WIGAN, England — Charlie Wyke’s game-day experience starts at dawn. He wakes up, opens an app on his phone and sends his overnight heart rhythms to his cardiologist in Liverpool. His new routine continues when he reaches the stadium. Wyke, a striker for Wigan in England’s Championship last season, slips on a padded vest that sits under his jersey and protects the defibrillator in his chest.

In the prematch warmup, amid sprints, stretches and lunges, he will typically see a fan or two point toward him. It’s usually accompanied by a comment or whisper, always some variation of the same thing. “That’s Charlie Wyke,” they usually say, “the player who had a cardiac arrest.”

Even the matches themselves feel different. Wyke used to be a bruising No. 9 who liked to bully defenders and provide a target up front. Now his subconscious often worries about the defibrillator and the impact of a defender’s flailing arm or shoulder barge. “I always feel my arms trying to protect it,” Wyke says. After matches, when sharing handshakes with opposition players and coaches, he’s often told it’s great to have him back. “Sometimes it’s people I don’t even personally know,” he says.

Wyke suffered a sudden cardiac arrest during a training session in November 2021. Wigan’s manager at the time, Leam Richardson, immediately performed CPR before handing off to the club’s doctor, Jonathan Tobin. Their actions that day certainly helped save Wyke’s life, and the trio formed a close bond at the club in the months after as Wyke charted an incredible comeback — a feat managed by just a handful of elite athletes after a similar fate.

In some ways, Wyke’s story is not extraordinary. He is not the first player to experience cardiac arrest on the pitch, nor will he be the last. He is not even the most high-profile. But where Wyke has helped take strides, you can argue, is in changing perceptions.

There is a lot his defibrillator does not allow him to do: He cannot, for example, walk through airport security scanners without them sounding off. He also can’t swim in the sea by himself. When driving his car, he can’t sit quite comfortably as his sports seat pushes on the side of his chest.

But to Wyke, it is what his defibrillator allows him to do — return to football — that counts far more.

“My dad always said, as long as you just play one more game. But in my head I thought even if I just play one more game, it’s not enough,” Wyke says. “I want to play a full season. I want to carry on as long as I can.”

Cardiac arrests occur for different reasons, and the recovery outcomes are different. When Denmark star Christian Eriksen suffered cardiac arrest on the field at Euro 2020 — a moment doctors now regard as the most high-profile sudden cardiac arrest of an athlete — he didn’t just live, even sitting up on the stretcher as he was carried off the field, but he returned to action eight months later, with a defibrillator, at Brentford before joining Manchester United.

Wyke’s cardiac arrest happened the following November. Little over a year after that, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin had a cardiac arrest on the field during “Monday Night Football” against the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 2, in an extremely rare consequence of blunt force trauma. Months later, doctors cleared him to return to training camp, while Hamlin said it would “not be the end.”

What Eriksen, Wyke and Hamlin primarily show is that a return to professional sports is not always out of the question. Where players once ruled out a comeback — and it’s worth noting many still do — the idea of playing again can be within reach.

“I watched Eriksen return and thought, if he can do it then so can I,” Wyke says.

If only it were that easy. Ask Wyke directly, and he’ll say it takes six surgeries, late-night WhatsApp messages to the club doctor and countless moments of tear-filled despair. He’ll say it takes contemplating if it’s a good idea at all, if a cardiac arrest will happen again, wondering if next time he maybe won’t be so lucky. He’ll say it takes setbacks and false dawns — like when he had another cardiac arrest on the training pitch the following March — that crush whatever slim hopes you had.

“I can’t imagine you’d get back from anything like this without any sort of setbacks at all,” Tobin says. “But I would be surprised if Eriksen [and others] had the ride that Charlie had.”

The first sign Wyke had a problem lasted only 20 seconds. During a match at AFC Wimbledon in October 2021, Wyke had to sit on the pitch after a brief spell of dizziness. It hadn’t even impacted the game: the ball was down the other end, and by the time it returned, the danger had seemingly gone.

“How can I explain it … you know how when you stand up too quick and you go lightheaded and get a head rush? That’s what I felt like,” Wyke says. He played on, even played well, but he told Tobin what happened as they boarded the bus.

Tobin had previously worked at Bolton, where he served as club doctor and performed CPR in March 2012 on Fabrice Muamba, who is still the only player to have a sudden cardiac arrest in a Premier League match. The experience left emotional scars. “A form of PTSD,” Tobin says. Among other feelings, it left him with a heightened sense of caution; after Wyke told him what had happened, he spoke to manager Richardson.

Richardson trusted the doctor, and they came to a mutual agreement: Wyke would receive tests on his heart at once, and he wouldn’t play again until they were all clear. “Of the managers I’ve worked with, I think probably the vast majority would’ve kicked off about losing their star striker based on a fleeting feeling of dizziness midgame. It’s another testament to Leam,” Tobin says.

Wyke disagreed with the plan. “I said, can I just sign a piece of paper to say: ‘Let me carry on, and if anything happens it’s on me,'” he says. “But they said you need to get some checks.”

It meant he missed an away game at Lincoln, which Wigan lost, but those checks came back clear, and Wyke was soon back in training. Tobin remained unconvinced, though, and arranged for all coaching staff to undergo a CPR training course.

Within weeks, Tobin’s worst fears were realised.

The session began with a light warmup drill, followed by something more technical. Within minutes, Wyke felt extremely fatigued; his legs felt increasingly heavy. The dizziness returned and he made an error, failing to control the ball as it bounced off his foot and rolled clear. His teammates laughed. But his dizziness worsened — “to the point it was like the Wimbledon game again” — so he walked over to Richardson to relay the message. He tried to, anyway; he barely got a word out before dropping to the ground. “I just collapsed,” Wyke says.

What came next is something Wyke has only been told about: Richardson actually caught him as he fell before performing life-saving CPR, Tobin ran inside to get the automated external defibrillator (AED), and Wyke’s teammates sprinted to open the gates to the main road for ambulance access. Others were crying as they were herded inside, away from Wyke as he received treatment.

Wyke’s first memory is waking up with his sleeves cut off and seeing two coaches holding his hands. Then he went into another cardiac arrest. He woke up again four minutes later. Within seconds, his eyes were streaming with tears as he began to realise what had happened.

He was able to sit up soon after, but he was quickly taken to hospital, believing his career to be over.

Players who have suffered cardiac arrest and lived often describe similar thoughts once they wake up. Their immediate emotion is realisation and, as it slowly sinks in, they turn to worry — about their lives, about their families. Soon, they think about their careers.

In the ambulance after his arrest, Eriksen handed his boots to his wife, Sabrina. “I may as well leave my boots here,” he said. He wouldn’t be needing them anymore. It was only two days later that he began to think maybe a return could be possible.

Wyke felt the same. “That’s all I was thinking. My career is over,” he says.

Before either player could hatch a plan of return, their cases would need to be reviewed by Dr. Sanjay Sharma, who chairs the FA’s expert cardiac committee and has spent over 20 years working as one of the leading cardiologists in British sport. He is the man whom English football comes to when it needs advice on issues of the heart, and in the end, his group was responsible for advising the FA that it could grant permission for Eriksen to play again.

What athletes like Wyke must weigh up is the risk. Most cardiologists advise against resuming competitive exercise, let alone elite football. Their argument is simple: If you had an arrest while playing football, then playing football likely had a major role to play in it. Continuing to do that exercise would only risk it happening again.

“If someone has died before, like say Eriksen or Muamba, common sense says: ‘You died during a game, you came back to life, but what you’ve proved to us doctors is that you are capable of dying,'” Sharma says. “If you’re a 20-something, there is no way we’re going to allow this to happen to you for multiple reasons: because you’re young and have a lot of life left, because it would be unethical to allow this to happen, and it would be even more unethical to allow this to happen in front of 60,000 people because it has huge mental health impacts for fans watching, players watching, the team watching.

“There’s a lot of pressure on these guys not to come back.”

Cardiac arrests happen for different reasons; the chances one will happen again are different, too. Sharma points toward a study in the United States that examined around 360 people who continued physical training after a cardiac arrest, and after five years the researchers found their death rates to be no higher than those of the people who stopped training.

“What’s been happening until recently is that everyone’s been tarnished with the same brush: ‘You died while playing sport. Your athletic career must be over,'” he says. Sharma, who did not look after Wyke but was consulted in his case, instead advocates for a “shared decision-making protocol” in which the cardiologists, the player and the club come to a shared agreement about whether the player should return.

By December 2021, Eriksen had his heart monitored while he trained at his hometown club, Odense, in Denmark, and with no signs of danger present, Sharma could later agree with the FA’s expert cardiac committee that he could continue his career in England. This was joyous news to Eriksen and to Brentford, who were both eager for his return.

In February 2022, Eriksen became the first person to suffer a cardiac arrest and then play in the Premier League. He did, however, make a promise: If he did experience an arrest again, he would give up football immediately. Continuing to play football, of course, would always carry some risk. Sharma admitted he was “anxious” when Eriksen first returned, despite every part of his case being finely analysed. (Some leagues — like Italy‘s Serie A, where Eriksen was playing prior to his cardiac arrest — will not allow players to return.)

That winter, Wyke was facing a very similar question. His cardiologist, Rob Cooper, made the same analysis and took expert opinions and, like Eriksen, Wyke was told it could be safe for him to return.

It meant Wyke had a decision to make. Did he want to?

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For months after his arrest, Wyke sat at home waiting for his heart to heal from multiple operations: the first was to fit the defibrillator, as well as a heart rate monitor; he also underwent a procedure to repair a hole in his heart. He had a machine fitted next to his bed that would track his heart rhythms overnight, sending the data to his cardiologist each morning.

It was a stressful time. During the day, he would care for his infant son, Albi — a distraction he admits greatly helped his mental health. By night, he would often exchange WhatsApp messages with Tobin.

Meanwhile, Wigan’s season continued. Richardson had asked his team whether they wanted to play in their away trip to Cambridge the evening after Wyke’s cardiac arrest, and the squad responded with a near-unanimous yes. That didn’t make it easy to do, though.

“Not all players were able to function at an elite level,” Richardson said of their response to witnessing Wyke’s medical emergency. “That was something I had to manage for weeks or months. There were tire marks on the training pitch for weeks after, which people would walk past and comment on.”

Wigan rallied from 2-0 down with six minutes left against Cambridge to draw 2-2. Striker Will Keane held up Wyke’s jersey in tribute after he scored. Wyke saw the photos later on social media; he couldn’t bear to watch the games. As the weeks progressed — Wigan notched six wins in their next seven games and began to mount a title bid — Richardson would call every couple of days.

“He was just checking in, basically: ‘How are you doing? How was the family? Did you watch the game?’ I’ve probably lied and said yes,” Wyke recalls.

By the spring, Wyke had received a positive prognosis. The medication was seemingly working. Did he want to continue playing? It would not be without risk, but was it worth it? Tobin put Wyke in touch with Muamba, who said his life was more important and not to try. Wyke also spoke on a video call with then-Ajax defender Daley Blind, who had a diagnosed heart condition and a defibrillator in his chest. Blind told him how his device once went off in a preseason match in August, causing him to go to ground before being substituted.

Wyke decided to return.

By April, with Wigan even closer to clinching the League One title, Wyke spent two weeks training again and even received a return date. It would prove to be a false dawn. In a training session around that time, he was taking part in a five-a-side game when his strike partner, Keane, asked if he wanted to play on the left or the right. “I was looking straight through him. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying,” Wyke says. The dizziness had returned.

“When I say that was the worst, I was honestly in the worst pain I’ve ever been in my life. There was no pain when it first happened [in November 2021], the only pain was when I was doing the CPR armour of my chest. But this was a head-to-toe full-body electric shock. It was crazy. It was moving me while I was on the floor, basically. My body was jumping.”

Wyke was finally helped onto his feet. On his walk inside, Richardson told him not to give up, that they would figure it out and would get him back on the pitch. “I just remember crying,” Wyke says. “I remember crying for about an hour because I thought like, this is it now. Like I’m done.”

Five days after his second cardiac arrest, Wyke had another operation to remove the final scarring from his heart. He would play no further part in Wigan’s season. Instead, he sat at home as his teammates chased down the title and eventually lifted the trophy at Shrewsbury in May 2022. “I just thought I’ve got to make the most of the day and celebrate, but in the back of my mind I thought I haven’t really contributed, even though I had, and I played well in probably most of those games,” he says.

The surgery to fix his heart would be his final attempt at recovery, with Wyke deciding the weeks of mind-numbing rest required after each medical procedure were not worth it. But over the summer, he was informed of a breakthrough. Doctors told Wyke there was one last medication, a beta blocker, they had not tried. The drawback: It would fatigue his body, and he cannot stay on it forever. (Wyke will have to stop using the drug when he retires as it can cause further health issues if taken for more than eight years.) But this meant he could return to football.

In the end, his return came against Birmingham in the fourth league game of the 2022-23 season. He was subbed on in the second half as Wigan were drawing despite seeing a man sent off. Richardson told Wyke at the time: “If it starts ricocheting off you or going under your foot, or you’ve got a bad touch, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before, so I don’t overthink it.”

Within 10 minutes of coming on, Wyke was sent through on goal with a ball over the top of the defence. He controlled it and played in teammate Nathan Broadhead, who scored. “It was such an unbelievable touch,” Richardson says. “Never seen him do it before. And I’ll probably never see him do it again.”

It proved to be one of the few highlights of Wigan’s season. Richardson was sacked in November and replaced by Kolo Toure, who lasted only nine games before seeing the exit door, too. Shaun Maloney stepped in after that, but amid a financial crisis at the club that has seen players and staff paid late, Wigan were relegated in last place.

Amid all that has been the bright spot of Wyke’s continued recovery. He suffered a knee injury that hampered his playing time, but the veteran star still made 18 appearances and scored two goals. Most of all, he was just happy to be back on the pitch, even if it meant he spotted the odd wandering glance from the crowd during the pregame warmup.

“Everywhere you go people always mention it — everywhere,” Wyke says. “But people knowing about it spreads the message.”

“I’ve come to terms with people asking because if I can just help one person, then I’ve done my job.”

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Charlie Wyke’s journey back to the pitch from cardiac arrest