Rabalais: Erik Compton’s story spreads hope

The sports world is riddled with clichés, many of them tied to the heart.

“He plays with a lot of heart.”

“That guy’s got no heart.”

“I bet on that guy — he’s gonna give me a heart attack.”

Take those clichés and stuff them in the bottom of your golf bag when you’re talking about Erik Compton.

He defies them all.

A victim of viral cardiomyopathy, Compton had his first heart transplant in 1992 before his 13th birthday. He took up golf as part of his physical therapy, and eight years later he played in his first PGA Tour event as an amateur. An amazing story in itself, but it hardly ends there.

By 2007, that heart was failing him, too. He suffered a heart attack. His story is well-documented but no less unspeakably dramatic: Compton drove himself to the hospital, his heart pumping feebly as he punched numbers on his cell phone, calling everyone he could reach to tell them he loved him.

Life or death putt? Not for Compton. Never had one. Not when he thought his life would end that very day.

Six months after his heart attack he had a second heart transplant in 2008. Five months after that he tied for 60th place, fittingly enough in the Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Walt Disney World.

Compton’s favorite movie is “Braveheart.”

He is Braveheart.

Compton shot a 6-under par 66 on Thursday at TPC Louisiana, a round that puts him squarely on the Zurich Classic of New Orleans leader board.

Monday he was at Ochsner Medical Center, visiting with transplant patients and their families.

It’s almost another sports cliché that athletes make hospital visits. Most times it’s just to provide a bright moment in an otherwise difficult day.

When Compton makes a hospital visit, it’s to spread a little hope. Hope to patients and parents facing perhaps the scariest time of their lives that there can be a tomorrow. And a next year. And years after that.

“I’ve been transplanted for over 21 years,” Compton said, “and people who are just transplanted and parents who have their kids who have just been transplanted want to relate to somebody who has a future. (Someone) to assure them that they’ll have a normal life.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, but it’s encouraging for them. When I was a patient, I didn’t have many people that were professional athletes coming in and telling me it’s going to be OK, so it needs to be told.”

Compton wears his heart, his personal feelings, shall we say, on his sleeve. April is National Donate Life Month, a nationwide effort to put the focus on organ donation. Compton wore a little “Donate Life” logo on the sleeve of his black golf shirt Thursday.

He has talked with his share of organ donor families, too, people who have often lost loved ones in the most tragic of circumstances.

“It can be very hard talking to a family who has lost a loved one and they’ve donated their son or daughters organ,” Compton said. “But I’ve done so many educational programs with donor families over the course of my life that I know how to handle it.”

And learned how to compartmentalize. Off the course he can’t help but be reminded about his experience, how he got this far, as obvious as the scar on his chest.

But on the course he is a professional athlete. An utterly remarkable one.

“When I get on the golf course I think about and focus on golf,” Compton said. “It’s taken me a few years to figure out how to handle that.”

Compton bounced between the Web.com Tour (pro golf’s version of Triple-A baseball) and the PGA Tour for several years, winning the 2011 Web.com Mexico Open, before playing well enough to become a full-timer on the big tour in 2012.

Last year he scratched and clawed through 24 events, making 13 cuts with just one top-10 finish, but it was good enough to finish 98th on the FedEx Cup points list. Plenty good enough to allow him to keep his PGA Tour playing privileges for 2014.

Compton is 84th in FedEx Cup points coming into the Zurich, but lately his golf has been trending upward. He had a strong tie for fifth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month, and the week before the Masters he tied for 12th in Houston.

A couple more finishes like that, maybe a win, and maybe people will talk more to Compton about his golf than his medical history.

“Hopefully when that pattern does happen, I’m healthy,” he said.

Maybe when that win does come, someone will say Compton has the heart of a champion.

How right they will be.