Opinion: Northwest coach in good shape
Last year, the Shawnee Mission Northwest boys basketball team adopted the moniker, "Cardiac Cougars" for their propensity to make every game a thrill-a-minute affair.
But the name had a double-meaning for Cougars coach Ben Meseke, as he continued his battle with a weak heart.
The story began shortly after the 2003 season when Meseke was faced with the awful prospects of giving up the one thing he loved to do.
As he suffered through the '03 season, legs aching, walking becoming a problem, Meseke thought about hanging up his clipboard. But after the season, a consultation with doctors revealed that Meseke could install a pacemaker with a defibrillator to keep his heart in check.
The defibrillator was designed to go off when Meseke's heart rate climbed above 160 beats per minute, which it did moments after Northwest's upset of top-ranked Free State late last season.
"We just started celebrating, and I was out there acting like a kid," Meseke recalls. "I was so excited. I felt great. On the way downstairs (to the locker room) it kicked me. It felt like getting hit in the chest with a shovel."
The "kick" occurred a total of four times in a few minutes, and Meseke admitted that he wasn't sure what the outcome would be. Ironically, the coach said he felt fine throughout the thrilling game, and that if the defibrillator were set higher he probably would've been problem-free. Instead, it landed him in the hospital for five days.
While there, doctors raised the beats-per-minute count to 180 and Meseke finished out the season, guiding his team to its second state appearance during his eight years at Northwest.
Although the Free State celebration was unfortunate and something that scared Meseke a great deal, it reminded him how lucky he was to have control over a problem that might have forced him out of the game years ago.
"Getting that thing installed was like having a second life almost," Meseke said. "It was awesome. It took about six months for my body to accept it, but once it did it really helped my health and I felt great."
Which he continues to do, to this day. Recently, the defibrillator was put to the test once again, as the Cougars pulled off dramatic, come-from-behind fourth-ranked Lawrence High and top-ranked SM East.
During the games -- under the watchful eye of his wife, Klara, and the helpful eye of Cougars assistant John White -- Meseke found a way to keep his heart under control.
"Even those games last week didn't get my heart above 180," Meseke joked.
He admitted that pulling back is tough, but he said he realized its importance and, with his team off to a 6-0 start, he wants to be on the sideline for every game the rest of the season.
"It is hard, but maybe I should be doing more of it," Meseke said. "I can't get too crazy any more. I have to act my age, I guess."
As for how many more years the 33-year high school coaching veteran and his newly-improved ticker plan to be roaming the Northwest sidelines, Meseke said he plans to coach as long as he can.
"I'm not Joe Paterno," he said. "I'm just going to take it one year at a time, and if it gets to the point where my family or my doctors say 'don't do it' then I won't hesitate to hang it up. Family comes before basketball, but basketball ranks way up there in my life."