Playing With Heart: High school football star battles heart disease

Kaylon Marshall (center) with teammates in Shreveport
Kaylon Marshall (center) with teammates in Shreveport

At 5-feet-10, 285 pounds, Kaylon Marshall dominated the football field. But life threw the teen a pass he never imagined. His heart was in the game of football, but that same heart failed him.

During the 2011 season, his hits brought more respect to Shreveport's Calvary Baptist Cavaliers.

"They called him 'the Beast.' He was the target of all the opposing teams," said his mother Pamela Marshall.

But even "the Beast" was not invincible.

"I think I remember the last game. I didn't feel good at all and I don't even think my mama wanted me to play because I couldn't breathe at all," Kaylon said.

He said it took him a while to get up when he made a tackle because he was so winded. A doctor confirmed a diagnosis that no amount of training could prepare Kaylon for.

"He said I had cardiomyopathy and they had to give me fluid pills to get the fluid off." he said.

The disease of the heart muscle can lead to heart failure. Kaylon collapsed a few days later at school.

A transplant was the only option. It was January 18, 2012 when Kaylon came to Ochsner in New Orleans.

"When he told me I couldn't play football, that did it for me. I started to cry," he said.

"Early on, that was the hardest thing for him to understand, that football was in his past and not in his future," said Ochsner pediatric cardiologist Thomas Young.

He said the process of the family from Shreveport packing up and relocating to the New Orleans area really took a lot of sacrifice.

"I thought I was going to lose my baby," said Kaylon's mom, Pamela Marshall.

Kaylon's friends and teammates from Shreveport visited him at the hospital and the school gave the Marshalls tremendous support.

"Because of his blood type and his size we knew we needed a heart from a large adult and he needed blood type O. We knew we were going to have to wait a while," said Dr. Young.

A device to help his damaged heart pump was surgically implanted to buy him some time. "He had to have it. He was dwindling. His heart function was getting worse and he was confined to the bed," Dr. Young said.

Kaylon's mom said her son cried when he realized somebody had to die so he could live, and he struggled with that.

On May 25, Kaylon graduated from high school in a special ceremony at Ochsner. A few days later, he received an unexpected graduation gift.

"We got this phone call saying there's a heart and here's what we know about it," the doctor told us.

About 4 a.m. on May 31, Pamela Marshall's phone rang. "He said we have a heart and it's a good one. I'm screaming, 'Thank you Jesus!'" his mother said.

Two months later Kaylon's new heart beats strong.

"What his expectancy is now, we don't know. But we expect 15 to 20 years from now he'll be doing well," the doctor said.

It's a gift from a person Kaylon never met. "I would say thank you, because I wouldn't be this close to following my dreams [if] he wasn't a donor," he told us. "I'll give them a year and a half before I start hitting people again."

He still feels like "the Beast" that other players feared, but the tough guy is now humbled and grateful for a stranger's gift of more time.

Kaylon dreams of going to college and becoming a football coach. He is now a vocal advocate of organ donation and encourages his friends to become donors.