Keegan Melanson tosses the ball with some teammates before football practice at Leavitt High School in Turner on Wednesday afternoon. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

TURNER — Keegan Melanson knew something was off when he felt chest pain in seventh grade.

The doctors initially found an irregular heart beat, but then discovered something much worse.

“Pretty much I had a hole in between two chambers of my heart and blood was spilling over and it was pumping blood through my body,” Melanson, now a senior on the Leavitt football team, said. “My heart was over-working and got enlarged. It kind of bumped out my chest a little bit, so I had to get it patched up.”

Melanson underwent open-heart surgery at the start of eighth grade and missed the football season but played near the end of the basketball season, according to Leavitt’s football and basketball coach Mike Hathaway, who is also Melanson’s uncle.

The Hornets wide receiver said he was anxious about the surgery.

“I hit someone that summer and I felt a compression in my chest and I was like, ‘That’s not good,’” Melanson said. “I went to the doctor and found out I have an irregular heart rhythm, then I went to Boston Children’s in Massachusetts and found out I have a hole in my heart. 

“It was scary because I didn’t think something like that could happen. I felt invincible.”

Menalson’s cousin, Wyatt Hathaway, said the fear not being able to play sports with his best friend and family member was excruciating. 

“We were worried about that, and then we got the news that he had to get open-heart surgery,” Wyatt Hathaway, Leavitt’s junior quarterback, said. “I think we were already as close as you could get as a family, but I think we kind of learned there’s another level you could take it to.

“When we first heard about it, I don’t think I was as worried about the life stuff, I was more worried about, like, I am not going to be able to play football and basketball and baseball with him anymore.”

Mike Hathaway, who is the brother of Keegan’s mother, said his nephew’s condition was brought to their attention during his physical prior to eighth grade. 

Heading into freshman year, Melanson was nervous about playing football, worried that the physicality of the sport might result in a return of his heart condition.

“I was a little nervous because it’s important,” Melanson said. “I was nervous if I hit someone it would re-open or something. It was scary.”

Though he was nervous, Melanson said the doctors cleared him to play and said he would be fine.

Mike Hathaway secured a custom-made set of pads for Melanson as he started his freshman year from Steve Coutts, who worked at Frozen Ropes in South Portland. Melanson said he still uses those pads.

Keegan Melanson poses before football practice at Leavitt Area High School in Turner on Wednesday afternoon. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“Realistically, with stuff like that, you’re better off after than you were before,” Mike Hathaway said. “You’re supposed to be better, so he was probably less at risk than he was before. It’s a big mental hurdle. I think it really took him a full year to get back mentally where he could compete at a high level for the JV and varsity teams.”

Melanson said he jumped over most of the mental hurdles pretty early on.

“A couple games in, I realized that it would be all right,” Melanson said. “Or, I hoped it would be all right. It seemed OK. … (Now) I’ve kind of completely forgotten about it.”

His heart has been healthy ever since the surgery, and Melanson said he recognizes the gift he’s been given.

“It gives me a greater appreciation of the game and what it means to be able to play it,” Melanson said. “Not a lot of people get to do it, so to have the chance to be able to play, I’m pretty thankful for it.”

On the field, the receiver really made a name for himself last season, catching touchdowns and gaining tons of yards off throws from his cousin Wyatt. 

“Last year he really started coming around as a football player,” Mike Hathaway said. “Keegan got a lot of reps last year as a number two (receiver), then this summer he just jumped off the charts. He was unreal. His speed has picked up, his jumping ability and ball skills are really good. Defensively he’s been kind of a backup, but last week he stepped in and played strong safety like he’d been playing it his whole life.” 

Wyatt Hathaway said the two have been playing football together since they caught passes from their older cousin when they were 3 years old. 

Melanson, Hathaway and many other Leavitt players have been on the same football team since second grade. For the cousins, the relationship is equally strong on and off the field.

“We are at the point that we’ve been doing it for so long that I give him a little nod or he knows the kid in front of him isn’t as good as he is, and he can give him a double-move or a quick slant and I can give him the nod without giving too much away to the defense,” Wyatt Hathaway said. “I can kind of turn, give a little nod, and he knows what to do.”

Melanson feels the connection on his end, as well.

“It’s cool catching touchdowns from him,” Melanson said. “We have like a group of 15 seniors, but this core group we have been playing together since second grade. We are really close-knit, you could say.”

The heart surgery is behind him, but Melanson’s family knows the importance of the event and the resulting connection that came from it. 

“It means so much to me because me and him have been best friends for forever,” Wyatt Hathaway said. “It meant so much to me when he could come back and play with us, because with me, Keegan, Cole Morin, Damion and Dasean (Calder), Garrett Jabbusch, we’ve all been best friends since we started playing football, so it probably meant just as much to them having their best friend playing with them, just as much as it meant to me having my brother out there.”


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