On the morning of November 30, 2007, the future co-founders of Who We Play For were high school soccer players that were completely unaware of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). During warmups for soccer practice that afternoon, our close friend Rafe Maccarone (who had been cleared by every sports physical) laid down during a short break between warmup runs. At this time, our team had just finished a two-mile jog and we were taking time to stretch and recover. A few moments went by and now Rafe was the only person not standing up and ready to continue warmups. We quickly realized that Rafe was unconscious and rushed to his side.
We had no idea that Rafe had a deadly undetected heart condition and, tragically, sudden cardiac arrest was his first symptom.
As we arrived at Rafe’s side, someone recalled that Rafe may have been chewing gum so we initially performed the Heimlich maneuver. After a few seconds of this maneuver, we realized that we needed to switch to CPR. Our teammate, Klynton (Nino) Holmes, and Coach Schultz then began performing CPR on Rafe.
As Klynton and Coach Schultz were performing CPR, two of other teammates, Kieran Easton and Zane Schultz, sprinted through the high school yelling for help and looking for the automated external defibrillator (AED). After a few minutes of searching, Zane and Kieran arrived at a locked door that had our school’s AED behind it, which meant CPR was our only option until an ambulance arrived.
When the ambulance arrived at our school a few minutes later, the road onto the high school soccer field was blocked by a locked gate, which slowed down their response time as we waited for the paramedics to unlock the gate and arrive at Rafe's side. The paramedics then brought Rafe to the hospital.
The next day, December 1, 2007, Rafe passed away at Arnold Palmer Hospital just a few days before his 16th birthday. Our community was rocked by the shocking reality that a healthy and active athlete, who passed all his sports physicals and never had a sign or symptom, could collapse and die in the arms of his teammates while playing the sport he loved most.
Tragically, Rafe’s condition, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, would have had a ~95% chance of being detected by an electrocardiogram (ECG) heart screening. We were saddened and furious to learn that SCA is the #1 cause of death in student athletes, #1 cause of death on school campuses, and, arguably, the #1 cause of death in ALL kids.
In the aftermath of Rafe’s passing, our friends and family came together to honor and cherish Rafe’s legacy by creating the Play For Rafe Foundation, which was dedicated to (i) donating AEDs to sports complexes and buildings that were lacking this important survival tool, (ii) helping local schools develop their emergency response plans to avoid the situation that we experienced, (iii) raising awareness for SCA, and (iv) fundraising to support a yearly scholarship in Rafe’s honor -- which is still going strong today!
During this time, we began to develop an understanding of SCA as a massive public health crisis. We learned that an ECG heart screening was the standard of care for big time collegiate, professional, and olympic athletes. We discovered there were several countries that long ago recognized SCA in youth as an immense public health issue and established regular ECG heart screening protocols to identify and protect students at risk. Those efforts abroad, in countries such as Italy, have reduced the incidence of SCA by ~89% and saved thousands of young lives.
As our group of friends went off to college, we remained dedicated to carrying on Rafe’s legacy and fighting for what he represented – a generation of kids who lost their lives to SCA. We were proud of the Play For Rafe Foundation’s successes with placing AEDs and providing CPR training and we would become eager to work on the proactive side of SCA prevention – raising awareness for SCA and providing ECG heart screenings.
Towards the end of 2011, we began to rethink our approach to fighting against SCA. During our late high school and early college years, we were extremely lucky to meet and develop relationships with as many organizations like us that we could find, including The Michael Abt Jr. Have a Heart Foundation, Saving Young Hearts, Living for Burke, Parent Heart Watch, Anthony Bates Foundation, Simon’s Heart, EP Save a Life, Nick of Time Foundation, Jessica Clinton MVP Foundation, Juntos, and Cypress ECG Project, among others. These nonprofits were willing to give their time to mentor us as a group of hopeful college kids and, because of these relationships, we came to understand the potential for preventative ECG heart screenings.
In 2012, with ongoing guidance and support from the Jim Moran College of Entrepreneurship at Florida State, our group of close friends met in room 114 of our fraternity house at Florida State and founded WWPF, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, to try and create a national movement to protect kid’s like Rafe.
Who We Play For’s mission is to eliminate preventable sudden cardiac death in the young through affordable heart screenings and increased SCA awareness. To accomplish our mission, WWPF brings affordable, efficient, and non-invasive ECG heart screenings to communities in many regions across the country and advocates for SCA legislation on the local, state and federal level.
Who We Play For’s vision is to inspire and empower schools, sports clubs, and communities to provide heart screenings for every student athlete and student in their community; no matter their level of athletics, socio-economic status, or geographical location.
We have dedicated 10+ years to building and growing Who We Play For because, to us, Who We Play For represents every young person that lost their life to sudden cardiac arrest. Our fight is to ensure that other families, teams, and communities will never know that pain.
Since WWPF’s founding, we have worked relentlessly to significantly increase SCA awareness, to place thousands of AEDs, to train hundreds of thousands in CPR, and, most importantly, to advance the national standard of care to include ECG heart screenings.
Our greatest hope is to show our country that not only are ECG heart screenings imperative, but that it is possible to deliver affordable ECG heart screenings nationwide for ALL kids.
In 2013, Who We Play For brought the first community-wide heart screening event to Tallahassee, FL, which marked the first-ever ECG heart screening event run by college students. Since then, WWPF’s impact includes providing ECG heart screenings to hundreds of thousands of students across +500 communities in dozens of states. WWPF has saved hundreds of young lives by identifying previously undetected life-threatening heart conditions that required immediate medical intervention. WWPF has also identified thousands of minor heart abnormalities, which could lead to SCA later in life. Through local, state, and federal laws and advocacy bills, WWPF has educated millions on the immense public health crisis that is SCA.
In addition to ECG heart screenings and SCA awareness, WWPF has brought together a collection of national and international SCA experts to collaborate with our large network of partners, which has been able to have a remarkable collective impact on saving lives from SCA. For example, in partnership with Nemours Children’s Hospital and UCF College of Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics selected us to present to thousands of pediatric doctors during the pandemic in 2020 at the same virtual event as Dr. Fauci. Specifically, WWPF presented the data and results from heart screenings we performed in Brevard County, the first large school district in the United States to require ECG heart screenings before middle school and high school sports.
The soul of WWPF has always been to fight for the thousands of students and young adults each year, like Rafe, that suffer SCA and to work with the communities left to find answers in the wake of these preventable tragedies. Each community we have served, and will serve in the future, has been impacted by SCA in some way and their stories, tragedies, and successes strengthen the fight to eliminate preventable sudden cardiac deaths in the young.