On Friday night, Jason Karnes will start his 13th season as Herrin football coach when the Tigers host Waterloo.
It’s not much of a stretch to say that this will really be lucky number 13.
Less than three months ago, Karnes’ life was at risk, only he didn’t realize it until it was almost too late. A pinch of luck, a dash of modern medical technology and an ounce or two of stubbornness kept him a step ahead of the widowmaker.
“To say the least, it’s humbled me,” Karnes said before a practice last week.
Whistle around his neck, a cap on his head and a short-sleeve windbreaker around his torso, Karnes cut the figure of your typical coach. But his journey since late May has been anything but normal.
‘I lied and said I was doing fine’
During the last week of school, Karnes felt a burning sensation in his chest and throat any time he moved around. But he never felt pain across his arms, a classic symptom of a heart attack. So he kept working and made it through the final day.
At dinner the Saturday before Memorial Day, friends of Karnes noticed he was sweating profusely and didn’t look good, but he continued to insist he was all right. On Sunday, his wife of 18 years, Brandi, suggested it was time to start on a fitness program. Time to trim down a bit.
So off they went on a walk toward the football field. About 10 minutes into the walk, Brandi asked Jason how he was doing. Fine, he said.
“I lied and said I was doing fine,” he admits. “It was really burning.”
Not much longer after that, Karnes fessed up. He wasn’t doing fine, he wasn’t feeling good. So they went home, he went into the shower and then made the short drive to Herrin Hospital. It didn’t take long to get an electrocardiogram. It also didn’t take long for doctors to send him to Carbondale Memorial Hospital.
Once there, Karnes was sent downstairs for a heart catheterization. To him and doctors in the room, this seemed to be a routine procedure with a simple outcome.
“They thought that me being 42 years old, I go in and maybe get a stent or balloon and be out of there in an hour,” he said.
About 20 minutes into the cath, that diagnosis took a sudden turn. And not for the better.
‘A lot of unknown running through my mind’
Karnes remembers the doctor’s reaction when things changed for the worse.
“He said, ‘Oh, no.’ And I asked, why oh no?,” Karnes said.
This is why he said oh no: One side of his heart revealed two complete blockages. The other, the side where the “widowmaker” is said to lurk, revealed an 80 percent blockage in that artery.
The guy who has called a lot of successful plays in going 93-37 as Herrin’s coach the last 12 years had just one play to make, and it was called for him by the doctor — triple bypass surgery, to be done the day after Memorial Day.
Brandi Karnes fell to her knees in a chair and cried when she heard the prognosis.
“I’m 42 years old and I’ve got my oldest boy who’s the leader of our football team and a daughter who’s a three-sport athlete going into high school,” Jason Karnes said. “There’s a lot of unknown running through my mind.
“I knew I was in good hands, especially with the Good Lord. He’s the ultimate guy and I knew he’d have a plan for me.”
Sunday night and Memorial Day came and went. Karnes did a lot of thinking. The doctor gave him even more to think about before leaving for the night, hours before surgery.
“Here I am, 42 years old, played high school and college sports, and I thought I was fully healthy. Four years ago, I got into terrific shape with a coach of mine and we ran a half-marathon in Nashville,” Karnes said. “For him to say that you have one day to live, that you would have gone to sleep and not gotten up, that’s just hard to grasp.”
“I still can’t get those words out of my head,” Brandi Karnes said. “The thought of being a widow … I just can’t wrap my head around it.”
‘I really can’t explain besides … an angel’
Karnes underwent his surgery on May 29 and was getting out of his bed to walk around the hospital a couple of days later at the urging of nurses, a move he said was one of the hardest things he’s done in his life.
Discharged on June 2, Karnes and Brandi started walking two miles a day — one in the morning and one at night in order to beat the stifling June heat. Eventually, they pushed it to two miles twice a day. Karnes felt good and wanted to keep pushing himself.
In early July, a followup visit resulted in Karnes getting clearance to coach on the sideline and teach driver’s education. Five weeks after finding out one more day without surgery could have ended his life, Karnes was back in the game.
He said Brandi played a big role in his recovery.
“She’s a teacher also, so during the whole month of June — when I can’t use my arms because if you push or pull you reopen the wound — she saved my life,” he said. “She was there for me at every turn.
“I really can’t explain besides … an angel.”
Karnes’ life-changing event has also changed his perspective. He says he’s changed his coaching style, projecting a more positive approach towards his players this preseason.
“He’s thankful that he’s out on the field and coaching, doing what he loves to do,” said defensive coordinator Dwayne Summers, starting his 13th season under Karnes. “The kids can see his dedication and desire.”
Like father, like son
Karnes’ father, Bob, coached 20 years at Du Quoin, going 136-59-4 with a state runnerup finish in 1986. He laid the foundation for Al Martin to win a pair of state titles in 1988 and 1992.
The fruit didn’t fall very far from the tree in this case. Bob Karnes was known for emotional speeches. The son has inherited that trait from his dad, and it’s not hard to imagine Jason will cry when he addresses his team just before tonight’s game.
“That’s just how I am,” he says. “You can talk to my former players. I can give a five-minute speech and end up crying. That’s how my dad was.”
Add in the first game of a new season, a team that knows it could have lost its coach in the offseason, and all the ingredients are there for an emotional high for Herrin — and its coach.
“It will be very emotional just because when you’re in that hospital bed and they wheel you into surgery, you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Karnes said. “It’s just very humbling and exciting. I know the kids are going to be excited.”
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