A second chance in the game

Thor Jozwiak trained for three months to gain the 30 pounds of muscle he lost from sitting out the 2013 season after heart surgery.

As Thor Jozwiak laid in bed at Tampa General Hospital last June, he stared at the wall unable to sleep. Alone in his room he wondered if he would ever again be able to play the sport he loved. 

“I’m laying in that hospital bed thinking my career is done,” Jozwiak said. “It was scary, very scary.”

The 6-foot-4-inch, 332-pound USF offensive lineman had discovered the previous winter that he suffered from a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation. The condition causes an irregular heartbeat that forces the heart to work harder than normal. 

Jozwiak was originally prescribed a medication to keep his heartbeat under control. This worked for him for several months through spring practices, but when the summer heat rolled around, his heart started acting up again.

“The second day of camp, the medicine just wasn’t working and I went down,” he said. “We were doing drills and my breathing got real heavy and my heart rate just skyrocketed. I blacked out for a second and just went down.”

That incident resulted in Jozwiak staying in Tampa General Hospital for eight days while his team continued to prepare for the upcoming season. 

In the hospital, Jozwiak was put on several different medications to see if his condition could be remedied without surgery. At first, the doctors increased the dosage of his original medication. But this failed to make a difference and after two days they put him on an experimental medication. 

When Jozwiak was given the experimental medication, he was given hope. Given that a medication had worked for him in the past, he was clinging to the idea that this new medication could solve his problem. This was not the case, however.

“Going through that experimental medication gave me hope, maybe I can use this as a crutch to play again,” Jozwiak recalled thinking.

On the second evening, Jozwiak was administered the new medication. He vomited profusely as his body simultaneously rejected both the medication and his new hope.   

After a week in the hospital, hope was restored for Jozwiak. Doctors found a medication that put his heart back in rhythm and allowed him to begin working out with his teammates again after they returned from camp at Vero Beach in August.  

“For a while there, I was thinking I was going to be able to make a comeback,” Jozwiak said. “I was so close, and then in Week 6 I kicked back into AFib. And right then, it was very dark. I had been kicked down and I was making my way back and I just got kicked down again and it was very challenging.”

This final incident proved to be enough for Jozwiak. After meeting with coach Willie Taggart, his cardiologists and his family, he decided to proceed with heart surgery in one last attempt to play football again. 

“It was disappointing because we were counting on him to help our football team last year and then we had to use a freshman instead,” Taggart said. “That hurt us big time.”

While the surgery presented the junior offensive lineman with a legitimate way to continue playing football, he nearly backed out before going under.

“I’m laying there in pre-op thinking ‘Do I really want to do this? Is it worth it?’” Jozwiak said. “But, I had to do it, not only for football, but for my personal well-being.”

Even after the successful surgery, Jozwiak’s road back to football wasn’t easy. The surgery sidelined him for three months during which he lost what he estimates to be at least 30 pounds of muscle. 

More difficult than losing his strength, he said, was sitting out the season and watching his teammates struggle. The Bulls only won two of their 12 games last season and an invested teammate such as Jozwiak struggled emotionally with watching his team lose. 

“I was feeling the same pain that they felt because I know how hard they worked, all of them,” Jozwiak said. “It was a weird role for me last year because I got an opportunity to sit back and watch and that’s strange as a player. I couldn’t do anything to help them. I would try to say something and keep them motivated, but it’s just different.”

Jozwiak’s goal was to get back on the field with his teammates. He worked relentlessly in the weight room to get his muscle back. With his heart healed, his mental approach to football had changed. No longer would he take a single practice for granted because he said he now knew that everything could be taken from him in a mere moment. 

“My motivation was to put the pads on and run out of the tunnel at Ray Jay,” Jozwiak said. “That’s a great feeling to run out with your brothers on the team and I never thought I would feel that again.”

Not only does he have a renewed vigor in the weight room, his spirits in general are continually high. Taggart said he can usually be seen encouraging teammates in practice, or just sharing a friendly word in the locker room.

“I have a completely different outlook on the game that is football,” Jozwiak said. “I would have given my left pinky just to practice last year, let alone play a game. Just being out there with my teammates and practicing is better than anything and it was hard to have that all taken away. You don’t know when your last play is going to be so I appreciate every day we come in and work.”

Taggart agreed the mental change that Jozwiak has undergone is a drastic one.

“He was down, and you can imagine how a kid would feel when he wasn’t sure if he could play football anymore,” he said. “But I think being around his teammates encouraged him. He’s awesome to be around. You see him coming down the hallway now and he’s going to brighten someone’s day. He’s what you want in all of your student-athletes.”

Not only did Jozwiak complete his turnaround, but said he is stronger than before and looks to be on track to start on the offensive line for the Bulls this season. 

Suffering from atrial fibrillation was difficult for Jozwiak and it forced him to experience some dark times. But from his journey, he has gained a fiery motivation that has pushed him to new heights. 

“Because I know it could be taken away from me, I have the motivation to push past what I normally wouldn’t,” Jozwiak said. “That motivation will always be with me because of what I went through.”

He not only uses this motivation for himself, but gives it to the rest of the Bulls as well. 

“He trains hard and he holds his teammates accountable,” Taggart said. “He always reminds them that just like that, it can be gone. So he tells them not to take a day off and to push themselves to the fullest.”