After Drew Thompson decided he wanted to play lacrosse at the University of Virginia, one of his first thoughts was whether the uniform No. 12 would be available. It wasn’t his lucky number, or the number of some professional player that he used to idolize.
The number belonged to Louis Acompora, Thompson’s best friend in high school. Acompora died on the lacrosse field during the pair’s freshmen year at Northport High School in New York.
The 14-year-old Acompora, whom Thompson had known since the second grade, fell victim to one of the flukiest killers you’ll ever hear about – commotio cordis.
It’s a syndrome resulting from a blunt impact to the chest – during a precise point in one’s heartbeat – that leads to cardiac arrest. It can happen in just about any sport, from baseball to karate.
“It has to be perfect timing and the perfect spot,” explained Thompson, Virginia’s senior co-captain. “It happens a lot in younger kids because they’re underdeveloped. It’s just real freaky.”
Acompora died on March 25, 2000, while playing goalie for the Northport High freshman team.
Thompson, a member of the school’s JV squad at the time, vividly recalls his friend’s final hours.
“I told him, ‘Good luck’ because it was his first freshman game,” Thompson said. “He was good enough to be on the JV, but the freshman team needed him because he was the only goalie in that class.”
Thompson was supposed to play in the JV scrimmage, but stayed home because he was sick. Later that day, Thompson received a phone call from his father and brother. Both were sobbing.
“They were like, ‘We need to tell you something when we get home,’” Thompson said.
Shortly after, Thompson found out that the kid who used to sleep over at his house all the time, the kid he did everything with, had died.
Thompson was in complete shock.
“It was one of those things you just can’t believe,” Thompson said. “It was crazy. Nobody had ever heard of someone passing away from being hit by a lacrosse ball.
“It was a routine bounce shot that came up and he blocked it with his chest. He scooped the ball up, took a step and then just collapsed.”
According to the United States Commotio Cordis Registry that was formed three years ago, there have been 75 documented cases of the syndrome.
However, the true number of fatalities is anybody’s guess because of the confusion in categorizing it.
It is said that young athletes are especially at risk to commotio cordis because of the “pliability of their chest walls.” Equipment doesn’t seem to make any difference. Even athletes wearing chest protectors have died. And, often times, the ball that strikes them isn’t traveling very fast.
Shortly after their son died, John and Karen Acompora formed the Louis J. Acompora Memorial Foundation in an effort to educate people about the syndrome.
Thompson has been extremely active with the foundation since its inception.
“From the first day that I’ve known him, this foundation has been a part of his life, a part of who he is,” said Virginia coach Dom Starsia. “This is something where tremendous good has come out of a real tragedy.
“For Drew, it’s a very real thing. It’s not a convenient community service thing. This is part of his life and part of who he is. He takes it very seriously.”
Thompson is heavily involved, according to Karen Acompora.
“He keeps appraised of everything going on,” she said. “He always talks [to media members] about the foundation and what it does … it’s a great thing and helps our cause.”
In 2001, New York State passed “Louis’ Law.” It requires all public high schools to have a defibrillator program.
Louis may have had a chance of surviving if such a program had been in existence at the time of his accident. It took paramedics 15 minutes to arrive at the scene.
“The reason why a defibrillator is so important is because every minute that you don’t have one, you lose 10-percent chance of survival,” Thompson said. “You can’t be recessitated with CPR. You need to jumpstart the heart.”
Today, the Acomporas travel the country in an effort to spread the word about commotio cordis. Their goal is to set up defibrillator programs in all high schools.
Virginia has a defibrillator on the sideline for all of its games, according to Thompson, who remains extremely close with the Acompora family. Last season, they came to Philadelphia to watch him play in the NCAA Final Four.
Last summer, Thompson was in the wedding of Louis’ older sister, Alyssa. During the festivities, he read a poem in honor of Louis that was written by Eamon McEneaney, a former lacrosse player at Cornell who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“It was very poignant, and a nice thing for us to be able to reflect,” said Karen Acompora. “It was pretty much about death and, ‘Don’t miss me, I’m still here.’ It was really nice.”
It’s easy to understand why wearing No. 12 was so important to Thompson. Luckily, the number was available when he arrived on grounds because former All-American Billy Glading had just graduated. “It was great that I could wear it right away,” Thompson said.
Since then, all Northport lacrosse players – and even some athletes in other sports – have honored Louis by wearing No. 12 when they get to college.
“He was the type of kid who lit up a room, very outgoing,” Thompson said. “He just kind of had an aura about him. We were inseparable.”
No doubt, Louis would be proud of the work Thompson is doing now. According to the Acomporas, there have been 31 “saves” in the state of New York because of “Louis’ Law.” Eight of those survivors were at a fundraising banquet in October.
“It was just amazing,” Thompson said, “to see all of them step up and say that if it wasn’t for Louis and the foundation, they wouldn’t be living.”
© 2007 Media General. Part of the GatewayVA Network.