INDIANAPOLIS – The night he died, the air was heavy. Vinny Romano remembers that.
He remembers most of the day, up to the point his heart stopped on the football field at Roncalli, his wife and daughter and mother in the bleachers, watching in shock that turns to horror, and his son standing a few feet away.
This happened a few weeks back at a Roncalli lacrosse game, against Center Grove. Vinny Romano, 47, is an assistant coach for the Rebels. His son Vincent is the leading scorer on the team, one of the leading scorers in Roncalli history.
The night he died, the clouds were suffocating the sun and a thick mist was doing the same to Vinny Romano’s lungs. Felt like breathing through wet strips of gauze. His son was feeling it too, but then Vincent has asthma. It comes and goes, and on this night it comes and he has to walk off the field midway through the first quarter. He’s standing next to his old man, telling him how tight his chest feels, when Vinny says something weird.
“I’m feeling it too,” Vinny tells his son. “It feels like I’m having a heart attack.”
This is the story I’m trying to tell you, about the night Vinny Romano died, but Vinny won’t let me tell it. He’s listening as his son Vincent tells it from his perspective, about the asthma, about coming off the field, about his dad saying those awful words: It feels like I’m having a heart attack.
And now his dad, Vinny, he’s interrupting.
“I didn’t say exactly that,” Vinny says, as if he’d remember. This is the part of the story, a completely true story, where he’s about to die. Dead men have lousy memories. Everybody knows that.
“You said exactly that,” Vincent tells his old man. “And then lo and behold, it happened.”
Vinny drops. On the field at Roncalli, middle of a lacrosse game. Heart attack. No pulse. Gone.
* * *
“Right there,” Doug Schiefelbein says. “There was a miracle right there.”
It’s moments before a game against Park Tudor, and we’re standing on the sideline at Roncalli, where Schiefelbein operates the scoreboard. He does it from field level, so he was there the night Vinny Romano died. On this night, Schiefelbein is standing where he always stands for games. Now he’s walking a few feet, and stopping.
“Right here,” he says.
To die and then live to tell about it, everything has to go right. Something has to go wrong first, of course, and doctors still aren’t sure what went wrong with Vinny Romano the night of April 24. Well, his heart stopped. They know that much. But why? They’re still looking for answers. Doctors found a small clot, but they don’t think it was enough to stop his heart. They think it could be a matter of rhythm. They’re still looking.
The night it happened, Sherry Manzelli was watching. She’s an athletic trainer with St. Vincent Sports Performance, one of two who work full-time at Roncalli, part of the school’s partnership with St. Vincent. Manzelli has been an athletic trainer for 23 years, the past six at Roncalli. She’s seen some things: broken bones, torn ligaments, spinal-cord scares. But she’d never seen what she saw that night, sitting in a golf cart on the track that circles the Roncalli football field, no more than 30 feet from the spot where Vinny Romano dropped and Doug Schiefelbein saw the miracle that happened next.
Manzelli doesn’t know about miracle, but there’s a word she doesn’t want to hear: Hero.
“I’m no hero,” she says.
“You’re my hero,” Vinny Romano tells her.
“No,” Sherry Manzelli is saying. “That’s the hero.”
She’s pointing at a small case, square with a handle and cloth covering. It doesn’t look particularly heroic. It looks like an oversized lunchbox.
It’s a portable defibrillator, the most unimpressive-looking piece of lifesaving equipment you’ve ever seen. You come to the Roncalli sideline, you talk to the man who died, you stand on the spot where the miracle happened, and then you see this lunchbox. It’s a little deflating.
“This one is 15 years old,” Manzelli is telling me as I’m zipping open the lunch box to find what looks like a laptop inside. “In 15 years it had never been used.”
Good. Nobody wants to use life insurance.