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The Frightening Familiarity Of Tom Lockyer’s On-Field Collapse

Luton Town players applaud fans after game was abandoned after team-mate Tom Lockyer needed lengthy medical treatment before being stretchered off during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Luton Town at Vitality Stadium on December 16, 2023 in Bournemouth, England.
Photo by Robin Jones/AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images

Tom Lockyer has done this scare-the-hell-out-of-all-his-friends-and-family-live-on-TV thing before, and because it was only last May, this latest incident worked on people's nerves all the more effectively, and more frighteningly. Maybe that's why the silence from everyone involved was so deafening, and so profound.

Lockyer is the captain at Luton Town, the smallest fry in the Premier League seafood emporium, and he has been the town's first option for unconditional love long before his heart fritzed out at the English Championship final seven months ago. He collapsed eight minutes into that match, was whisked off to a hospital, and watched the second half of the Hatters' match against Coventry City for a place in the ATM for smaller clubs that is the Prem. He was even immortalized on the world's leading football website, captured in words by an woodland tramp.

The diagnosis then was atrial fibrillation. After surgery, he declared himself refitted for purpose, so his return this season was a no-brainer feel-good tale for the no-brainer feel-good story that was Luton. As their season forged toward its match-heavy middle stage, the Hatters were firmly ensconced in the relegation zone as everyone expected, but a key match Saturday against Bournemouth suggested their place in the downs was nowhere close to actually being the outs.

And then, just as had happened back in May, Lockyer collapsed away from play a second time, by all medical accounts due to cardiac arrest on the pitch. The crowd fell silent, prepped for the worst from the May incident, and though the fans from both sides sang some half-hearted songs while the Bournemouth medical staff worked on Lockyer, mostly the hall was quiet. The Sky broadcast team of Gary Taphouse and Lee Hendrie fell silent as well and said nothing whatsoever for much of the 25 minutes it took the medical people to stabilize Lockyer and cart him from the field. They interrupted only to say that the match had been abandoned and would be replayed at a later date.

That is the eeriest part of the entire episode—the broadcast provided a quick recap of what happened to Lockyer and its background, and then let the video do its own talking. The closeups of Luton manager Rob Edwards circling the field with the Luton players applauding the crowd with tears in his eyes were far more explanatory and mature than, say, earlier this year when the ESPN crew kept talking without any new information about Damar Hamlin's collapse because the assumption in the United States is that if a broadcaster is being paid, said broadcaster damned well better be yammering at full strength no matter what the content of the yammer might be. Truth be told, the silence was far more poignant and instructive, and no pertinent information was lost by the choice not to ceaselessly repeat the same thing.

The update on Lockyer is as it was in May—stable, with tests being conducted to see if the cause this time was any different. The question of when he can play again, or whether he should even try, remains in abeyance. But two of these in seven months seems like a pretty strong hint that the first operation didn't fix the problem, quite possibly because the problem is significantly more serious than something surgery can fix. Then again, maybe his heart is perfectly fine for someone who doesn't have to run eight miles in 90 minutes week in and week out.

Either way, it was Lockyer's second flirtation with death, and we're not sure anyone really has the stomach for a third. He's scared the hell out of everyone (presumably including himself), and there might be a level of "that's enough" that comes too close to too much. Sometimes—sad as it may be for Lockyer and his game but wonky heart—the answer you don't want is the answer you get anyway.

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