Kevin the King of Hearts
By John Harrington
For those who knew him best, speaking about Kevin King in the past tense will never be a natural thing to do.
A country boy from Derry with a love of the great outdoors and playing Gaelic Football for his club St. Mary’s, Slaughtmanus, he was so full of life that the thought of it taken from him is a jarring one.
Kevin was just 22-years-old when he died suddenly last November from an undiagnosed heart condition while playing indoor soccer.
The pain and shock of his passing is still raw for his parents John and Margaret and his older brother Martin, but they’re determined that his loss can do some good for others.
They’ve already raised around €25,000 for life saving research at the British Heart Foundation, and on May 6th will host a Golf Tournament and Gala Ball with the aim of raising further funds and awareness.
Kevin would have turned 23 on May 6th were he still alive so it will be a difficult day for his family, but they also hope it will also be a positive one.
“For us, it will be very emotional,” says Kevin’s brother Martin.
“I think the sixth of May, particularly for my mum and my dad is going to be really, really difficult. It's his birthday and it's the first one we won't have him here.
“But there's a positive to it as well, the fact that he's now doing so much good. For me, for the rest of my life, I want to keep this going.
“And at one point in the future I would hope that everyone in the country, at least at a club level, is confident to do CPR. It's so basic and so simple, yet so many people wouldn't do it or couldn't do it.
“You see some fantastic stories of luck. Someone driving by stops and does it. I've heard that from the charity. You do always feel regretful for people who don't get that opportunity.
“Kevin had everything possible done to resuscitate him. It went on for two and a half hours and it was never going to be anything else, no-one could have brought him back.
“But if his life gives someone else the chance to carry on, it will be good for me, my mum and my dad.”
When you ask Martin to describe what sort of person his brother Kevin was, it’s no surprise that he takes a long pause.
After all, how do you sum up someone that means so much to you in a few short sentences?
When Martin eventually finds the words, it becomes clear that Kevin’s wholehearted commitment to the things he valued most in life is what defined him as a person.
His dedication to his family, his dedication to his friends, and his dedication to his GAA club.
“Kevin was athletic, dedicated, passionate, and that was both on the pitch and off the pitch with his team-mates and his family and friends,” says Martin.
“He lived for football and his club, all his life, really. He always would have said 'one life, one club'. That was his motto. Growing up he was always the sportsperson in our family.”
Kevin King was a skilful, fast, and direct centre-forward for Slaughtmanus. The sort of flair player who was always capable of producing a moment of magic from nothing.
He could be an irresistible force on a football pitch at times, and yet it was there that his health issues first surfaced when he collapsed while playing a match for his club in May 2016.
An MRI scan on his heart didn’t show up any abnormality, but he was told to take a six-month break from competitive sports before a scheduled repeat scan.
“That really took the life out of him,” says Martin. “He was always down when he was at the house.
“It really, really got to him because he was always going to go watch a match and never going to be the player and that put him in a really low mood.
“I think he knew even during the entire six months that something wasn't right. I work in a hospital in Belfast and Kevin would have rung me every week. He read everything he could about the heart and knew more about it than I did.
“He would always ask me did I think he'd ever be able to play competitively again. I was telling him to just rest, do the six months, and we'd take it from there. That was always his ambition, to get back playing. So he was in a really, really low mood for those six months.
“The two weeks before he died he had made a lot of unusual plans. He had messaged me to come home an awful lot and had done a lot of things around the house for my mum and my dad.
“The night he died he went to play indoor football friends he hadn't seen in a while. So there were a few strange things he did to make sure he saw as many people as he could in a short space of time as if he knew it was all coming to an end.”
Kevin was standing in goal, not over-extending himself, when he collapsed during the game of indoor soccer on November 3, a week before his repeat scan.
A post-mortem revealed he had a heart condition called myocardial fibrosis, which is basically a scarring of the heart, and further analysis uncovered a second condition, Arythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia.
The news of Kevin’s death didn’t just devastate his immediate family, it sent shockwaves throughout the tight local community and beyond because the 22-year-old was so well-known and highly regarded.
“It was just an awful shock, two of my sons were with him when it happened” says Edward Deery, the then chairman of St. Mary’s, Slaughtmanus GAA club.
“Kevin was involved with Slaughtmanas from when he was a child of five or six and played for us all the way up from U-12 to senior football. He was playing senior football as a minor, because he was a very good footballer.
“When he was on the field you were always wondering what Kevin King was going to do because of the exciting player that he was.
“Personality-wise, he was always a great character. He was the sort of fellow that everybody liked. He was just extremely friendly with everyone and would have been a visitor to all our houses because he had such a big circle of friends.
“He was just a really nice person. He was funny and had the looks and all too, so he had everything going for him really.”
Kevin’s popularity in life was vividly illustrated by the reaction to his death. Everyone in the club rallied around the family, and the wider Derry GAA community made a point of paying their respects.
“Myself, my mum and my Dad knew he was popular and stuff, but we didn't realise just how well known and liked he was,” says Martin.
“It wasn't just at local club level, it really went across the county and beyond. I think that's the one thing that me and my mum and my dad have taken a lot of good from, that our family became a bigger family overnight with the loss of Kevin and that helped us an awful lot.
“For his funeral wake there were nearly 5,000 people at it. His club organised buses and ferried people to and from.
“We live in a very rural part of Derry and we couldn't have done that without them. There were clubs coming from all over and the teams were standing in the wake room together.
“That really hit me, mum, and Dad, that regardless of who you played for, the respect that was shown was something we really took a lot from.”
Despite all the support they’ve received, the harsh reality is life will never be the same for the King family, and the vacuum left by Kevin’s passing will never be filled.
“It's very tough,” admits Martin. “My Aunty told me that my Mum and Dad cried all day on Mother's Day. I was in Germany at the time and was home on the Sunday, but it had been a really rough weekend for them.
“I'm moving back to Derry to be with Mum and Dad in the next couple of months, so that will be good I think to have me home.
“The house is empty now, basically. It's just my mum and my Dad. Life will never be the same again.
“My Dad passed a remark about the good weather getting started, because Kevin would always have been outdoors. He was just a proper country boy out doing stuff, but that's not there anymore.
“Things for the first time are reminding us that Kevin's not here anymore.
“There was one day I drove back from Belfast and my mum and dad weren't in the house, they were at work. And I just sat in the house and cried and then got up and left.
“To this day, I don't go into the house unless Mum and Dad are there because it feels so empty. All I can think of is that I wish Kevin was driving in the driveway.”
Martin’s mission now is to do all he can to make sure other families don’t go through the same sort of pain the Kings are enduring.
He hopes the charity golf tournament and ‘King of Hearts Gala Ball’ - a black tie event with a charity auction – that the family have organised for May 6th will celebrate Kevin’s birthday in the most practical way possible by raising much needed funds for research into heart disease.
Since Kevin’s death he’s become keenly aware just how common deaths among young people caused by cardiac conditions are, and is determined to do all he can to help the ongoing research in the area.
“It's a lot more common than people think,” says Martin. “Since Kevin has died I have looked into it a lot and at least one young person a month in Northern Ireland dies from an undiagnosed heart condition.
“I've been looking at it globally, and in a country like South Africa it's five young people a day who are dying with this.
“I'm a doctor myself and there's so much that we still don't know in this day and age, but as a minimum we should be teaching people at a club level or a local level to learn to do the basic things like CPR and how to use a defibrillator.
“For me, a big thing if you're going to play with a team of people, at least one of you should be confident enough to open a defibrillator and put it on and start doing CPR.
“During the day of the Gala there's going to be golf and the British Heart foundation are going to be teaching CPR and how to use a defibrillator for anyone who wants to learn.
“Kevin’s story got a high-profile because of the GAA community, but there's a lot of other young people that we don't really necessarily hear about in the media.
“The British Heart Foundation are learning more and more about these conditions every day and are doing a lot of genetic testing to try to pick them up far earlier on in life, and to try to identify people who are high risk of these rare heart rhythms to prevent them from going into a sport that could cause them to have a cardiac arrest.
“For us as a family all we want to do is support that work to try and find something that will prevent another family from going through what we have gone through.”
To donate to the campaign in Kevin King’s memory go to giftofhope.bhf.org.uk/In-Memory/Kevin-King.
Further information on the KK Golf Classic and King of Hearts Gala Ball can be found here.
Information on Cardiac Screening in the GAA can be found here.
Information on the GAA’s defibrillator scheme can be found here.
Information on the Cormac Trust, a charity that was set up after the sudden death of Cormac McAnallen to raise awareness of the cardiac conditions that cause sudden deaths and promote cardiac screening for young people, especially athletes, can be found here.