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ESPN pumping new life into Keith’s transplant story


Sports is rife with life-and-death situations, according to the announcers. Sometimes they even are literal.

Simon Keith, the former UNLV soccer star, is a survivor of a life-and-death situation. In 1986, when he was 21, he underwent heart transplant surgery. Only he didn’t tell anybody, other than his coaches and a few others who had a need to know. He was so extremely grateful to have received a second chance at life, but he didn’t want to be defined by it.

If you’ve been keeping up with his story, then you know in recent years he has had … well, a change of heart.

Now among the world’s longest surviving heart transplant recipients, Simon Keith has established a foundation to increase organ donor awareness.

In 2011, he traveled to Europe to meet the father of the Welsh boy who had died so he could live.

That boy was a soccer player, too.

It’s an amazing, emotional story, and when ESPN got wind of it, it sent a crew to Las Vegas. Simon Keith’s remarkable journey will be chronicled in an “E:60” segment. Filming began Friday.

Hardly anybody knew Simon Keith’s story for more than 25 years. Now just about everybody’s going to know, because ESPN is seen in more than 98 million American homes. You also can get a version of it in Canada, where Simon is from.

Going public really had little to do with Simon Keith. It had everything to do with people who write him letters and emails, people who are facing the same grim diagnosis he once faced. People who reach out for inspiration or an encouraging word.

“So I met this kid, this 8-year-old, his name’s Chris. He was 18 months old when he got a heart transplant,” Keith said Friday morning. “Now he’s sort of one of my foundation kids. We sponsor him to play soccer. That’s what this is all about.

“I get a lot of communication now. A lot of emails and calls. But if I can just focus on a person like Chris, that’s cool. That makes it not about me; that makes it about this kid. It’s awesome.

“I think when this thing goes, the (awareness) profile is going to step up even more.”

The “E:60” spot is being produced by Frank Saraceno, who won an Emmy for ESPN’s “SportsCentury” series and was nominated for a Peabody Award for his documentary on Pat Tillman. Chris Connelly is the reporter.

“Our motto is ‘The Biggest Names and the Best Stories in Sports,’ ’’ Saraceno said.

Simon Keith’s story would fall into the latter category.

“I did a story on a boxer who was killed in the ring, sadly, and his organs were donated, and so I’m familiar with these kinds of stories,” Saraceno said. “We do a lot of stories that may seem similar, but they always have a unique hook.

“With Simon’s story, what attracted me is that there was a real reticence on his part for a long time, not only to find out about his heart, the family who gave it to him, but really just on his attitude on his life. It’s really about character. What struck me about his character — well, I thought this was going to be great on television. But it’s going to be great for reasons you don’t even think of.”

Saraceno said there are challenges telling Simon Keith’s story through the medium of television. Keith is now 49; there simply isn’t a lot of footage in the ESPN archives from the Major Indoor Soccer League draft, when he was selected first overall by the Cleveland Crunch in 1989, or from when he played for sides such as the short-lived Victoria Vistas in the Canadian league.

“Being candid, he’s not in our demographic,” Saraceno said. “You’re dealing with an athlete who was predigital, so you rely a lot on the family. His family has been unbelievable … just multitudes of childhood photographs; he has every newspaper clipping a guy could ever want. It’s literally sitting on my desk in my office.

“But the big selling point for me, for my bosses, is that we have footage of him going to meet (the father of Simon’s heart donor). I don’t know if you could do this story justice if you didn’t have that element.”

Saraceno called the graveside meeting an “organic moment.”

“What I got to see, not having been there, was Simon really changing. I think the best stories require change, what we call a swing line, an up and a down.”

The poignant meeting between Simon’s family and the father of his donor heart will convey to viewers that sense of change, Saraceno said.

Before the producer started talking, Keith had excused himself. That’s how he gets when it’s about him.

There were cameras and lights and thick cables and boom microphones spread across the club level at Sam Boyd Stadium, and one of Frank Saraceno’s ESPN assistants was wiring up Barry Barto, the former UNLV coach.

It was as if Simon Keith wanted his old coach to feel comfortable talking about him not marking his man or whatever, though I highly doubted that would be the focus of the interview.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.