Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper keeps working, waits for a new heart for his son

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Outside the comfortable two-story house at the end of a quiet cul de sac, a simple metal sign proclaims: “BEAT ARMY.” It is the only evidence of the most important goal, ever and always, for anyone associated with Navy football — and until now, that has included the Jasper family.

Ivin Jasper and his son Jarren.

Ivin Jasper and his son Jarren.

“This game,” Donna Jasper says, “as long as you win, all the little ups and downs we had all year long — it will take them all away and it will make the season better.”

And Ivin Jasper, Donna’s husband and Navy’s longtime offensive coordinator, acknowledges: “We’re not having the year we want to have. But one week can change everything.”

One phone call, too.

Jasper got one Wednesday afternoon, just before practice. It wasn’t the one he has been waiting on for so many months now. But he dropped everything and left, uncertain when he might return.

To beat Army means everything — until it means nothing. For the Jaspers, what matters is a teenage son with big dreams and a bad heart.

Jarren Jasper is 14. He needs a heart transplant, which is why Ivin and Donna keep their phones very close at all times. When a call comes, they check for area code 202 and prefix 476 — hoping it’s from Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and praying it’s a heart. “Is this it?” Ivin wonders. “But it’ll be confirming his appointment.”

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Wednesday when his phone rang, it was something else. Jarren had gone in for some tests. Doctors didn’t like what they saw. Ivin didn’t like what he heard.

Thursday afternoon, the Jaspers returned home. Ivin went to practice. More tests are scheduled Friday morning. No one is certain whether he will coach Saturday against the Black Knights. 

Football? Beating Army?

“Really, none of that matters,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo says. “Your kids, your family — lives are what matters.”

Jarren and his family are in a fight for his.

***

Giant photos of the Jaspers’ three children playing sports adorn the walls of their home, as well as Ivin’s office at the Naval Academy. Dallas, their daughter, is a junior volleyball player at Saint Leo University in Florida. Jaylen is a freshman volleyball player at Stanford. Jarren, who was a fixture at Navy football practices since before he could crawl, is a very good athlete, too.

And although his best sport might be basketball, he has played football since kindergarten — first at running back, then later receiver and quarterback — and was looking forward to playing on the freshman team at Broadneck High School last fall.

Then during a routine physical exam last summer, a doctor detected an irregular heartbeat. A visit to a cardiologist followed, then to an electrophysiologist. And then Aug. 4, Jarren underwent a catheter ablation, in which doctors attempt to destroy tiny portions of the heart muscle to arrest the irregular heartbeat.

No one was especially concerned. Ivin Jasper had a similar procedure because of similar symptoms years earlier, when he was a teenager. That morning, from his office at the Naval Academy, Ivin texted Jarren:

“Don’t be afraid son. You’ll be fine.”

Jarren texted back: “I’m not” — meaning he wasn’t afraid. But soon, he wasn’t fine.

The procedure took longer than expected. And then Jarren’s heart swelled. And then it stopped.

A nurse emerged from the operating room to provide a vague but troubling update: “We’re having a little difficulty.” Donna called Ivin: “Something’s wrong. You need to get here.” Ivin arrived less than an hour later, in time to hear another update: “We’re doing all we can for him.”

“You hear that in the movies sometimes,” he says. “I don’t ever want to hear those words, ‘We’re doing all we can for him.’ What do you mean? He came in, there’s nothing wrong with him. ‘We’re doing all we can for him.’ They’re talking like he’s not gonna make it. I cannot believe this.

“That was the worst day. It was when our life changed.”

Ivin Jasper talks strategy with the team.

Ivin Jasper talks strategy with the team.

The days that followed were almost as bad. For a long while, when anyone asked Donna how they were doing, she’d tell them, “We’re living in hell — and I don’t know why.”

For a time, the Jaspers hoped Jarren’s heart would regain its function. But after several tenuous days, including an episode when doctors had to use a defibrillator to revive him, it became clear: The only option was a heart transplant.

Donna recalls those first few days, sitting in a hospital room and pondering the future — “and there was no light in it whatsoever.

“But every couple weeks, something would happen,” she continues. “The light would turn a little brighter.”

Ivin and Donna point to a moment, very early on, that provided hope. Although Jarren was heavily sedated, doctors and nurses encouraged his parents to talk to him. Ivin entered the room and said, “Hey Fathead!” — using an affectionate nickname — and Jarren turned and lifted his arms toward his dad.

“I just grabbed him,” Ivin says — and a tear rolls down his cheek — “and I just held him.”

Jarren remembers awakening in an unfamiliar room, unable to move.

“I was confused,” he says. “I just kind of lay there for a while. I didn’t say anything. I was just thinking.”

Then he asked, over and over: “What happened?”

“Every time he asked that,” Ivin says, “it hurt my heart so bad.”

In part, it’s because there’s still no real answer. Jarren had passed a physical the previous year; doctors aren’t sure why his heart started beating abnormally. It could have been a virus that settled in the heart, but no one knows. The catheter ablation was supposed to be a minor, outpatient procedure, but something went awry.

“He’s one in a million,” Donna says, “that rare case, it’s never happened before.”

Son Jaylen (Stanford volleyball player) Mother Donna Daughter Dallas (St. Leo University volleyball player) Son Jarren Father Ivin family photo

Son Jaylen (Stanford volleyball player) Mother Donna Daughter Dallas (St. Leo University volleyball player) Son Jarren Father Ivin family photo

On Oct. 5, after two months in the hospital, Jarren went home with a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), which was implanted to do the heart’s work. It’s battery-powered or plugged into the wall. Even so, life has settled into a routine.

Tutors come a couple times a week. Friends occasionally visit, too. But Jarren mostly spends his days mostly hanging out in an oversized recliner in the family’s living room, watching TV or playing video games. He struggles to walk because of nerve damage related to the placement, during those first days in the hospital, of an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) device, which took over Jarren’s heart function until the LVAD replaced it. But his leg is gradually getting better, and he says he rarely dwells on his situation.

“I just kind of try to think about other things,” Jarren says. “I don’t want to be sitting here just thinking about that and keep waiting and waiting.”

Although Jarren initially dropped from 125 pounds on his 5-11 frame to below 100, he has since regained about 20. He retains his appetite and his grin and he has a teenager’s quirky sense of humor.

Noting his dad’s similar medical history, Jarren laughs: “He just wasn’t as unlucky as me!” And as his mother describes watching doctors scramble to revive him, he interjects: “Code Blue! Code Blue!” And later, when she begins to cry, he says: “Mom, I’m sitting right here!”

Last weekend, several of Jarren’s friends came over. They ordered pizza and headed to the basement, where soon enough, Ivin and Donna heard: THUMP! THUMP! BOOM! They knew what it was, but Donna was mildly upset when she went downstairs to find he was shooting baskets, too, in the game of ‘horse.’

“It was just the ball coming off the backboard,” Jarren says, explaining the noise away as if that explains everything.

But Jarren sleeps on a mattress near his parents’ bed. He sometimes reaches a hand up in the night to feel for his dad; Ivin doesn’t mind. And then, after Ivin rises before dawn to head into the office, Jarren sometimes asks Donna to lie with him.

“This morning he wanted hugs,” Donna says. “That is the greatest gift I could ever wish for.”

And Ivin adds: “The biggest thing was just getting him home. … Obviously we’ve got a long road ahead of us, but just having him home. Now, it’s so much better.”

***

When Ivin left the office that day in August, he didn’t really return for several weeks. When Jarren’s status stabilized, he began spending more time with the team. Niumatalolo, who along with his wife Barbara is very close to the Jaspers, suggested Ivin take the entire season off, telling him: “This is the last thing you need to be worrying about.”

But Ivin asked Donna and Jarren, who had a different idea.

“I’ll be fine,” Jarren told him. “Go to work, coach the guys and help us win games.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Donna said. “The only thing is, when you’re done, you come here and we’re together every night.”

Ivin has mostly worked regular hours, up and out of the house early and back late. He says the season has been a release for him. But it has also produced a different, more difficult stress than he’s ever encountered, and created a deeper fatigue than he has ever experienced. And when the season ends, Ivin plans with Niumatalolo’s blessing to take some time completely away from football.

His goal will be to help Jarren back to health. And he dreams of a day when Jarren has that new heart, and father and son take an RV across the country together, taking detours to sight-see, finishing in California where they’ll visit Jaylen.

“That’s my next big coaching job,” Ivin says, “is to get him back.”

His current coaching job has amazed Niumatalolo, who says Ivin has been “super strong.”

“I don’t know how he’s done it, but I’ve been so impressed with him as he continues to care for his son and still do his job,” Niumatalolo says. “But the one’s that super impressive, too, is Donna. There’s no rest for her.”

***

Donna and Jarren spend most of their days at home, with occasional trips to a fast food restaurant; almost always just a trip to the drive-thru window. Though Jarren has accompanied Donna grocery shopping, he doesn’t like to use the wheelchair and he struggles to walk. But some people stare. And when well-meaning strangers approach to say they’re praying for him, they appreciate it — “but for a 14-year-old,” Donna says, “it’s kind of hard.”

Jarren also remains a regular at Navy football practices, where he drives a golf cart and kids with the players. Afterward, he’ll hang with his dad in his office. And when Ivin comes home at night, he finds Jarren in that recliner or maybe on the couch, watching TV or playing video games. It all seems so, well, normal. Until about 9:30 or sometimes 9:45, when Jarren announces he’s tired and ready to go to bed.

“He stands, and there are batteries everywhere,” Ivin says. “He starts to walk, man, and he can just barely — that leg, he’s dragging that leg. And reality sets in. He was such a wide-open, energy, loved playing sports. And I don’t want to question — Why him? — and all that stuff pops up.

“I know the Lord has a plan, but I still go, ‘Why him? Just, why?’”

For the Jaspers, there’s also the jumble of emotion that goes along with hoping for a new heart while knowing how it becomes available — that somewhere, another family would go through unspeakable tragedy. Instead, they call it waiting for a miracle.

Until then, in a week when nothing feels more important than beating Army, what matters is a teenager’s smile and those hugs. Remember how Donna Jasper told people they were living in hell?

“We’re not, really,” she says. “I’m just thankful that my son is here.”

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Navy assistant coach Ivin Jasper and the Midshipmen.

Navy assistant coach Ivin Jasper and the Midshipmen.


Source: USA Today Fan Sports Poll

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