SPRINGFIELD TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- St. Xavier senior Casey Brinkman shakes the hand of his football position coach after every practice.
The backup placeholder and left-end blocker is grateful for every moment, whether on the sideline or on the field.
He’s focused. He’s respectful. He’s ultra-competitive. And underneath his St. X jersey, he wears a defibrillator.
Brinkman, 18, was diagnosed as having arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD) last winter.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the heart condition is a leading cause of sudden death among young athletes and affects people of all ages and activity levels.
Brinkman received medical clearance in August from cardiologists at Good Samaritan Hospital and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, according his family.
His participation on the field is limited. Yet it doesn’t hinder his desire for helping St. X (4-3), which is in solid position to make the Division I playoffs for an eighth consecutive season.
“There is nothing like it,” Brinkman said. “You are representing everybody who has played there and will play there. It’s just a great feeling to be a part of something that’s bigger than yourself. It’s great to have that second family of teammates being there with you. It’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life.”
The significance of special teams in the high school game can’t be overstated, especially in high-profile games. Brinkman understands that built-in pressure.
But it’s just his job and nothing else. The position doesn’t receive headlines or postseason awards. He doesn't want the spotlight. He was there with his teammates at 6 a.m. for offseason workouts.
"He easily could have decided that football was not worth the risk, but Casey chooses to give selflessly to the team every day," senior tight end Matthew Curoe said.
As a former running back and linebacker, Brinkman just wishes he could contribute more to the squad. He also feels fortunate to be alive.
“Casey has been blessed to have this condition diagnosed,” St. X coach Steve Specht said. “I don’t look at him any differently than I do any of my players. All kids have different gifts and talents. Casey was dealt some adversity and has handled it well.”
Brinkman is making the most of every opportunity at St. X. This is likely his final season of playing competitive football.
“He works hard with what he is allowed to do and has assumed roles for which his medical condition allows,” Specht said.
Dedication to the game, teammates
Brinkman and his family visited Johns Hopkins in mid-January and were told there may be medicine available within the next 10 years for his condition. The news was sobering.
A year ago, this wasn’t how Brinkman envisioned his senior year.
It didn’t deter the 6-foot, 206 pounder. He’s missed just one football workout since January.
“Casey is a great kid,” St. X athletic trainer Michael Gordon said. “It’s certainly inspiring to me to watch him persevere.”
Brinkman can run to and from PAT attempts, but is careful not to overextend. He normally walks or does an occasional jog during practice.
He takes up to 70 snaps on the sideline during practice. He put in additional 100 daily snaps during the preseason at Loveland High School near his home.
“He’s totally committed,” St. X special teams coordinator Tim Banker said.
Kurt Brinkman is Casey’s father. Kurt is an Information Technology Assistant at St. X and a statistician for the football team.
Once medical clearance was granted, Kurt and his wife, Melissa, didn’t bat an eye in allowing their eldest son Casey to play his senior season.
“It’s a great opportunity for him to get the memories,” Kurt said. “It’s not what he thought he would be doing but it’s still nice to him go out on the field and participate and be a part of something special regardless of where the season ends up.”
It was around this time in 2015 that Casey felt the symptoms, enough so that his parents pulled him from the postseason schedule.
Greer Goebels, Casey’s cousin, died Oct. 28, 2015 at the age of 25 after participating in a pickup soccer game in California. The family learned later she had the mutated gene for ARVD.
Casey looked pale during workouts a few days before his cousin's death. The Brinkmans thought it might be a virus or simply adrenaline due to the competitiveness of Greater Catholic League football in October.
But eventually a heart monitor detected an irregular rhythm. It turned out Casey’s gene likely mutated in the preseason.
He received his defibrillator in February. The device is protected from impact situations during PAT attempts. Casey doesn’t seek special attention. He just wants to the team to win.
Tony Schad knows how much Casey puts team first. Schad, the vice president for advancement at St. X, coached the running backs when Casey was a freshman fullback.
"What has happened with Casey and the challenge he has with his heart has been difficult for him, but honestly I have never seen him wilt at all from the challenge," Schad said. "...No young man should be faced with the type of burden Casey is carrying, but he has stayed positive and continues to grow as a football player, student and young man."
Significant support from teammates
The season has been anything but traditional for the Bombers, who’ve lost several standouts to football injuries starting in July.
The Bombers have utilized Specht’s mentality of "next man up" in clinching a share of the Greater Catholic League South division title entering Week 8.
Casey is proud of his teammates and their resolve amid adversity. He shares a No. 45 uniform number with sophomore linebacker Thomas Kiessling. Casey cheers on his teammate -- feeling as if the two have a shared responsibility for that number.
“His teammates have rallied around him,” Kurt said. “I think guys have started to understand the significance. This isn’t a career- changing situation as much as it is a life-changing situation. There is a big difference. As these guys mature and are getting older, I think they are starting to understand the significance of that.”
There have been reminders of his teammates’ support this season for Casey Brinkman.
After the home loss to Colerain in early September, Curoe walked up to Casey and asked if everything was all right. Brinkman assured him everything was OK.
“He said: ‘Well we don’t want anything to happen to you Casey. Everybody loves you,’” Casey said.
Curoe’s comments also allayed some of his concerns.
“It made me feel really good,” Casey said. “Sometimes I kind of feel like I am not really part of the team because I can’t do much but it’s not when people say stuff like that. It’s nice to know that they still think I am one of their teammates.”
Specht took time in the preseason during the team’s first chapel visit to laud Casey’s commitment in the face of adversity.
Specht told Casey he had a great deal of respect because he never questioned why it happened to him.
“I was very thankful that he said it because I think sometimes people can forget that this is actually a struggle,” Casey said. “Even though I am playing it’s not what I imagined what it’s going to be like. So it was very nice for him to say that.”
Casey hasn’t decided on a college and an area of study just yet. He just wants to live in the moment. Kurt learned in January about a diagnosis with a form of lymphoma. But that has also made the family bonds even stronger.
Before the Bombers take the field Friday night against Warren Central, Kurt will be perched high above Ballaban Field in the press box to keep an eye on the placeholder wearing No. 45. Casey is expected to be the starter Friday night.
The football brotherhood will have his back too.
"Casey is the epitome of a humble player and a hard worker," senior running back Quinn Earley said. "He has been the model of excellence for this team and much of our success can be attributed to his attitude toward adversity."