WALLINGFORD – Mike Papale brought his inspirational story back home on Monday morning.
The former standout Sheehan basketball player, now 28-years old, gave a heartfelt, 50-minute speech and took several questions from the current cast of athletic captains at the school auditorium.
Papale chronicled his life to the Sheehan athletes. He spoke about his love for basketball and his two brushes with death stemming from an enlarged heart. He spoke coming to grips with the idea that he would never play basketball again despite a promising career 11 years ago. Playing college basketball was his dream at the time.
Papale turned to coaching. He was a player-assistant at Sheehan in his senior year under head coach Joe Gaetano, who was in the audience Monday.
Coaching is also in Papale’s blood. His father Mike Sr. is a longtime basketball coach. Eventually, Papale spent seven years on the men’s basketball staff at Quinnipiac University. In his final three years in Hamden, he was the Director of Basketball Operations under Tom Moore.
In 2015, he moved on to assist Scott Burrell at Southern Connecticut State University. He held that post for two years.
Now Papale is spending all of his time as a public speaker and raising money for his non-profit organization named, "In A Heartbeat.”
‘In A Heartbeat’ has collected $45,000 worth of donations over the years. One of the main goals of the organization is to get an automated external defibrillator in as many buildings as possible. By the end of the year, Papale will have donated 29, which cost between $1,200-$1,500 apiece.
In addition to raising money, Papale has also started a career in public speaking. He’s already had eight speaking gigs and will be heading to Oregon later in the week to speak in front of a collection of high school athletic directors.
Papale graduated from Sheehan in 2007. He attended Xavier High School for his freshman and sophomore seasons. He transferred to Sheehan for his junior season and helped lead the Titans to the Divison II semifinals. Gaetano said Papale stepped up his game in the playoffs in wins over Fitch, Notre-Dame Fairfield and Danbury.
“Mike had a career that people dream about in the CIAC tournament games,” Gaetano said. “We went to the semifinals with basically an OK team, but had some super-human efforts by some of our players. I would have to say that Mike was the glue to that happening. We were losing in the first game by 15 points at halftime and Mike had over 30 points. Then in the second game he had 14 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds in a low-scoring game, and in the third game he went nuts again and scored a ton of points against Danbury.”
Sheehan ended up losing to Torrington, the eventual champion, in the semis.
“Mike was always the same,” Gaetano said. “He didn’t go high or he didn’t go low. When he played and the game was on the line, he was the same as what he was if we were up by 20. We all can’t do that: temper our emotions and understand the big picture. But Mike could. Not only was a great player, he was a great person.”
Then Papale’s life took a turn on Aug. 24, 2006 when he went into cardiac arrest at the Wallingford YMCA. His life was saved by Wallingford volunteer firefighter and EMT Bob Huebner, who was off-duty at the time. Huebner performed CPR before four paramedics arrived armed with an AED.
Papale was later diagnosed with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy.
“I don’t remember anything that happened past 10:30 that morning,” Papale told the students. “This is everything that I’ve been told. The Wallingford Parks and Rec did not have an AED. I was lucky there was an EMT next door. He saved my life and saved my brain with the CPR and they shocked my heart back to a normal rate.
“I went to cardiac arrest again back when I got to the hospital and I ended up spending 12 days in the Children’s Medical Center, and that’s where I was told I had an enlarged heart.”
Following the incident, Papale had a device placed in his chest that would shock him if his heart needed it.
“I was told that 365,000 people go into cardiac arrest and about 10 percent survive,” Papale said. “The doctor came in after and said, ‘The good news is that you survived, but the bad news is that you never play basketball again.’”
Papale decided to remain positive and develop new dreams and new goals.
“As soon as I was healthy, the first thing my mom did was bring me to see all of the people that saved my life and thank them,” Papale said. “Then she brought me to the American Heart Association. I told my story many times.”
Papale’s parents Joan and Mike Sr. remain heavily involved in their son’s life and are on the board of ‘In A Heartbeat.’
Two years ago, the Papales endured another scare. Mike needed to get the batteries changed in his defibrillator. After a minor surgery, he noticed some side effects, including skin discoloration and swelling.
Eventually, it was discovered that Papale had a serious bacterial infection from the previous surgery and now needed open heart surgery. It lasted 12 hours. He healed after six weeks of rest.
During that span, Papale came to the relization that he needed to do more with “In A Heartbeat.” Since then, he has ramped up fundraising.
“Coaching basketball was my dream,” Papale said. “But I also had a dream to start my own organization, and during those six weeks my family and I spoke. We talked about the organization for eight years, but we never did it. That’s where I am right now. I gave up my coaching career to do this full time.”
Papale said basketball will always be a part of his life, but the timing was right to move on.
“It wasn’t easy,” Papale said. “I loved coaching and I loved Scott Burrell. We are very close friends. That was very hard for me because I feel I’m a part of his family, but I knew I wanted to give this foundation and this speaking thing a shot. It was one of those things where it was now or never. Because if I was 35 and I was married with kids and have a job, you can’t really take a hit on the money. But the timing was right. The foundation is growing and slowly my speaking career is growing. It’s good. I’m learning every day how to get better and get yourself and the foundation out there more.”
Papale said he loves speaking with high school athletes. He also hopes to speak at corporate events down the road.
He told the Titans to get out of their comfort zone and not just do the bare minimum to get by. He sited examples from his coaching career of players who have overachieved largely do to hard work. He spoke about givinga best effort so you “don’t feel regret down the road.”
“I had a huge change in my life,” Papale said. “In a second my life changed and I wanted to be a better person. I wanted to overcome my fears and one of my big fears was public speaking.”
He warned students to worry about their own path and not get caught up in what others are doing. He also spoke about the importance of hard work and being nice to others.
“It was awesome to be back,” Papale said. “You learn at a certain point that you have a chance to give back, and to be able to give back in your hometown at your alma mater is cool.”
Sheehan senior Evan Mansfield said Papale’s words were inspirational.
“He was able to let go of something that was very important to him and turn a lot of negatives into positives,” Mansfield said. “It was really awesome. He was someone I could really relate to. It was crazy he was able to bounce back from such a tough situation.”