During the U.S. Under-17 ’88 Men’s National Team’s match against Argentina on Sunday, forward Preston Zimmerman caught an elbow to his nose while challenging for a header at midfield in the 71st minute and the entire U.S. bench heard the crack when his nasal bone broke.
Zimmerman laid on the ground for about a minute as the trainer and doctor tended to the stream of blood, but he was soon up and walking off the pitch, towel to nose, refusing to scoot onto the stretcher that had been brought out.
If Zimmerman had his way, he would have been back out on the pitch in seconds after coming off, broken nose and all, but the fourth official wouldn’t let him back onto the field until the bleeding stopped. Finally, after going through three cotton nose plugs, the bleeding clotted and he returned to the field, keeping the same high intensity he had before that unintentional elbow snapped across his face.
For Zimmerman, breaking his nose was nothing. That’s the kind of attitude he obtained when two years earlier he was three months from dying and didn’t even know it.
In August 2002, Zimmerman’s young soccer career was moving up the ladder of success, but one day it all came crashing down. He had just been invited to his first Olympic Developmental Program national camp with the Under-14s in Boston but needed to get a physical before he’d be allowed to participate. An active and seemingly healthy young man, Zimmerman figured the check up would be routine and he’d be trying to impress national team coaches 48 hours later. It was anything but routine.
His family doctor noticed his heart rate was too high and told him to come back the next day. He did and again the doctor found his pulse to be above the normal average, and instructed his parents to get some tests done with a local cardiologist.
A few days later when he thought he’d be playing soccer in Boston, Zimmerman was diagnosed with ectopic atrial tachycardia, a condition where an electrical impulse raises a person’s resting heart rate dangerously high. The normal average resting heart rate is 60-100 beats per minute, while Zimmerman’s was at 145.
“(The doctors told me) if I had gone to the national camp, I most likely would have died,” Zimmerman said. “I could have just died on the field. If not then, it was expected I would have died within a month or two.”
He was told there were two options to deal with his newly diagnosed condition: he could either take medication for the rest of his life or he could have surgery. Even though Zimmerman was told there was a 20 percent chance something could go drastically wrong during the procedure, he chose to go under the knife.
“Everything about the medication didn’t sound right,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not guaranteed to work. I didn’t want to take pills for the rest of my life. I figured I’d just take that 20 percent chance. It was just fine for me.”
At one point before surgery Zimmerman’s heart did stop. In an attempt to try and control the high beat rate, doctors performed a procedure where they injected a steroid into his blood stream to stop his heart for a moment before recharging it back into normal working order. It didn’t work and Zimmerman traveled up to Spokane for the surgery.
Zimmerman was in the hospital for about a week, a depressing time that he says he wouldn’t have gotten through without his family and friends,especially his mom, who stayed with him in the hospital the entire time.
The once active teenager was hooked up to a heart monitor all day that would beep wildly, sending nurses running to his room when his heart rate got too high – something that happened just by the act of getting out of bed and standing up.
“I was scared to go to sleep at night because I thought I wasn’t going to wake up,” Zimmerman said.
Two years later, according to doctors, Zimmerman’s heart is completely healed and will be probably forever. He no longer feels tired all the time or has blackouts, two symptoms of his heart condition, as the repaired heart has helped him become more energized, bigger and stronger.
Along with physical attributes, Zimmerman’s mental outlook has changed since going through his ordeal.
“I give everything I got every single day because I don’t expect to be…it’s kind of hard to explain, but I don’t expect to be alive,”Zimmerman explained. “When I go to bed and night I pray that I wake up the next day just because of my heart and how messed up it was.”
After getting back on the soccer field, Zimmerman once again began impressing with his tenacious play and knack for finding the back of the net. U.S. Under-17 MNT assistant coach John Hackworth was scouting the ODP regional tournament in Costa Rica in February for potential players for U.S. Soccer’s Residency Program and Zimmerman stood out like a Boca Juniors jersey at a River Plate home game. That tends to happen when you score five goals in four games.
Zimmerman joined Residency in April and after a month worked his way into the starting lineup and has compiled an impressive strike rate with eight goals in 19 games. Less than a month after joining the U-17s, Zimmerman scored two goals and wreaked havoc all in all four games of the Ballymena International Tournament in Northern Ireland, good enough to be chosen as
the tournament MVP.
U-17 MNT head coach John Ellinger said Zimmerman has all the makings of a great forward and praises his relentless effort on the field.
“He doesn’t hold back in practice, he doesn’t hold back in games, he doesn’t even hold back in possession games before the match,” said Ellinger. “He plays 100 percent all the time. You don’t find many players like him.”
“When ever I step on the field all I think about is scoring and how I’m going to do it,” said Zimmerman, who added that after his scare with death he goes all-out, all the time. “I’ll do it any way I can. It doesn’t have to look good when I do it, it just has to go in the goal. I don’t care how. I go in hard every single time because I need a goal to feel good about myself and how I play.”
That attitude has gotten Zimmerman into the starting line-up for the U-17s, and now he’s hoping to take advantage and do what he can to help the U.S. qualify for the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Championship in Peru.
“We definitely have a chance to do something good,” Zimmerman said.
You can bet, broken nose and all, he’ll do everything he can to be on the field in Peru.