Central Islip football coach Eric Unverzagt was participating in a fundraiser event for crew teams at St. Anthony's High School in South Huntington on Saturday afternoon, when he felt pain in his chest and fell off a rowing machine, according to his wife, Jenine Unverzagt. He was released from St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn on Tuesday morning and staff members at St. Anthony's spoke about the event on Tuesday. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports. Credit: Newsday/Carissa Kellman; File Footage

Central Islip football coach Eric Unverzagt was released from St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn on Tuesday morning after suffering a sudden cardiac arrest on Saturday afternoon during a rowing exercise.

Unverzagt, 50, played two seasons in the NFL for the Seattle Seahawks in 1996 and '97. The coach was participating in a fundraiser event for crew teams at St. Anthony's High School in South Huntington when he felt pain in his chest and fell off the rowing machine, according to his wife, Jenine Unverzagt. Their son, also named Eric, is on the crew team at St. Anthony's and was participating in the fundraiser.

“There is an endless list of people that I need to thank," Eric Unverzagt said, "and I don’t know how I can repay them all. The school’s athletic trainer, our team parents, EMTs and medical personnel on site, who all worked together to save my life. I’m forever grateful.”

Jenine Unverzagt said her husband was nearing the end of an indoor competition on a rowing machine in the St. Anthony’s fieldhouse when he suffered cardiac arrest.

“Eric had been racing in a 1,000-meter race and had 10 meters left,” she said. “He was almost three minutes into the race when he slumped forward and then rocked back to attempt to row again. He went unconscious and fell sideways, hitting his head on the turf.”

“I was right there and tried to open his airway by grabbing his chin, and I didn’t feel a pulse,” said Jenine, his wife of 20 years. “The medical personnel pulled me away and immediately started chest compressions. The response and quick thinking of a few Good Samaritans and the St. Anthony’s medical support team saved my husband’s life.”

In an emotional phone interview with Newsday, Jenine Unverzagt added, “People were on top of him in like 10 seconds. I couldn’t believe it. One nurse cut his shirt off and they started chest compressions for about a minute and 10 seconds. The AED [automated external defibrillator] was used to shock him once and he came back. The nurse said his color was coming back and he had a pulse and was breathing on his own. We are blessed that we were at St. Anthony’s and there was support all around us to revive him and get him the proper care immediately or he would not be here today. It stresses the importance of athletic trainers and AEDs on site at all these big events. If he were doing his trail running or even driving and experienced this cardiac arrest — I would be telling a different story."

According to St. Anthony’s crew coach Jackie Weber-Cantrell, the long day of crew racing ends with a fun event where the parents are rowing, and the student-athletes are coaching them on the machines.

“I knew something was wrong because Mr. Unverzagt’s boat was slowing down on the giant screen that everyone watches to see the leaders,” she said. “He was sitting in the middle of 10 machines, and I thought the computer was glitching.”

That was not the case.

Jenine Unveragt said the doctors determined that her husband had a 95% blockage in the left anterior descending artery. "They call that blockage the widow-maker," Jenine Unveragt said.


Three parents of crew team members — Amy Demeri and Anna Tonna, both nurses, and Peter Lutzker, who performed CPR — jumped into action when her husband went unconscious, Jenine Unverzagt said. EMT’s Randy Guerra and Helen Kouridakis got the AED ready.

“Our athletic trainer Jessy Davidson put the school’s emergency action plan into effect, and everyone knew what to do. It was seamless,” said Ed Modica, the school’s head athletic trainer. “This was by the book to save someone’s life. I’m proud of everyone.”

“You pray it never happens," Davidson said. "But it shows how important athletic trainers are for these events. It’s essential.”


 

Unverzagt, who teaches special education at Central Islip High School, said he had a stent put in Monday and was feeling better.


“This isn’t about me," Unverzagt said. "It's more about the preparedness and emergency response at St. Anthony’s. The takeaway here is about a community coming together and saving a life. I’m so thankful.”

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