Referee brought back to life after on-field heart attack

Joe Calderazzo is recovering after suffering a heart attack during a game at Carmel.
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November 15th was a perfect late fall Friday night in the Indiana high school football playoffs. Carmel hosted Penn in the Class 6A semi-state, with the winner advancing to the state finals Thanksgiving weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"It could not have been a better night," said referee Joe Calderazzo. "All the planets were lined up perfectly. The players were playing football. We were officiating. The snaps, the exchanges, the blocks - they were wonderful. They didn't need us."

Everything was perfect until the second quarter, when referee Joe Calderazzo signaled first down, then went down face first to the artificial turf at the 11-yard line.

"The official just collapsed," said Carmel coach Kevin Wright. "(He) lost his heartbeat right in front of our bench."

Calderazzo has officiated more than a thousand high school football, basketball, baseball and softball games over the past 32 years. This could have been his last. Less than 10 percent of people survive heart attacks that happen outside a hospital. Calderazzo was gone for three minutes. Carmel team doctor Todd Arnold and paramedics brought him back to life.

"I saw a light," recalled Calderazzo, sitting on his hospital bed at St. Vincent Heart Center in Carmel, "which turned out to the tower light down by the 11-yard line. I woke up and that's where it was. I woke up and my shirt was cut to ribbons. I said, 'You guys have to be careful. This is a 20-year-old jacket.' It was ready for the pile anyway. They said, 'We also cut your whistle'. I said, 'My whistle!'"

Calderazzo could not blow his whistle, but still got the crowd's attention as he was wheeled off the field on a stretcher. As the crowd politely clapped for the fallen referee, Calderazzo lifted his left arm and waved to the crowd. The crowd erupted and with a standing ovation.

"I couldn't see the standing," said Calderazzo. "I heard the roaring. I was surprised. I was so gratified. I felt so good about feeling so bad."

Calderazzo's main heart artery was 95 percent blocked. Dr. David Heimansohn performed quadruple bypass surgery early Saturday morning.

"I'm talking to him," said Dr. Heimansohn. "We're getting him ready for surgery. And he says, ‘Now look at the TV. Here I'm going to wave.' They're showing his (cardiac) arrest at the game on the news and he's waving. It's kind of surreal, actually."

Being a football referee on a Friday night, Calderazzo probably had his heart attack in the best place possible. Medical personnel on hand for potential player injuries attended to Calderazzo immediately, administering aggressive CPR. Calderazzo suffered several broken ribs in the resuscitation, now a reminder of the people who saved his life.

The referee admits to dismissing symptoms in recent weeks of a heart problem. He should know better. Calderazzo is a 62-year-old pediatrician from Washington, Indiana. Friends call him "Dr. Joe." He has treated multiple generations of young patients in southwestern Indiana and delivered nine babies

"I was foolish to ignore (the symptoms)," said Calderazzo. "I thought they were more of an indigestion thing. You'd belch and it went away."

Dr. Joe officiated a girls basketball game the night before his heart attack with no problems. But during the second quarter Friday night, he started to experience symptoms again.

"In the second quarter I was starting to have some pain," said Calderazzo. "I said to myself, 'You don't stop the 6A semi-state for something that you've had before. And if I'm going to die, I'm going to die on this field."

Dr. Joe has reached the top of high school sports in his zebra outfit. His crew worked the 2008 Class 2A state football championship and he umpired second base for a state baseball championship in 2005.

"It's the love of the game," said Dr. Joe. "It's the love of knowing the rules. It's the camaraderie. I've always treated patients like I treat players, with respect."

The doctor-turned-patient vows to be back on the football field next fall.

"I do know that Friday night I was given a second chance through these people by almighty God," said Dr. Joe. "Friday nights in the fall are gifts from God. Any further one I get from this point will certainly be a gift from God. You don't die at the 11-yard line and quit. I'll be back."