Heart Problem Forces Him to Quit Soccer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chapman's Craig Bennett wasn't counting on having a career in professional soccer, but he was planning to have fun trying.

Tuesday, he chose to shoot down those plans, just as they were about to take off, because of a faulty heart valve.

Until two weeks ago, Bennett had no idea he had a problem. During an extensive physical before a college all-star match in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., an internist listening to his heart with a stethoscope asked him a disconcerting question. "He asked if I'd ever been told I had a heart murmur," Bennett said. "I said no, and five minutes later four other cardiologists were asking me the same question."

One of the doctors recommended that he stop playing competitively.

Soon after he returned home, Bennett was presented with a tantalizing opportunity--the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer invited him to training camp. The team needed another goalkeeper to compete for the backup spot behind Mexican star Jorge Campos.

Bennett then solicited a second medical opinion, and Tuesday a cardiologist agreed with the first--that he would be risking his health--and possibly shortening his life--by exerting himself intensely.

Even so, the doctor left the decision up to him, and Bennett agonized over it for much of the day. At one point early in the afternoon, he told Chapman Coach Gregg Murphy to call the Galaxy and tell them he would be at camp today.

An hour later, however, he had changed his mind. "I just didn't feel right about it," Bennett said. "And I'm sure somewhere down the line I'll be glad about my decision."

Bennett, 23, is probably better equipped than the typical athlete to understand his heart problem because of his major at Chapman: he is studying athletic training and knows his physiology. He will graduate in May and plans to be a graduate assistant in the university's athletic training program next school year.

He already has a good start in his career. He spent the last two summers as the equipment manager for the Splash and is the head trainer at El Modena High. Last fall he coached the junior varsity girls' soccer team at Orange High.

It promises to be a satisfying career--and life, with his wife, Tiffany. Bennett said that takes some of the sting off deciding to give up the sport, but it still hurts.

Bennett, who transferred to Chapman after one year at Santa Rosa College, was an immediate standout for the Panthers. He won the starting position as a sophomore but broke his leg in the first game of the season and was forced to redshirt.

The last two seasons he was a first-team All-West Region selection, and in 1995 he helped Chapman advance to the NCAA Division III final four for the first time.

At 6 feet, he was an athletic, vocal presence in goal and he hoped for the chance to take it to the next level.

"It's everybody's dream, especially with players who are that passionate for the game, to get a chance to play professionally," Murphy said. "And for him to be given that chance and to have it taken away in a day is pretty tough to swallow."

Everything seemed to be going so well. There were professional scouts at the all-star match in Fort Lauderdale and Bennett, two days after being given the bad news about his heart, started and played well. He said he stopped about nine shots and gave up one goal in the 45 minutes he played.

The lure of soccer was great, but in the end Bennett decided the risks were too high. "It made it that much more clear to me," he said, "that my time playing is over and it's time for me to be good at something else and share what I know with other people."

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