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Heart and Soul : Taft’s Cody Hein Gives Volleyball His All Despite the Handicap of an Artificial Aorta

TIMES STAFF WRITER

During a closely contested volleyball match, Taft High’s Cody Hein slid across the court, diving to keep the ball alive. As he fell chest-first to the floor, he launched the ball with one fist and braced himself with the other hand.

“Careful, Cody!” a teammate yelled. “Take it easy.”

Easy, however, has never been Hein’s style. The Taft senior has undergone three heart surgeries, but he makes few concessions to his partially artificial heart, maintaining a relentless and rollicking pace.

His teammates simply call him “The Heart Man.”

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Just a few months after his birth, Hein’s condition was diagnosed as a coarctation of the aorta. By the time he was 14, the aortic valve (the main channel through which blood is filtered into the body) was so constricted, it needed to be replaced with a prosthesis. And although Hein remains active, his ailment is serious, said Hein’s cardiologist, Dr. Burton Fink.

“He’s functioning normally, but in a sense he’s not like everyone else,” Fink said. “Part of his heart is prosthetic and that isn’t normal.”

Hein’s first operation at age 3 was to remove excess tissue from the heart that caused a blockage in the aorta. When he was 7, he had the same operation. And when he was 14, his heart was developed enough so that a prosthesis could be implanted.

Hein could face more surgery because his heart is still growing and might require a larger valve.

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Because Hein is restricted from playing contact sports, he turned to volleyball on the advice of his brother Curtis when he was in seventh grade.

“I came home from (junior high) one day really depressed about my heart,” Hein said. “I couldn’t play this, I couldn’t play that, all these restrictions. Curtis pulled me aside and said, ‘I think I have a sport for you.’ ”

Hein’s doctors permit him to play volleyball as long as he sits out when he is tired and refrains from diving onto his chest.

“We thought we were going to have to modify our defense because (Cody can’t dive),” Coach Doug Magorien said. “But he’s found ways of getting around that by rolling or by bracing himself. He’s done a really good job of adapting to it and not letting it affect his game.

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Taft (13-1) defeated Carson in three games in a first-round 4-A playoff match Tuesday. Hein had a team-leading 10 kills.

“For lack of a better analogy, he is the heart and soul of our team,” Magorien said. “The team looks up to him for his experience and his knowledge of the game.

“The only thing that concerns me about Cody is that I have to watch him because he doesn’t like to tell me when he’s real tired. Sometimes some of the other players will come up ands say, ‘Hey, I think Cody’s feeling a little bit tired.’ He’s got a lot of pride, he doesn’t want to be taken out.”

Hein has started on Taft’s varsity since his sophomore season. He averages 12 kills and 32 assists a match and led the Toreadors to the North Valley League and Palisades tournament titles.

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“People can jump higher, run faster, they can last longer, I have to work myself harder,” Hein said. “But I try to do that in everything I do. Even in things where I am equal, I try to work harder because it leads to more success.”

Despite his restrictions, the 5-11, 160-pound Hein rarely asks to be taken out. He is a setter-outside hitter who plays each position aggressively and intelligently. His movements are fluid, his strength apparent.

“My teammates have been great, they realize it’s harder for me. When they see me dive for a ball and I dive differently and miss, they encourage me,” Hein said. “They know that when we run lines in practice I can only do one set and they have to do three. “Occasionally, when I’m tired, they’ll say, ‘Hey, how’s the ticker doing?’ But they have been great just treating me as a regular volleyball player.”

He was not impacted by the death of Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers, who collapsed on the court in March because of a congenital heart ailment. Hein was deeply sympathetic, but he realized that Gathers died while playing the sport he loved.

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“It’s scary in the sense that I have a higher risk of collapsing than (other players), but it hasn’t affected me,” Hein said. " I feel strong playing sports right now. I don’t get wheezy, and as long as I feel strong, I’m going to keep going.

“I live and breathe sports, I need to play sports to keep myself going.”

Nonetheless, Hein was vividly reminded of his own mortality after Dorsey High football player Kevin Copeland suffered a heart attack and died on the playing field last October.

Copeland wasn’t aware that he had the hereditary heart ailment that took his father’s life 15 years earlier. Coincidentally, Hein’s father, Mel Hein Jr. competed in meets against Ron Copeland, a sprinter-hurdler at UCLA, when Hein was a pole vaulter at USC in the 1960s.

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“There is a sense of fright,” Hein said, “in knowing that I have more serious a problem than some of the players who have died randomly while playing sports. Maybe not Hank Gathers, but Kevin Copeland. He didn’t have any problems (that he was aware of) at all.”

As a tribute to Copeland, whom Hein had never met, Hein wears athletic shoes bearing the inscription “R.I.P. Kevin Copeland.”

But he doesn’t dwell on his ailment.

He doesn’t shy away from questions regarding his heart but prefers to be recognized as a good athlete. Not an athlete with a handicap.

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“If people didn’t know Cody they would never know that he has a problem,” teammate Adam Friedman said. “He certainly doesn’t play like he has a problem. He never gives up, he never says I’m too tired and he never wants to come out.”

It is no surprise that Hein is sports-oriented.

His grandfather, Mel Hein Sr., was among the first 15 inductees into the National Football League Hall of Fame. He played center for the New York Giants for 15 years and didn’t miss a game. Cody’s father set the world record in the pole vault in 1965 while at USC and he is currently the track and field coach at Taft. One brother, Gary, is on the U. S. National Rugby team, and Curtis is graduating this year from USC, where he played football on scholarship the past four years.

Hein would prefer to play football, but he understands that it is not possible. It remains his favorite sport to watch.

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“Football is my first love,” Hein said. “I always had dreams to play, and seeing my brothers excel made me want to play.”

The Hein family views his participation in sports as nothing out of the ordinary.

“We’d play touch football so that Cody could play too,” Gary Hein said. “It didn’t bother me, I always thought it was great that he wanted to play.”

But for now Hein is satisfied to be playing volleyball and is looking forward to playing on the club team at Cal, which he will attend in the fall.

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“There will always be that, ‘If only I could play five minutes of football,’ ” he said. “But I’m lucky just to play volleyball. I wouldn’t change a thing.”


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