cobe Williams.
Catch. Release. Bucket.
“I was ecstatic,” said Eunice, cheering hard at the end of the team’s bench. “Seeing him in his first game and making that three was probably one of the best feelings for me. It was great because I knew how long of a journey it was for him. A lot of procedures, painful times, hard times. It was just an amazing feeling seeing him play again.”
“I was nervous just like he was,” said Konkol. “He comes in and buries a three. His dream of playing Division I basketball was halted there for a while, but he wanted to come back and play. I can still remember going to see him at Hot Springs High School when his hair was a whole lot shorter. Now he is 23. He has always had this toughness about him. He has been the same Exavian from when I first met him.”
The three-year anniversary of the episode recently came and went. He admitted when the calendar flips to November each year, it puts him a different space, preferring to forget about that particular day rather than celebrate it.
Things he will do on Nov. 28 are give thanks to the man above, talk to his mom and talk to Emily, who is now in Florida working at Stetson University.
“Emily and I still keep in touch,” said Christon. “Her contact in my phone is Lifesaver. Off the court, coach Konkol and coach Conroy, they are always checking in on me, asking if I am doing okay. They all mean the world to me. For them to stick with me through it all. I will never forget it.”
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