Cyrus Jones’s bags were packed, his cleats and unworn white jersey stuffed into an oversized navy duffel at the foot of his locker. The team’s charter flight to Buffalo was scheduled to depart that afternoon, and Jones, the newest Denver Bronco, was ready for his first game with 60-something teammates he only recently met.
But Jones never made it to New York. He never wore those cleats or that jersey. The doctor called later that day with news that changed everything.
“He told me I had an anomalous right coronary artery,” Jones said. “It’s congenital, but it’s just been missed my whole life. I was born with it, walking around with it, playing with it for 26 years.”
Jones had unknowingly put his life at risk every time he played football, and if he ever wanted to play the sport again – if he wanted to lead an active lifestyle at all – he would need open-heart surgery.
So in the span of roughly two weeks in November 2019, Jones went from being a Baltimore Ravens cornerback and their leading punt returner, to the Broncos’ newest reserve, to a cardiology patient at the University of Colorado Hospital, where he would undergo surgery to repair an artery that developed on the wrong side of his heart. Jones also learned during this time that he would soon become a father.
“I didn’t really process it at all while I was going through it,” he said. “I feel like I didn’t really sit back and reflect on everything that happened and everything I’ve been through after the fact. I really wasn’t thinking about a lot of other things besides getting this done and hoping that it goes as smoothly as possible and getting on the road to recovery.”
Jones’s priorities shifted away from football, which had been his primary focus for more than two decades; he had starred at Gilman School, a private all-boys school in Baltimore; won two national championships at the University of Alabama; and been drafted in the second round by the New England Patriots, with whom he won a Super Bowl. He thought about his longtime girlfriend, Emily Wang, and their future daughter, Cayza. He thought about his family members who promptly rearranged their lives to be by his side for weeks.
But he never let go of the game. On Dec. 3, almost one year after his surgery, he was fully cleared by his doctors, and he is now plotting a return to the game – attempting a comeback that isn’t believed to have been made previously in football, hoping a team will take a chance on a player coming off open-heart surgery amid a global pandemic.
“That was always the plan, to give myself an opportunity to be in a position to get back,” he said. “Of course, nothing was promised, and I told the doctors from Day 1: ‘Football is not the most important thing to me right now. I just want to be here and watch my daughter grow up and be able to be a dad and be active with my child.’ But if I do have that opportunity again, I would love to chase that and give myself a shot.”
A week after the Broncos claimed Jones off waivers, he began to feel off. Bloated, with stomach pain. Just weird. The team, which has seen its share of players suffer from altitude sickness during training camp, warned Jones that he might experience the same after arriving in Colorado. So he assumed his symptoms had to be that.
But Jones’s history prompted a closer look. In May 2019, he had been rushed to the hospital after becoming short of breath during a workout and diagnosed with a blood clot that caused him to miss all of the Ravens’ spring workouts while on blood thinners. So the Broncos ordered a CT scan of his chest to make sure his symptoms weren’t related to another blood clot.
It was then they fortuitously noticed the heart defect. The two coronary arteries that sit on the surface of the heart and supply blood to the organ were not arranged as they should be. Instead of one artery starting on the left side of the heart and the other starting on the right, both originated from the left, which can create an obstruction in blood flow, or ischemia, and lead to possible arrhythmias and even cardiac death.
At home in Baltimore, Jones’s parents, Tomika and Cyrus Jones Sr., struggled to cope with the news. Surely there had to be a mistake, they thought. For someone as well-conditioned as their son was – who underwent as many physicals and medical scans for football as he had – how could this have gone undetected for 26 years? How did he never experience any symptoms? How did he not know that every time he stepped on the field he was at risk of dying?
“Hearing it, it was like, ‘This can’t be,’ ” Cyrus Jones Sr. said. “But as we continued to look into it, a lot of doctors were saying that there is a strong possibility that it can [be overlooked] if you’re not looking closely for it.”
According to Danielle Gottlieb, a pediatric cardiac surgeon at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, it’s estimated that between 0.3% and 1.3% of people have anomalous coronaries, which can include a wide range of abnormalities. The actual prevalence, however, isn’t known because many patients don’t experience any symptoms and never seek medical attention.
“And that’s the scariest part about having this and walking around with it, is sometimes you don’t know anything about it until the worst thing happens: death,” Jones said. “So shout out to the Ravens. If I hadn’t gotten cut by them and went to the Broncos, I might not have found it out unless the worst thing happened.”
For nearly seven hours, the Joneses took over the waiting room at the University of Colorado Hospital. His parents and two close friends who traveled to Denver with them were joined by Jones’s girlfriend, Wang, and his younger brother. Jones remained in the hospital for four days after the surgery, with Wang spending every night by his side.
“I would go home, to the Airbnb we were staying at, and shower and then come back just to make sure he had somebody every night with him,” she said. “Honestly it was a lot of emotions and just so many things going on at once. Of course I wanted to be there for him, but also I was going through it, too, because I was in my first trimester with all the headaches, nausea, everything.”
Every moment after surgery was a milestone – when he awoke bleary-eyed and heavily medicated, when he roamed the halls with a walker and oxygen tank, and certainly when he was discharged. But the road to recovery was at times a steep climb, and Jones was readmitted days after being sent home because another blood clot formed. He said that the clots from the spring and last December were believed to be unrelated and that tests for clotting disorders were negative.
But for his parents, his return to the hospital was more terrifying than his first visit for surgery.
“That was the first time that I broke down,” his mother, Tomika Jones, said. “And my husband, I’m sure he wanted to break down, but he had to be strong for everybody else. I know what it means to have a setback. Sometimes you have a setback and you don’t make it over to the other side.”
All told, Jones spent close to two weeks in the hospital. His family stayed 45 days at a nearby Airbnb, celebrating Thanksgiving, Jones’s 26th birthday, Christmas and New Year’s in between trips to the hospital. On Jan. 1, they finally returned to Maryland.
Four weeks post-surgery, Jones was allowed to do light cardio, and two weeks after that, once his sternum healed, he was allowed to begin lifting things again. Soon after, Jones resumed training with the intent of returning to football.
“He always told me that he really wanted to take a run back at the game,” Tomika said. “He said: ‘I feel like I was robbed of my opportunity to play. If I have to walk away and retire, I want to do it on my own, but I want to give it another try.’ “
Jones began working with Bobby Esbrandt at Impact Sports Physical Therapy in Hanover, Md., to regain his strength and explosiveness.
In October, he and Wang moved closer to her family in Atlanta, where he typically trains three times a week with Joel Seedman, an exercise physiologist, and three times a week with Stephon Morris, a former cornerback who played at Penn State and briefly in the NFL. Morris’s father, Roman Morris, runs PrimeXample Skills Academy, a training program for defensive backs.
“At first I was very mindful about his heart condition because he was still on blood thinners at the time,” Stephon Morris said. “So I was constantly asking him out there, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’ … He never really showed signs that he wasn’t. But he just had a heart surgery, so I didn’t want anything to happen on my watch.”
For roughly 90 minutes each session, Morris runs Jones through conditioning and position-specific work that they both endured during their years in college and the pros.
“He’s fast; he’s quick. Didn’t look rusty at all,” he said of Jones. “Very smart. He looked like an NFL cornerback that should definitely be playing.”
Four days after he celebrated his 27th birthday, Jones received the final okay from his doctors to play again. That evening, he hopped on a flight to Houston to visit with the Texans. He hoped it would lead to a spot on their practice squad, but the team declined to sign him. Other teams, including the Washington Football Team, had showed interest in Jones earlier, but where he lands next isn’t certain.
Although he is not the first athlete to return to his sport after having an anomalous coronary artery repaired – Shareef O’Neal, son of basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, resumed his college basketball career after recovering from surgery in December 2018 – Jones might be the first professional football player to do so.
He could, however, be seen by NFL teams as a risk too great to take; he had open-heart surgery, wants to return during a pandemic and has been out of the game for more than a year. But according to Gottlieb, there’s not enough data or patient experience to really know the risk involved.
“We don’t really know the long-term outcomes for surgical repair because there’s a relatively recent window in which we’ve been operating for the disease,” she said. “… It really has to do with – again on a case-by-case basis – the confidence that their cardiology team has with the repair, and with the lack of symptoms and the negative tests of a patient postoperatively.”
Though outsiders may question why Jones would want to play a sport as physically taxing as football after surviving a potentially life-threatening heart condition, Jones’s hunger to compete has only intensified. His love for the game was strengthened by its absence, and in regaining his health, he has found greater ambitions. Through his namesake foundation, he has partnered with the American Heart Association to raise awareness and funds for heart health, something he thought little of a year ago.
But that call from a doctor changed everything.
“I don’t believe my career was supposed to end like that, especially when it wasn’t on my terms,” he said. “I still got a lot left in the tank. I don’t feel like I really got to prove anything to other people. I’m just happy to be alive and to be breathing and to be able to tell the story to somebody. The fact that my daughter will be able to see me, hopefully, play and be around while I’m still playing football is a blessing in itself.
“I’m a blessed human being. I don’t take nothing for granted.”