ISU coach Fred Hoiberg challenges fans to vote for healthy hearts


Kelby Wingert/Iowa State Daily

Karen and Eric Hoiberg, parents of ISU basketball coach Fred Hoiberg.

Max Dible

Eric Hoiberg emerges from the hallway with a film that is a decade old. Every time his wife, Karen Hoiberg, views it, a lump rises in her throat.

“I haven’t seen this in a long time,” Karen says. “I can finally watch it without crying.”

The film is entitled “Born Broken Hearted,” and it details ISU men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg’s open heart surgery, the entire Hoiberg family’s shock at the immediacy of the surgery’s necessity and the difficult recovery that followed. It was produced for a class project by an ISU graduate student, Susie McGee (now Susie Moutray), who was studying graphic design at the time. Susie is the sister of Carol McGee, better known by her married name, Carol Hoiberg.

Eric, Fred’s father and a former sociology professor at Iowa State, pops the film into the television perched in his and Karen’s living room. He then takes a seat on the couch next to his wife, who sits in an armchair to his right. The family’s lively dog, Eddie, bounces back and forth across the carpet, occasionally yelping at the laundry machine, which is running downstairs.

Soft music plays as the title flashes across the screen.

“I love the music,” Karen says quietly. Her eyes remain glued to the television.

A 32-year-old Fred Hoiberg appears, and he begins to explain the condition that threatened his life.

Fred was born with a bicuspid aortic valve. Aortic valves move blood from the heart to the aorta, the primary artery that then distributes the blood throughout the rest of the body. Three small flaps open and close to regulate blood flow. For those suffering from a bicuspid aortic valve, one of those flaps is missing, which can cause the valve to malfunction.

In Fred’s case, a primary side effect was an irregularly fast heartbeat — something Karen noticed from the time Fred was an infant. She informed the pediatrician, who dismissed it, and as any mother would on the advice of a trusted doctor, she uneasily dismissed it as well.

“It was a mistake,” Karen says. “I often wonder what would have happened if they had done tests at that time.”

She turns her attention back to the screen.

Fred revisits the issue in college, as his heart takes far too long to recover from strenuous workouts, beating furiously long after an elevated heart rate should have subsided. Again he is told there is little reason for immediate concern.

More than a decade later in Minneapolis, Minn., Fred attends a routine physical required to purchase life insurance for his family. A doctor finally drops the news on Fred — news he could never have been fully prepared to hear.

He will need open heart surgery within the month.

Fred’s condition, the severity of which was misdiagnosed by multiple physicians throughout the years, has led to the development of an aortic aneurysm, one that brings with it a number of risks, including the potential of one hard blow to the chest resulting in death.

“I’ve known about [my condition] since college,” a young Fred says to the camera. “That’s something I was born with. I was told eventually that would have to be taken care of — I thought maybe into my 50s or 60s, so to find out I would have to have open heart surgery at 32 was a pretty big shock.”

The shock was not Fred’s alone to bear, nor the fear. Voices from the past echo through the Hoibergs’ living room.

“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘It’s not good,” Karen says in a voiceover. “And I just — I was astounded.”

“It was a big blow to me,” Eric recalls on the decade-old videotape.

Eric turns left in his seat to face me.

“That was the scary thing,” he says. “There really were no [obvious] symptoms.”

Pictures of Fred lying unconscious in a hospital bed scroll across the television. Tubes swirl around him, connected to various machines that hover over his body, monitoring his life absent compassion. His wife, Carol, is with him, holding his hand. She is the heart on the screen. The humanity. The love.

Fred’s surgery is successful, despite one doctor telling him a heart transplant would have been a less complicated procedure than the one that was just performed on the 32-year-old NBA player. But Fred’s trials are only beginning.

“Initially, I couldn’t do much at all,” Fred explains to the camera. “I had to get helped out of bed. I couldn’t stand up on my own.”

Karen turns to me, recalling the day her family returned with Fred from the Mayo Clinic.

“He just looked horrible. His color that day,” Karen trails off. “He just looked terrible, and he felt terrible.”

Karen tells me she agreed to bring Fred and Carol’s twin boys home with her after the surgery so that Carol could focus her attention on helping a weakened and feverish Fred re-acclimate. A short while later, Karen received a disconcerting phone call.

“Fred,” she struggles, sighing disgustedly as the memory resurfaces. “Even to relive that call.

“He was so hot, and so he told Carol he was going to go outside and see if he could cool off. When he turned to come in, he fainted. He hit his chin [on a banister] and landed, luckily not on his pacemaker, then passed out. He had actually developed fluid around his heart.”

The subsequent eight-hour visit to the emergency room was one of many challenges Fred and his family faced in the following months. Yet, as with many obstacles life brings, both pain and perspective arose in the aftermath.

“I think what this procedure does for you, essentially this whole process, is it kind of puts your life into perspective,” Fred explains to the camera. “It makes you realize what’s important in your life. Little things you may have taken for granted now seem much more important.”

The film ends. Eric ejects it.

Fred’s realizations helped him come to grips with what his ordeal would cost him — his NBA career.

Eric tells me that Fred was bound and determined to be the first player to play in the NBA with a pacemaker, but it is a dream that fades on the advice of a Phoenix Suns’ team physician. The chances that Fred is putting his life at risk are slim, but with a wife and four children, a slim chance is still too great.

“Part of what made it so difficult was he had just come off a tremendous season,” Eric explains. “He had led the NBA in 3-point percentage and was really kind of riding high, so to come off that high and all of the sudden basically say ‘no more’ — that’s hard to contend with.”

“I’m sure he still thinks about it,” Karen adds.

“If there was any kind of a chance that it would cause problems, there was never any doubt in his mind what he would do,” Eric continues. “He made the right decision.”

The experience beginning to end was a familial trauma. The shock waves were absorbed and experienced differently, but the trauma was shared. Still, the Hoibergs know how lucky they are, and how lucky many others dealing with heart disease are not.

“It was just hard to come to grips with all of that,” Eric tells me. “But we also recognize and thank God we found out about it.”

“So fortunate,” Karen agrees. “It could have ended a lot different than that. [When it happened] we just thought, ‘What’s next? Now we have to do this because this is our reality.”

And in essence, it was that question — “What’s next?” —  that has inspired Fred and his family to take up the fight against heart disease alongside the American Heart Association.

They want the public to be educated to the risks and the warning signs of heart disease. They want to aid the American Heart Association in attempts at early detection and prevention. They want their friends and neighbors to avoid the pain and the fear they battled, whenever such avoidance is possible. 

Infiniti Coaches’ Charity Challenge

Iowa State stands on the cusp of another NCAA tournament — another potential run to the Final Four. And while the Cyclones prepare for the precursor to March Madness — the Big 12 tournament — Hoiberg has already reached a Final Four of his own.

Infiniti has partnered with the NCAA, the National Association of Basketball Coaches and ESPN to promote a bracket-style charity fundraiser that spans the country. Forty-eight coaches from around the nation are entered in a fan-based voting competition to earn up to $100,000 for the approved charity of their choice.

Fred is participating in the challenge for the second consecutive year, representing the American Heart Association. He explained why the charity is so near and dear to a heart that will never completely heal, as indicated by the pacemaker Fred will carry with him for the rest of his life.

“I live every day with heart disease,” Hoiberg said. “I was born with heart disease. I’m a heart disease survivor — basically having five procedures on my heart and another one in the not too distant future.”

The Hoibergs’ personal experience and connection to heart disease has helped boost Fred to the Final Four of the challenge with three days of voting left.

Fred currently sits in a tie for first, deadlocked with Matt Painter of Purdue, who is partnered with the Smith Family Break Thru Fund. The two hold 46 percent of the vote each. The other two finalists, John Beilein of Michigan and Gregg Marshall of Wichita State have each garnered 5 percent of the vote or less.

The battle for the $100,000 prize is now a two-man race — Hoiberg against Painter. The Big 12 versus the Big 10. Iowa State opposing Purdue.

“It kind of speaks to the loyalty of the fan base and what kinds of positive outcomes come from that,” Eric said. “This is just one of those [things] and it rises above sports. It rises above the game, and so I think that it’s fantastic. I think it’s kind of another dimension of Cyclone magic.”

Fred also has an advantage Painter doesn’t, which might provide the slight edge needed to claim the challenge crown — his mother Karen.

Karen has been on Facebook daily, as has the ISU Athletic Department, pushing the vote. She’s also reached out to the ISU Alumni Association, the greek community, Cyclone Fanatic and any other campus-affiliated organization she can find. Fred’s immense popularity in the area is a crucial factor, but Karen is quick to remind people what the vote is really all about.

“My message is that all of those charities are very worthy, and everybody is fighting to get that $100,000 the best way they can by spreading the word. That’s all you can really do,” Karen said. “I’ve tried to emphasize that it’s not really a vote for Fred; it’s a vote for the American Heart Association. I think no matter who wins, its a win-win situation.”

Eric added a basketball analogy, saying that whoever has the ball last is likely to come out on top — a basketball family to the last. 

“To be here, whether we win it or not, to raise awareness for the American Heart Association has been great,” Fred said. “I thank everyone that’s voted. I hope we continue to get those votes here this last week and hopefully we do raise that money for a great charity.”