COUNCIL BLUFFS — "Get up!" Steve Nixon said to himself as he watched his son sprawled on the court.
Late in the fourth quarter of Lewis Central's final home junior varsity basketball game last season, freshman Kyler Nixon crashed to the floor after a layup attempt. His father thought he had hit the wall. It was more complicated than that.
Kyler felt intense chest pains. Dizziness.
"My left arm was numb," he said.
Kyler had been dealing with chest pains throughout the basketball season. Doctors couldn't pinpoint the ailment that night after a second trip to the emergency room in less than two months.
The Nixons visited a cardiologist, and an echocardiogram revealed an enlarged left ventricle. Normal thickness in the walls of the ventricle is 11 to 12 millimeters, or about half an inch. Kyler's was between 14 and 15. Generally, a measurement of 15 or higher is diagnosed as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a genetic disease in which the heart muscle thickens abnormally.
Doctors aren't ready to call Kyler's case HCM, but they ordered him to end all strenuous activity for six months. Suddenly, the full-throttle life of a four-sport athlete screeched to a halt.
The 15-year-old is being forced to at least consider a life without athletics. And it's completely altered the rhythm of the Nixon household. They're still attending 13-year-old Trey's activities, but everyone is far more contemplative about an uncertain future. In late August or early September, Kyler will find out if he can resume playing sports.
"It's really kind of put a perspective on a lot of things," Steve Nixon said. "Sports is a huge part of what we do. Not too many free nights. As a dad, you want your kids to be healthy and happy. Really when you think about it, sports, even though it brings a lot of satisfaction and a lot of fun memories, it's not the most important thing. So it really has kept everything in perspective."
The Nixon name carries an almost regal quality in Council Bluffs. Kyler's uncle, Kevin, averaged 28 points per game at Abraham Lincoln as a senior in 1988 and is considered one of the best players to come out of the city. He finished his career at BYU, where his 54-foot buzzer-beater lifted the Cougars to the 1992 WAC tournament title and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Kevin's son, 6-foot-7 Dalton, is receiving attention from Creighton, among others, after a sophomore year in which he led Orem (Utah) High School to the Class 4-A state title and was the tournament MVP. Dalton and Kyler were born six weeks apart and are close friends.
Kyler couldn't bring himself to watch the championship game online, but he received a phone call later that night. It was Dalton.
"He said, 'Ky, we did it for you,'" Kyler said.
Added Steve Nixon: "That was a pretty emotional moment."
Dalton Nixon said he often thought about his cousin during his team's stretch run.
"Being so close to him, it was really tough," he said. "It just gave me extra motivation, because I knew that there was a possibility that he may not step on the court again."
A successful boys basketball coach at Logan-Magnolia High School, Steve Nixon moved his family into the Lewis Central district before the 2010-11 school year and now teaches at the middle school.
At 6-4, Kyler became the second freshman in Lewis Central coach Dan Miller's 11 years to make the varsity team. He appeared in 11 games before his season was cut short.
"Kids are resilient, and the way Kyler's handled it has been really remarkable," Miller said. "At our end-of-the-season meeting, he and I had some great conversations, just regarding things beyond basketball. I think he's in a good place with it, as well as could be expected. I think he's showed maturity beyond his years in handling that.
"As much as I want to coach him for the next three years, I just want him to get healthy."
Kyler planned this spring to be lifting weights, running track and working on his basketball skills. He said his circle of friends at school has done a great job of including him in their activities and understanding his frustration.
But it's not easy.
"I'll stay with my friends one week on Friday night and the next day, they're like, 'We're going to go play hoops with these guys,' and I'm like, 'OK.' I can't just like stand there. Or they'll go play baseball, and that's probably the hardest, because I can't play baseball now."
HCM affects about 1 in 500 people. It often goes undetected, and many times the first evidence of it is found after death. There are many examples each year across the country of young athletes dying during sporting events of a disease they didn't know they had.
The Nixons, a family of deep faith, consider it a blessing that they've been made aware of their son's condition.
"We still have him. He's still here. He's alive," Steve Nixon said. "It looks bad right now. It's scary. The possibilities look scary. But it's really given Kyler an opportunity to take a six-month break from his life and really look at maybe how he wants his life to end up.
"Our lives are so frantic and frenetic and busy. If that's what it takes to kind of put things in perspective and move on, then that's the part where we've got to completely trust in God."
Coincidentally, Steve's wife, Jenny, is the regional vice president for the American Heart Association. Jenny Nixon's grandparents died of heart disease when she was younger, but her job has never felt more personal than now.
"It just puts fire in your belly," she said. "It just makes you work that much harder to motivate your staff. I tell my staff of eight that they're helping save my son's life."
In their former hometown of Logan, the school recently held a Jump Rope for Heart. Kyler surprised three young girls at school who are friends of the family and were raising money for the AHA, making their day.
"It's cool that a town you've left, people are praying for him, and we still have that great connection with that community," Jenny Nixon said.
For the next four-plus months, Kyler Nixon will remain on the sideline. He may never return to action, if the echocardiogram doesn't reveal that the thickness in his heart has returned to normal levels. And even if it does, he and his brother will have to be tested regularly.
There are no guarantees. There is still hope.
"If we get a great report, it's going to be awesome," Steve Nixon said. "You'll hear the Nixons cheering from the mountaintops."
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