By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 26, 2011
Matt Farkas was a three-sport athlete heading toward his junior year football season opener for Pinecrest Academy.
Doctors uncovered at a routine school physical something that wasn’t quite right with his heart and told him to sit out the first game. Quickly, it became sit out all practices and all games.
From summer to December 2009, a series of doctors appointments filled his calendar. A specialist at the renowned Cleveland Clinic told him he had a thickening of his heart wall. No contact sports. Light jogging or biking only. Keep the heart rate to around 120 beats a minute.
“That hit me pretty hard,” he said. A solid 225 pounds, Matt couldn’t play football, a sport he loved. What made the diagnosis maddening for him was he felt fine.
“It’s kind of hard to get a grip on it,” he said. Matt aimed a lot of his anger at doctors then, but now he says, “in the end, they potentially saved my life.”
And the bright news for Matt was the doctor said he could continue his one non-contact sport: track. “He did let me throw the discus in track, which I was ecstatic about.” Matt showed up at track meets carting his discus and a heart defibrillator.
Medical journals on the disease hypertrophic cardiomyopathy report it isn’t rare, affecting one in 500 people. However, its diagnosis is often missed, making it the most common cause of sudden death in young athletes, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Matt takes medicine every day to keep his heart rate down. A watch given as a gift can keep tabs on his heart rate, but now he said he can gauge his limits on his own.
Instead of moping about what he couldn’t do, Matt focused on what he could do. He coached youth basketball, became the emcee at school pep rallies, tutored younger students.
Doors open when other doors close, he said.
For his upbeat attitude, Pinecrest awarded him its Holy Paladin Award, given to “a student who values friendship and human life over winning the battle/game.”
Matt, 18, is the oldest child of Cheryl and Stephen Farkas. His younger sister, Hannah, is finishing eighth grade. The family lives in Cumming and attends nearby Good Shepherd Church.
He has spent 10 years on the Pinecrest campus, except for eighth grade when he was home-schooled. Next year he is attending Georgia Tech, where he intends to study engineering. He is drawn to it with its demanding “creative problem-solving.”
With so many years at the school, Matt sees his classmates as “brothers.”
Leaving the campus cuts both ways. He said he’ll miss the intimate feel of Pinecrest, but he is looking forward to meeting new people.
Away from school, he jams on his guitar with classmate Jack Swygman on drums. They’ll practice rock songs late into the night. Matt said he likes “bands no one ever hears of” and considers Michael Balzary (known as “Flea”) from the Red Hot Chili Peppers a guitar hero.
“You get out as much as you put in. The less you do sitting around on Facebook, you’re going to be much more proud of yourself,” he said about high school.
Matt said he’s found a mentor in his former football coach and engineering teacher Shawn Coury. He was also Matt’s confirmation sponsor.
“I’d describe Matt as full of life. It’s constantly, ‘What can I do? What can I do? What can I do?’” said Coury.