Last December, Ray Steele was celebrating.
In his first season as head coach, Steele’s Indian River High football team won the Division II state championship.
Just three months later, Steele learned that a football championship was small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.
On March 11, Steele went to Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, Md. He hadn’t been feeling well for a few days.
“I thought it was just indigestion but by about the third day I thought, ‘This is getting worse instead of better,’ so I thought I’d better go to the emergency room.”
Steele’s trip to the ER could not have been more timely.
“I dodged a bullet,” he said. “The doctor told me I got to the hospital just in time. I had an artery that was 100-percent blocked and he told me if you had not come, it could have been bad news.”
Steele, 59, had suffered a heart attack. Doctors put in two stents to restore blood flow and discharged Steele from the hospital two days later. Steele says he’s been symptom free since.
In fact, he’ll be back on Indian River’s sidelines when the Indians host Stephen Decatur (Md.) in their season-opener on Sept. 7 at 7 p.m.
Steele’s illness sent shock waves throughout the close-knit Indian River community.
Fellow coaches, players and extended family offered up prayers and support for Steele and his family.
“I was actually at a friend’s house and someone texted me that coach Steele had a heart attack,” said Kees Elling, who will be a senior linebacker for the Indians this fall. “It took me at least 20 times to read it right. I could not figure it out. I could not figure out that text message.
“It was a shock. My stomach dropped when I heard it. I knew he was going to get through it, but it was definitely an eye-opener.”
Todd Fuhrmann, IR’s athletic director, said Steele’s role as head football coach was the last thing on his mind in March.
“It was a shock, but he also had fortunate results and things came out and we’re happy that the results are what they are and that he’s back with us,” Fuhrmann said. “We just want to see him keep his health going and he’s doing a great job.”
Between his infectious smile and the help he lends to players and students, Steele is very popular at IR. Steele served as an assistant coach in the Indian River School District for more than 30 years before being named head coach last season. For leading his team to a state title, Steele earned the Tubby Raymond Award as coach of the year from the Delaware Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association.
“He’s like a grandfather figure to us,” said Elling. “He’s the happiest guy we’ve met and he’s going to be helping us all get into colleges. He’s just amazing.”
Steele said he has made changes since the heart attack.
“I had to change the way I eat and I have to make sure I find time to exercise every day now,” said Steele, who has lost 60 pounds since last season. “I went to rehab [at Peninsula Regional] for 12 weeks and they taught me a lot and it’s helping. I worked out an hour a day with them and they monitored me very closely and they taught me about diet. It’s all about the heart and things to look for and I feel real good.”
Steele did find one thing in common with having a heart attack and winning a state championship.
“The cards, the calls, the emails … it was all very overwhelming,” he said.