Canzano: David Heller -- and his team -- are still winning
17 years after his death, the ex-Central Catholic star is helping others.
David Heller was a basketball player at Central Catholic High School. I never met him. I wish I’d never met his parents, either.
I mean that.
Jeff and Bev Heller are close family friends.
We encountered each other amid the most horrific of circumstances in 2005. Their son, a star basketball player, played in the team’s final scrimmage before Thanksgiving that season. He came home, ate dinner, took a bath, told his mother he wasn’t feeling well, and decided to go to bed.
“If I die in the night,” he said to his mom, “I want you to know I love you.”
David was 17.
Bev, a nurse, found her son tucked in his bed the following morning. She attempted CPR. Jeff, who owns a timber business, will never forget her scream. He dialed 911, the sheriff arrived, followed by the coroner.
“I watched them take him out of the house in a black body bag,” Jeff told me once.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the medical examiner said.
Nobody knew David had an enlarged heart. I keep thinking he must have somehow suspected it. He had strong faith, loved his siblings, and played basketball like a kid who knew every possession might be his last.
“When he was little, Bev and I made a 9 p.m. rule,” his dad remembers. “No basketball after nine o’clock. No dribbling. No shooting in the driveway. At 9 p.m., it’s time to get ready for bed.”
Jeff, who stands 6-foot-9, played basketball at the University of Portland in the late 1970s. He shared on Saturday night that David once asked him how basketball stars Hank Gathers and Pete Maravich died on the court. Jeff told him their hearts gave out. Little did he know the walls between the chambers of his son’s heart were thickening in a way that would eventually take his life.
“David would have been 34 now,” Jeff said.
The Central Catholic High boys basketball team met, prayed, and voted to play-on in the wake of David Heller’s death in 2005. They dedicated the season to him. I drove to their gymnasium for the first game, and met Jeff Heller in the school hallway.
He was cleaning out his son’s locker.
We shook hands, and I asked, “Do you feel like talking about David?”
Jeff said, “I’d love that.”
It’s a conversation that has lasted for nearly 17 years.
I never grow tired of the stories. For example, David begged his parents when he was just seven to let him attend the week-long Larry Steele Basketball Camp in Vernonia. The minimum age for an overnight camper was nine. David went anyway.
“When I pulled up to pick him up at the end of the week, David ran off the court and just came running toward me,” Jeff remembers. “I got down on a knee and said, ‘What’s wrong David? What happened? Is something wrong?’”
David hugged him and said, “Dad, thank you so much for sending me to this camp.”
The Hellers have always been candid, warm and open. David’s younger brother, Darren, was just 10 when David died. His sisters, Anna and Heidi, were 15 and 19. They’re all grown up now. Anna is a swim coach at the University of Arizona. Heidi is married, has three children, and works for Adidas. Darren — the baby — is helping run his father’s timber business and got married this summer.
My wife and I have marveled at the Heller family. We’ve come to adore the kids, and appreciate the friendship of Jeff and Bev. We’ve taken our own children fishing in their backyard pond in Scappoose and shared meals with them. When Jeff harvests apples from his orchard, he often drops a jug — or three — of ice-cold, fresh-pressed cider on our doorstep.
“I left you a little something,” he’ll text.
Once, during a storm, we had a large tree fall in our backyard. It was a mess. Jeff heard about it and showed up with a giant chainsaw and an industrial-sized truck the following day. He cut up the tree and hauled it off. He refused to let me pay him for his time or even buy him dinner.
That’s Jeff Heller.
I’ve told him many times, “I wish we’d never met.”
My wife, Anna, was a television reporter at KATU, when David died. I didn’t know her then. But she was the first news reporter to talk with them in their home. She spoke with the Hellers, bonded with them and helped her television audience know who David was. A few days later, I met the Hellers at that basketball game.
On Saturday night, Anna served as the emcee for the David Heller Foundation annual fundraiser and auction. A few hundred supporters ate food, celebrated David, and raised money in a giant barn on Sauvie Island. The funds will be used to conduct heart screenings for teenagers and provide defibrillators to schools in our region.
I looked around the barn during the event.
David’s former teammates from Central Catholic High were there. They are in their 30s now. Many of them were holding children. A few of them were juggling more than one. Michael Walsh, now an associate athletic director at Boise State, flew in just for the event with his wife and two young kids. They arrived on Saturday afternoon, and flew out first thing Sunday. It was the first airplane trip for the children.
“We had to be here,” Walsh said.
Walsh’s mother and father were there, too. So were the parents of a lot of David’s former teammates. They were pouring water into glasses before the event, arranging silent auction items, donating things, and helping clean up afterward.
It’s one of the greatest teams I’ve ever seen in action.
The David Heller Foundation has funded heart screenings for more than 42,000 teenagers in our region in the last 17 years. It has provided more than 300 AEDs to schools. Amid crippling anguish, the Heller family picked itself up and morphed into an unstoppable force. One that has kept a bunch of other families from losing children of their own.
Do they want to talk about David?
They did it for a few hours on Saturday night. There were laughs. There were tears. Jeff stood at the front of the room at one point and looked over at Bev and said, “Marrying that woman right there was the best decision of my life.”
There were lots of glassy eyes.
Dr. Dan Oseran, executive medical director for the Providence Heart Institute in Oregon, took the stage at one point. He shared that his team had duplicated the David Heller Foundation’s teen-cardiac screening program and partnered with them on growing it. Also, he announced the foundation had made “a significant” gift to Providence.
“$500,000,” he said.
The room gasped.
Then, amid the silence, a slide appeared on a giant video screen. It read, “Announcing the David Heller Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Clinic...”
I looked over at Jeff and Bev Heller.
They had tears in their eyes.
So did the rest of us.
We’ve all been through some stuff in the last couple of years. Some of you have lost loved ones to a pandemic. Others have struggled with mental health, the loss of employment and friendships. It’s been isolating for some. I’ve often looked at the Hellers and wondered, “How did they do it? How in the world did they ever get through the loss of a child?”
“We’d prayed together,” Jeff told me once. “When we wrote his eulogy we were in the bedroom with all of our kids. We had to pull together and we did. I had to be strong. Just for the kids. People think I didn’t cry. But I cry a lot.
“I cried yesterday.”
They’ve turned their son’s legacy into the most beautiful of things. In that way, they’ve managed to keep David Heller alive. Some of you are meeting him here, in fact, for the first time, nearly 17 years after he died.
A lot of us are sending our kids back to school this time of year. Elementary school is starting. High school teams are practicing. In a few weeks, college kids are being dropped off. We’re all hugging our children a little tighter.
I keep thinking about David’s heart. Before it gave out, the walls of his chambers had ballooned in the middle, sort of like the shape of a football. The pressure was eventually just too much. I have three kids. I’ve often wondered if I would have the kind of strength the Hellers have demonstrated.
I didn’t know it was possible until I met them.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate all who have supported, subscribed and shared my new independent endeavor with friends and family in recent months. If you haven’t already — please consider subscribing.
Incredibly touching. Thank you John. So many of these beautiful stories go untold, so again, thank you.
I am absolutely blessed by your stories of hope, faith, perseverance, endurance through the trials and tribulations of life. They make a difference in me. A good difference. Thank you for sharing.