On Nov. 8, 2012, Matt Hegarty left Notre Dame football practice with not only doubts about ever playing football again but also questions regarding his long-term health.
On Saturday, Hegarty will walk on to the field for the final time as a college athlete when his Oregon Ducks play TCU in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas. When the game is over, the former standout from Aztec High School will set his sights and his heart on the NFL.
That’s the same heart that caused Hegarty to have a stroke that fall day in South Bend, Ind. He was operated on in December 2012.
After losing his ability to speak during practice, Notre Dame trainers suspected Hegarty suffered a stroke. Doctors soon confirmed the stroke and traced the cause to two holes in Hegarty’s heart that were supposed to close after birth but never did.
“I was trying to understand with how young I was, I was 20 at the time, how something like that could happen. I was a healthy guy, had a healthy lifestyle and it just came out of the blue,” he said. “Fortunately, I (had) people around me who helped me through the process.”
At 20 years old, Hegarty underwent surgery to close the holes.
“The doctors told me that if a few factors went a certain way I probably wouldn’t be able to play again. So the thought crossed my mind,” Hegarty said. “But I was just focused on the small percentage that everything would work out, and I just put my thoughts on that, and that was the route I was able to go. It was a little bit of shifting my priorities.
“It was kind of a ‘freak show’ deal. Looking back now it gave me a great opportunity to deal with adversity and find a way to get through a lot stuff. I think it’s contributed a lot to where I am now.”
Where he is now is Eugene, Ore,. as a graduate transfer, fifth-year senior offensive lineman. After starting 13 games and playing 34 for Notre Dame from 2012-2014, Hegarty started all 12 games for Oregon (9-3) this year and was named honorable mention All-Pac-12.
“It’s been a great season,” Hegarty said. “We dropped a few games early in the year, but we kind of rallied midyear and we’re excited about playing in the Alamo Bowl.”
Hegarty was born in Denver but moved to Aztec when he was 5, and he considers himself a New Mexican. After starring at Aztec, he was a consensus top-50 national recruit and had scholarship offers from nearly every big-name program in the country, including Oregon, Texas, USC, Florida State,Oklahoma and LSU.
Hegarty eventually chose Notre Dame because he liked the direction of the program and its business school.
After redshirting in 2011, Hegarty played in the first nine games of 2012, mostly on Notre Dame’s special teams, before his stroke. He came back strong in 2013, playing in every game and getting his first career start against Stanford a little over a year after his health scare. Hegarty then started the final 11 games of the 2014 season, including a win in the Music City Bowl.
Things were looking up for Hegarty heading into his senior year, but Notre Dame coaches had other ideas. Hegarty said he was told he would not be starting his senior year, but instead would rotate among the offensive line positions and his playing time would not be guaranteed.
Having already earned his degree from Notre Dame, Hegarty was able to transfer without having to sit out a season.
“The next toughest thing in my life was making that decision to transfer for my last year,” Hegarty said. “I had some of my best friends there. It’s my alma mater. I love that school and spent the last four years of my life there. But I was excited. Oregon took my call and I had an opportunity to come play here.”
The decision paid off for the Ducks and Hegarty. The 6-5, 300-pound center thrived in Oregon’s up-tempo offense.
“It was better year than I could have asked for,” Hegarty said. “Probably one of the most fun years I’ve ever had.”
The Ducks bring a six-game winning streak into the Alamo Bowl, and a lot of younger players are most likely looking to keep momentum going into next season. But Hegarty knows that his collegiate career is coming to an end, and he is hoping for a shot in the NFL next season.
Hegarty is rated by cbssports.com as the 18th-best draft eligible guard and is projected to be a seventh-round pick or an undrafted free agent. If the NFL doesn’t work out, he will have business degrees to fall back on and memories of a college career that almost never was.
“I had a chance to see a lot of cool places in the triangle from Aztec to South Bend, Indiana, and now in Oregon,” Hegarty said. “Overall, I’ve been pleased with my career and I have contributed and had a lot of playing time. It’s been a great experience.”