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Globe South sports

Heart of a champion

Kelley defies odds in comeback

Mike Kelley returned for his senior season on the Braintree High soccer team after having open heart surgery last year. Mike Kelley returned for his senior season on the Braintree High soccer team after having open heart surgery last year. (Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe)
By Colleen Casey
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2011

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Mike Kelley sat on the sideline last fall, watching his teammates on the Braintree High varsity boys’ soccer team take on Catholic Memorial. The Wamps needed a win to secure a playoff spot.

Four days earlier, Kelley was in a bed at Children’s Hospital, recovering from open heart surgery. With Kelley’s presence serving as an inspiration, Braintree beat CM, 1-0, and rode the big win all the way to the Division 1 South semifinals.

Kelley has made a full recovery since last October, slowly working his way back to the field this fall, where, as a team captain, he led the Wamps in scoring (10 goals, three assists).

“I so was mad I couldn’t play the rest of last season,’’ said the 6-foot-3, 178-pound striker. “It was great to see my team win. It’s tough to watch from the sidelines when you’re on the team, but it was awesome watching them make that run.’’

In July 2010, Kelley’s left orbital bone was shattered when he was hit by a water balloon, requiring immediate surgery. In the recovery room, he first learned of his abnormal heart.

“They saw I had an irregular heartbeat,’’ said Kelley. “The doctors said it was normal and a lot of people had them. At a follow-up, my mom said she wanted me to get it checked out.’’

A few weeks later, while his teammates were at practice in Braintree, Kelley visited a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Tests revealed a growth on his heart.

“I just couldn’t believe it,’’ he said. “I didn’t think it was happening to me. I was nervous a little bit. My main concern was getting back to playing. I didn’t take it seriously until they told me I needed surgery.’’

Anne Kelley said she sensed something was wrong when she first learned her son had an irregular heartbeat.

“I’m not the type of mom that takes her kids to the doctors for the sniffles,’’ she said. “There was something about it that didn’t seem right to me. Somebody was looking out for us.’’

Kelley became frustrated with more doctor appointments and the reality that he might not be able to play soccer again.

“We talked to the heart surgeon at Mass General and he started talking about valve replacements and getting surgery every 10 years,’’ he recalled. “He told me I might never play sports again. He scared me.

Kelley went to Children’s Hospital for a second opinion and had surgery to remove the growth.

Visiting Kelley at the hospital, Braintree High coach Gary Burke was surprised at what he saw.

“I thought he was going to be wrapped in a bubble but he was sitting up,’’ said the coach. “I knew he had a big scar and everything and was in pain.

“After seeing him like that I thought he’d never be on the field again. He’s just an amazing kid.’’

Senior captain Greg Lynch said he was quite surprised to see how quickly Kelley was back supporting his teammates.

“Mike was right there on the sideline for the CM game we needed to win,’’ said Lynch, a starting midfielder. “It was the next best thing having him there. He gave us something to play for. It inspired us to win all our next games and go far in the tournament.’’

Kelley said getting back into shape was difficult at first.

“When I got back to school, even just walking up the stairs was really hard; I could feel my heart pounding,’’ he said.

But Kelley said he was determined to make a full recovery. He slowly worked his way up to be cleared to play varsity soccer.

Anne Kelley was not surprised her son returned this season.

“Michael’s a determined person,’’ she said. “He loves soccer. He has a really strong will. I knew having soccer as a motivation would help him heal faster, and it did.’’

On the field, Burke watched Kelley steadily improve.

“He’s much better this year than last,’’ said the coach. “He’s always been a good player, his expectations are high. To be where he is right now and not play last year, it’s amazing. He’s a special player.’’

Senior captain Andrew Ruiz said he was also impressed with Kelley’s play.

“Since he’s so tall, you can always depend on him to win the ball with his head and get it by defenders,’’ said Ruiz. “He’s fast too, so he can run it down if he doesn’t get it in the air. Mike’s so strong. To come back and make such an impact was huge.’’

Burke said Kelley is hard-nosed and aggressive.

“He’s well skilled,’’ he said. “He’s the guy we went to up front. He loves the game, he loves getting out there. He likes being on the field and we don’t like taking him off of it.’’

The Wamps (6-11-2) fell short of a tournament berth, but they did knock off Bay State Carey rival Weymouth, 1-0.

“Beating Weymouth was the highlight of our season,’’ said Kelley. “They’re always our biggest rivals. It was awesome.’’

He said he is grateful for the support he received from his family, teammates, and Burke. Even though he won’t participate in playoffs as a senior, he’s thankful he got a chance to play again.

“The two other captains were always positive with me and the entire team helped me,’’ he said.

“It was just awesome being able to play the whole season this year.’’

Colleen Casey can be reached at colleen.casey@globe.com.