Miracle man: Lentz returns after near-death experience
By Mike London
SALISBURY — It was Tuesday, the night of the semifinals in the Dale’s Sporting Goods/Sam Moir Christmas Classic, and North Rowan had just won a fierce game with Davie County.
Junior forward Henderson Lentz had been part of the victory, coming off the bench to make 3-pointers and to snatch rebounds with unexpected tenacity for a thin kid who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 160 pounds.
Lentz emerged from the locker room and nodded at coach Andrew Mitchell like it was just another day at the office. Then he headed upstairs at Catawba College’s Goodman Gym to locate his family and friends.
Mitchell is in his sixth season at the helm at North. He was 2-for-2 at winning 2A girls state titles at Salisbury High before he returned home to his alma mater to coach the Cavalier boys.
He’s already pushed the Cavaliers to 129 wins, four regional appearances and a state title in five-plus seasons. He provides a special brand of tough love, but Mitchell’s intense exterior fades not long after Lentz walks by.
“I watched that kid die,” Mitchell said, his head shaking and his eyes misting. “So it’s not easy for me to talk about how I feel about him. I see him smiling, I see him making shots for us, I see how much his teammates care about him, and I get choked up. I get choked up talking about that day last summer. I get choked up just thinking about it.”
The day in question was a typical mid-June day for dedicated basketball players. Lentz and his teammates were involved in the team camp at Catawba. In addition to scrimmage games at Catawba, there were games taking place at North Hills Christian School.
Catawba men’s coach Rob Perron had left Catawba briefly to make sure things were proceeding smoothly at North Hills. When he returned to Catawba, he was greeted by his worst nightmare — ambulances and sirens. Essentially, Lentz had died on the floor. Cardiac arrest. No heartbeat. He wasn’t breathing.
Lentz was 16 when he fell to the floor. Ten days later, he was celebrating his 17th birthday.
“A miracle,” Lentz said. “I don’t know of any other words for it.”
Lentz’s father, Greg, is an evangelist, and Henderson’s faith was deep and strong for someone so young, even before his life-changing experience.
“The Sunday before it all happened, our pastor preached about humbling ourselves and letting God break us down to build us back up,” Lentz said. “I remember praying that God would give me a testimony that I could share with people. I think my prayer was answered.”
Lentz remembers it all with remarkable clarity. It wasn’t like he just passed out and woke up in a hospital bed.
Lentz’s mother, Jill, and grandparents were in attendance, watching the Cavaliers play.
“I remember I was at the 3-point line, I gave a pump fake and drove,” Lentz said. “At the rim, I got fouled pretty hard by two guys.”
Lentz got to his feet and felt light-headed. His vision blurring, he walked toward the bench that the visiting team always occupies at Catawba. He knew he needed to come out of the game to rest, but he didn’t reach his destination. He didn’t exactly collapse. It was more like he toppled over like a falling tree — face down on the floor.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve seen in my life,” Lentz’s high-scoring classmate Joseph Scott said.
The estimates are that Lentz stayed down for a full 12 minutes, turning blue from lack of oxygen. He was past the point where even the most optimistic rescuers were losing hope. He remembers it all.
“I was aware I was in the Catawba gym and I was aware there were people around me,” Lentz said. “In my mind, I was still dribbling two basketballs in a dribbling competition. I just kept dribbling.”
The kid loves basketball. There was still a spark of life somewhere inside him, and that faint spark kept dribbling for 12 minutes. We’ll never know. Maybe that’s what gave him a chance.
Catawba athletic trainer Brenda Paider had an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) in her athletic training pack. The combination of CPR and the AED revived Lentz. The portable AED device delivered an electric shock through his chest to his heart and helped restore Lentz’s heartbeat.
“I remember waking up on the floor,” Lentz said. “I remember sitting up and asking for my mom.”
He noticed he had an IV in each arm. One for fluids and one for what Lentz referred to as “coma stuff.”
“But I wasn’t in a coma,” he said.
Lentz had surgery within days of the incident to install an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD). A return to basketball seemed a long shot at that point, but as the months passed, doctors and family became convinced there was nothing wrong with Lentz’s heart.
He was normal on all tests. It was a freak, one-in-a-billion accident that had felled him.
There have been cases of perfectly normal heartbeats being disrupted when struck by a high-velocity object such as a baseball or a hockey puck. Both Perron and Lentz referenced the “hockey puck” theory as the most likely explanation for what happened to the youngster.
“Henderson is thin, and I’m told he took a shoulder directly to his chest,” Perron said.
It’s been a long road back, filled with detours, for Lentz. There was surgery to remove the ICD and additional surgeries to clean up infections. He had what he hopes will be his final round of surgery about a month ago.
He’s convinced he’s healthy. He’s device-free. He’s been cleared to play, and he’s eager to return to a key role for the Cavaliers.
“I don’t have anything in me now,” Lentz said. “Just trusting in the Lord. I feel great. I’m sure everything will be fine.”
Because he’s missed conditioning and lost weight that he really didn’t need to lose, Lentz isn’t expected be 100 percent until late January. There was speculation he’d make a dramatic comeback in the Christmas tournament (Dec. 28-30) in the same Catawba gym where he nearly lost his life, but he made a surprise return on Dec. 15 in a home game against Crossroads Charter.
Mitchell decided to ease him back with less pressure, so he sent Lentz to the scorer’s table. He stroked a 3-pointer moments later. Some fans high-fived. Some wept.
His role has increased in each game since, and some may have forgotten what a fine player he is. He’s more than a shooter. He’s long, he rebounds well, he defends well, and he’s quick enough to pump-fake and drive. A lot of North’s powerful surge late in the 2014-15 season was due to Lentz. He made six 3-pointers in one game to sink rival Salisbury and he averaged 14.3 points in North’s last seven games.
Put Lentz on the floor with all-county stars Jalen Sanders, Scott and Josh Handy, plus some solid role players, and you’ve got a championship contender in 2A.
“Henderson is not 100 percent yet,” Sanders said. “But what he does for us is stretch the defense with his shooting ability. He opens up the floor for everyone else.”
Lentz’s role for now is instant production off the bench. As soon as Mitchell calls his number, the lefty is ready to drill open shots.
“That day last summer it could’ve gone either way for Henderson,” Mitchell said. “So it’s a blessing for us to have him on our team. He’s the nicest kid you’ll ever meet. He’s endured a lot to be back out there with us, but he’s contributing a lot already.”
Lentz needs additional strength and weight, but he should be a Division II prospect next season. He nailed eight 3-pointers and scored 30 in his sixth-man role in the three-day Christmas tournament.
“Playing at Catawba, I really thought I’d be more nervous than I was,” Lentz said. “But it just felt like a normal game. No flashbacks or anything like that.”
On Wednesday, Lentz helped North beat Mooresville for its third tournament championship in the last five years. The Cavaliers posed for photos. There were a lot of smiles.
There also were a few tears.
“Having Henderson back on the court fills me with joy,” Scott said. “God is good.”
NOTE: Brenda Paider, an intern in athletic training at Catawba last year, is now at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.