Dan McCarney opened his eyes, coming to after undergoing an angiogram last spring, a feeling of apprehension bubbling up inside.
North Texas’ head coach already had been through so much in just over a year at that point while battling his way back from a stroke — from visiting doctors to re-evaluating aspects of his life.
McCarney had returned to coaching but could sense something else was wrong when he felt a strange pressure in his chest while climbing the stairs inside the Mean Green Athletic Center — a journey of two flights he still makes multiple times a day.
One look at the faces of his wife and doctor was all McCarney needed to know that his suspicion that something was wrong was accurate.
“I woke up and there was the doctor and my wife, and both of them looked like someone had shot their dogs,” McCarney said. “I said, ‘OK, what’s up?’ They said I had blockages.”
McCarney found out after that exam that he needed a quadruple bypass. He returned to the sideline less than five months after undergoing the procedure and led UNT to a win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year’s Day.
McCarney, who will turn 61 on Wednesday, has begun sharing the story of the transformation he made during a 14-month struggle with his health in his new roles as the honorary chairman of the Denton Heart Walk and as a volunteer speaker for the American Heart Association.
“It’s near and dear to me,” McCarney said of heath-related causes. “Head coaches are asked all the time to put your name on this, help us with that, come attend this or speak at that. When I was contacted about this, we didn’t have to talk about it any more. I told them, ‘You tell me what I need to do, when and how.’”
The American Heart Association gave McCarney an avenue to help others who face similar medical issues.
Members of the organization had internal discussions a few months ago about ways to promote three Heart Walk events Sept. 13 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including one in Denton.
The idea of asking McCarney to become involved came up quickly.
“Coach McCarney is a wonderful role model and a stroke survivor,” said Amy Johnson, the American Heart Association’s vice president for strategic development in North Texas. “We thought he would be a good fit, could share his story and inspire everyone.”
McCarney is a notorious grinder when it comes to coaching, spending long hours in his office and on the field.
McCarney hasn’t backed off much since his stroke and bypass. He just appreciates what he has more and is determined to help others who face similar obstacles.
“I absolutely feel that the cause is close to him,” Johnson said. “He’s very passionate about it.”
A tough 14 months
McCarney has committed to memory figures showing the impact of strokes and heart disease in America.
Every 40 seconds in America, someone suffers a stroke. Every four minutes, someone dies.
“That is pretty strong stuff,” McCarney said. “If we can bring awareness and get people thinking about if they have these feelings they are having a stroke, it will save lives.”
When McCarney looks back, he believes heeding those warnings saved him.
McCarney had just finished working out at a local gym Feb. 12, 2012, when he sat down with his wife, Margy, and son, Shane, and began munching on a tuna sandwich.
McCarney knew something was wrong when the left side of his face, his left arm and left leg all went numb. The family quickly dialed 911.
Medics loaded McCarney into a helicopter in a matter of minutes for a trip to Fort Worth, where he was treated. McCarney says acting quickly and receiving medical assistance in minutes helped him recover from the stroke.
A year later, McCarney could tell that something was wrong again.
He was back to his regular routine of walking the steps at Apogee Stadium and working out.
“I always walk the steps here at the office and never take the elevator,” McCarney said. “I got to the top and felt this pressure on my chest that I have never felt. I had [UNT director of sports medicine] Dustin Hill come in during spring practice and check my blood pressure. It was a bit elevated. I had never had that problem, and I probably should have in this profession.”
Hill kept an eye on McCarney, who continued to feel like something was wrong during exit interviews with his players following spring practice.
McCarney made it through two days of talking to his players individually before scheduling an angiogram, a procedure in which doctors inject a patient’s blood stream with dye and insert a catheter, allowing for a detailed examination of blood vessels.
The examination revealed that McCarney had several blockages in the vessels around his heart, including one in his left anterior coronary artery. A blockage in that artery is often called the “widow maker” because it frequently causes fatal heart attacks.
Despite two major health scares, McCarney never missed much in the way of time with his team because they occurred during the offseason.
Good timing didn’t make the road back any easier.
“It was tough for him because there were times he was unable to work,” said Shane McCarney, who is working as an intern with the UNT football program. “It was tough for us to see him go through it. There is not a coach who could have handled it as well as he did. He’s a tough guy.”
When McCarney looks back now, he says it’s that tough-guy approach that he has changed — at least a little.
“My health was so good,” McCarney said. “I don’t know if I thought I was invincible, but I thought I could go as hard as I wanted, I could miss some sleep and could eat whatever I wanted as long as I worked out.”
McCarney’s overall health wasn’t the free pass he thought it was before those 14 months, but it did help with his recovery.
When the people McCarney was in rehab with were walking, he was jogging. When others were jogging, McCarney was running.
Only a few slight reminders of his health scares remain for McCarney, who is back to his old routine of walking the stairs at Apogee and working out in the weight room at the Mean Green Athletic Center.
“My thumb and left finger are still a little numb and my toes on my left foot are a little numb,” McCarney said. “The doctors say that might all go back to normal or it might not. I don’t mind it because it doesn’t hold me back from anything. It’s a slight reminder of how much respect and admiration I have for the people who helped me get back to good health.”
Helping promote the cause
While not much has changed for McCarney physically, his outlook on life has been altered, prompting his involvement with health-related causes.
“He talks about every day being a blessing and practices what he preaches,” said Mike Canales, an assistant coach who has worked with McCarney throughout his three seasons at UNT and also worked with him at South Florida. “He talks about winning the day; you are not guaranteed tomorrow. The kids and coaches really respond to it. It may have set the tone for last season.”
McCarney stood in front of his team on the eve of its 2013 opener against Idaho and talked about how God had not allowed him to live through a stroke and bypass surgery just to suffer through a third straight losing season at UNT.
“I told them, ‘Let’s put our hearts and minds together and do something special,’” McCarney said.
UNT did, winning a bowl game for just the third time.
McCarney is trying to do something special off the field as well.
As a volunteer speaker, he has visited with Dallas-Fort Worth television stations about the impact of strokes and heart disease, how to reduce the risk of suffering from heart issues and how his heath problems have impacted him and his family.
McCarney’s father, Pat, suffered two strokes and a heart attack and had bypass surgery.
McCarney once received a phone call that his father was in the hospital while in a coaches meeting with Hayden Fry during his time as an assistant coach at Iowa.
McCarney rushed to the hospital, which was just down the street in his hometown of Iowa City, and arrived just in time to see doctors press paddles into his father’s chest and deliver an electric shock to try to get his heart back into rhythm.
Two days after McCarney suffered his stroke, former college football coach, current television analyst and stroke survivor Lee Corso called.
“He was shocked at how well I could articulate my thoughts, because when he had his stroke it really affected the way he could talk like it does with a lot of people,” McCarney said.
McCarney knows he’s lucky to be back to doing what he loves and is looking to capitalize on his opportunity to not only coach again but also impact people’s lives.
“Community service is a big part of what we encourage for our athletes and coaches,” UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said. “For Dan to be part of an organization that promotes a cause he fully understands because it has impacted his life and help with what they do is great.”
McCarney can’t be at the Denton Heart Walk because it falls on a Saturday when he and his staff will be busy evaluating UNT’s performance two days earlier against Louisiana Tech and preparing for a game against Nicholls State. He will record a video that will be played in advance of the walk.
The gesture is one small way McCarney will show appreciation for the work the doctors, nurses and therapists did to help him return to coaching while also bringing awareness to heart disease, strokes and their impact.
“I was really, really lucky,” McCarney said. “With good surgery, good rehab, support from your family and God taking care of you, you can get back to full health.”
McCarney did. His involvement with the American Heart Walk is his way of helping others do the same.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870.