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'Blessed' Boilermaker faces life without basketball

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Tipoff: Purdue vs. Ohio State, 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Big Ten tourney
Radio: 1380-AM
TV: BTN

Purdue gets another recruiting commitment

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - 2:34 am

Purdue's Jay Simpson faced the big picture with a steady look and a wistful voice. Life had rocked him, but he was still standing.

“I'm blessed,” the redshirt freshman forward said. “Usually the first symptom of this is death. With this being that I just fainted, I thank God every day.”

Thanking took time, of course. Simpson is a basketball player who can't play anymore. He's an athlete who must learn to be something else.

“That first day, when I found out I couldn't play anymore, it was a bad day,” he said. “Everybody was sad. They were trying to keep my head up, telling me God has something else in store for me. On that day I wasn't hearing that. I was just shocked. It happened so quick.”

A heart condition, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an unwanted inherited gift from an unknown family member, left Simpson in a place he never wanted to be, heading toward a destination still in the making -- perhaps a coach, maybe a sports broadcaster.

“I'm trying to stay positive, get my grades up, get my degree as quick as I can, graduate and start my life.”

That he will have a life, coach Matt Painter said, “is a blessing in disguise.”

“In terms of life, it's a disappoint he can't play anymore, but it's not tragic. That's so important that he understand the big picture. He'll have a great life ahead of him. He'll have a healthy life. He's got to understand that's what's important.”

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a thickening of the heart muscle that can cause abnormal heart rhythms or blood blockage. The first symptom can be a sudden collapse or sudden death. It caused the death of former players Hank Gathers, Reggie Lewis, Kevin Duckworth and Jason Collier.

Simpson's symptom came during the Feb. 23 game at Nebraska. He remembers calling a screen near the free-throw line in the second half. The next thing he knew, Purdue athletic trainer Chad Young was at his side. Simpson had fainted.

“It had never happened to me. I didn't know what was happening. It was like, 'What are you doing in my face, Chad? I'm all right.' He asked me if I wanted to go to the locker room. I said I was all right. That's all I can remember.”

Simpson wasn't all right, although no one knew what was wrong.

“Things race through your mind,” Painter said. “He had a confused, scared look on his face.

“I didn't see what happened, so I asked the refs if he got hit. They said he fell on his own. That alerted me that something was wrong. He had problems with asthma. That's the first thing you think. That's what you know.”

Simpson saw three doctors, including a renowned cardiologist in Minneapolis. Options quickly narrowed to two -- play on a limited basis, never play again.

“Through that whole process,” he said, “I didn't want to think about not being able to play. I was thinking I'd get some medicine, get some treatment, and I'll be back on the court. I tried to keep that thought the whole time.”

Eventually two options became one. After 36 games over two seasons, his playing days were over.

“It's hard to believe,” he said. “I'm trying to stay positive. I'm trying to get more in touch with God and my family. Everybody is telling me it's going to be all right, but that's hard to take when something is taken away from you.”

Painter once talked about the 6-10 Simpson's potential, that Simpson could be as good as any big man Purdue has produced, and there have been a lot of them.

But conditioning was a problem. Asthma was a problem. Perhaps it was a symptom of the heart condition. No one knows for sure, and it's irrelevant now. Simpson spent the season as a 12-minutes-a-game backup to A.J. Hammons. He averaged 4.3 points and 3.6 rebounds.

Now, Simpson will be a good teammate. Purdue will honor his scholarship. He is set to graduate in May 2016. Painter wants him to stay on the team, in whatever capacity he wants, for as long as he wants.

Simpson said will be with the Boilers (15-16) Thursday when they face Ohio State (23-8) in the Big Ten tourney, and beyond.

“I don't want anything to be any different besides me not being able to practice. I'll be there every day. I'll go to all the games, the banquet. I don't want anything different.

“Over the last few years we've built a bond that can't be taken away. I love everybody here. We share the same dream -- we just want to make it.”

Simpson will make it. He has that, and it's all that matters.

Purdue lands point guard

On Monday, a day after Painter talked about recruiting tougher-minded players, he offered Indianapolis Brebeuf point guard P.J. Thompson. On Tuesday, Thompson accepted. He will be the fifth member of the Class of 2014.

The 5-10 Thompson averaged 24.1 points and 2.8 assists this season. He scored 1,497 career points at Brebeuf, which had its season end with a 36-30 sectional title game defeat to Guerin Catholic last Saturday. He scored 15 points with a ruptured plantar fascia in his foot.

That's part of the toughness Painter seeks. The Boilers need a point guard who can consistently take care of the ball, make good decisions, limit turnovers and play aggressive, relentless defense. They get it in spurts from Ronnie Johnson and Bryson Scott. To return to their NCAA tourney-making ways, they need it most of the time.

Also in the class are 6-7 forward Vincent Edwards of Ohio, 6-5 shooting guard Dakota Mathias of Ohio, 6-9 forward Jacquil Taylor of Massassachusetts and 7-1 center Isaac Haas from Alabama.