Uniontown lineman back on field after health scare |

Uniontown lineman back on field after health scare

Uniontown football coach John Fortugna says the team missed Joe Burke's experience and leadership when he was forced to miss his junior season because of a heart ailment.

As a junior last year at Uniontown Area High School, Joe Burke never missed a Red Raiders practice, never missed a varsity game, never missed even a junior varsity football game … but he never put one foot on the field.

Burke was sidelined with pericarditis, an inflammation of the pericardium (the fibrous sac that surrounds the heart) and readily admits that “it was definitely tough being on the sidelines not being able to play. It was heartbreaking to watch my teammates and not be on the field with them after we had been playing together for our freshman and sophomore years.”

During games, Burke kept statistics and, watching from the press box, had a unique perspective and was able to learn more about the game and his responsibilities.

When cleared medically in February to return to the field, “I had to push myself and work as hard as I could since I missed an entire season,” he said. “Once I was cleared medically, I couldn’t wait to work out and begin the season. I was just happy to be on the field again. For our first game this season, I put everything I had into playing and have done the same all year. There are no restrictions regarding running or playing.”

As a freshman Burke saw considerable playing time, Uniontown coach John Fortugna said, “alternating with other players, but his playing time was almost like being a starter.”

In 2012, he and his family were on a Fourth of July vacation at the Outer Banks, N.C., when he became ill. He was initially diagnosed as having contracted a virus, which turned out to be pericarditis which, he and his family were told, occurs either by chest trauma or, in his case, a virus. However, once he recovered, he was informed he would never experience the problem again and was a starter at both offensive and defensive tackle for the Red Raiders his sophomore year.

Fortugna and his staff had high expectations for Burke as his junior season approached.

But on the eve of football camp in the summer of 2013, Burke went home from conditioning drills complaining of flu-like symptoms. Following a visit to Uniontown Hospital Burke was flown to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, where he remained under his doctor’s care for one week. This time, as the virus went to his heart, he was diagnosed with pericarditis and myocarditis, the latter indicating that the myocardium, muscle around his heart, was damaged.

“They monitored me very closely,” Burke said, referring to medical personal at Children’s. “They did blood work every two hours and continually checked the monitors. I met with a cardiologist and still see a local cardiologist affiliated with Children’s Hospital.”

Burke was hospitalized for a week, but he remained under medical care until February, which meant no football his junior year. During that six-month period, he was permitted no lifting, no carrying a book bag in school, and no steps, even in school.

“Friends helped with my books,” Burke said, “and the school arranged my schedule so all my classes were on the same floor.” He was cleared to return to the field in February.

“We missed Joe and his experience on the field last year,” Fortugna added, “but more importantly we missed his leadership. As big as he is — 6-1, 280 — he is very agile with good feet and he is strong. Joe works hard and he is a leader. He is one of our best linemen and has made consistent progress and worked hard this past offseason to get ready. We were concerned and worried about him coming into the season, but he was ready. He has come back from health issues with no problems. He has a great work ethic and fought hard to come back. Joe wants to play at the next level and he should get that opportunity.”

“You really learn a lot in a situation like this,” Burke said, adding that his parents, Joe and Linda, were a major part of the learning process as well. “My physical condition is fine, and I’m free to do whatever I want, but I will always have to see a cardiologist.”

While Burke has as of yet made no decision regarding his academic and athletic futures, college is in his future, and he plans on becoming a petroleum engineer and work close to his Uniontown roots.

Les Harvath is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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