The Papales have always been synonymous with basketball. The sport has bonded the Wallingford family over the years and now it’s helping them heal.
Eight years ago, at the height of his high school career, Mike Papale III went into cardiac arrest and nearly lost his life, but was saved by a automated external defibrillator.
Now 25 and the Director of Basketball Operations for the Quinnipiac University men’s team, he recently had to fight for his life again. Last month, Papale had successful open-heart surgery to remove a bacterial infection.
The 11-hour surgery, and the 12 days of recuperation that followed, was at Tufts Medial Center in Boston. Papale said he felt like he’d been hit by a truck. At his side were his father Mike, his mother Joan and his kid brother John, who goes to Boston University.
Papale has since returned home to recuperate, but on Sunday night the family was back in Boston. This time, it wasn’t about heartache or pain. It was about basketball, as Mike’s Quinnipiac Bobcats squared off with John’s BU Terriers.
It turned out to be a game the family won’t forget. With the game tied at 68 with 30 seconds to go, BU called a timeout and drew up a play for the younger Papale, who delivered the game-winning basket.
“I came off a screen and got a hand-off and made a step-back three,” the former Choate standout recounted Monday. “It meant a lot to me. We lost a few close games this year that we shouldn’t have. This was also special because my brother was there.”
Said Mike, “I’m so proud of him for everything that he has done on and off the court.”
The Papale brothers are best friends. Joan said John was right by Mike’s side during last month’s crisis. John drove to see his brother every day around classes and practice.
“Sometimes it’s hard to think about basketball knowing that my brother is in the hospital,” John said. “It caught us all off guard. Mike is my best friend and he means the world to me. He has helped me grow into the person and player that I am today. I could never thank him enough.”
Mike Papale’s most recent health incident began in August. He unknowingly caught the infection after he had his defibrillator changed. Several weeks later, he started to spike a 103 temperature.
He was sent to Tufts, where he was immediately admitted for the infection. Scar tissue attached to the defibrillator had torn and caused bleeding, which led to the emergency surgery.
“I felt something was wrong,” Joan recalled. “After an hour, I got a call. He ended up being in surgery for 10 to 12 hours and had eight transfusions. And his first words when I want to see him were, ‘Mom, are you OK?’ He’s amazing. After everything he went through and all the things he was hooked up to, he was asking about me.”
Mike will have a new defibrillator put in next month. Meanwhile, he will be recovering at home and getting back to work on the Hamden campus as much as he can.
Mike added that he was touched by all of the support he received. He mentioned that visits from Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore and Athletic Director Jack McDonald were uplifting.
Mike also got a nod from his brother’s team on Sunday night. BU players had the initials ‘MP’ sewn into their warmup jackets.
“That was one of our coach’s ideas,” John said. “It shows that we all are just a big family. Him being my brother, wearing his initials was special for me. This has put everything in perspective.”
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Joan added. “Boston University feels strong enough about John to honor his brother.”
As for the game-winning basket, John said he knew it was good on release. The proud mother said the shot was meant to be.
“He did it for his brother,” Joan said. “I’m so proud of both of my sons. It’s was a great shot and a great game. It was just such an exciting moment. It was just a perfect ending.”
Mike Papale said he never wants to see his Bobcats lose, but he’s proud of his younger brother, who finished the game with 13 points.
“It’s kind of like déjà vu,” he said. “He hit a big shot to force overtime in his freshman year. We both want to win, but if one person has to beat us, I’m glad it was him.”
By Sean Krofssik, Record-Journal staff– Meriden Record-Journal