The 2016 Parade of Roses gets underway at 8:00 a.m. PT, and it will feature a San Francisco 49ers legend on one of the floats. Former center Jesse Sapolu will be riding on a float co-branded by the American Heart Association and Union Bank. The float is expected to be No. 16, so keep an eye out for it when it broadcasts on ABC, NBC, Hallmark and HGTV. The video above shows the float being put together. Down below is a picture of Jesse with Kaelyn Graham, who will join him as a "Heart Champion" on the Union of Hearts float.
I don't know how many 49ers fans are aware, but Sapolu has dealt with a serious heart condition dating back to before his playing career. He contracted rheumatic fever as a kid, and it led to a small hole being ripped in his aortic valve. He developed an enlarged heart, which left him short of breath in physical activity. I had a chance to chat with Sapolu about all this, and he said he taught himself to take quick, short breaths during games. This dates back to his high school and college days!
Sapolu has been a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, and has worked to help them raise money. Jesse talked about how he visits with various sponsors because he himself benefited from advancements in research. He has had two surgeries on his heart, and he actually played one season after his first surgery.
Sapolu first decided to become a heart activist after a death hit close to home. Sapolu's son played football at Oregon State, and a teammate of his died during a pick-up basketball game. An autopsy revealed he had an enlarged heart due to something similar to Sapolu's own condition. He has done a variety of activities, including helping the AHA raise over $1 million on a Caribbean cruise last year.
I asked Jesse about playing in spite of his condition back before his NFL years. He acknowledged like many kids, he had no fear, but also that times were a lot different.
It was different back then. My condition was discovered and I went to a specialist, but I was a big kid. And when you're young, the consequences, you're not as fearful of. Now that I'm a parent and look back on it, there's no way; but there's a lot more data now, and information, just like there are with concussions. They were concerned, but there was no fear on my part. And in those days, you rarely heard about athletes dying on the court or on the football field. If I played in era of social media, there's no way they'd let me play. There's too much negative press. And the consequences that could of come out of it. I've strengthened my mind, and I'm not going to use it as an excuse because it hurt so much as a kid, to be the biggest kid in class and in school, and yet, not being able to participate back then.
Sapolu is a general spokesperson, but he is also hoping the NFL creates more intense physicals when players come into the league. He talked about the size of players. He himself was 6'4, and weighed in at 305 pounds at his heaviest. A healthy weight for a person that tall is around 210 pounds, so clearly there are concerns about the pressure that puts on the heart, and other parts of the body. Players are getting bigger and bigger, so it will be interesting to see if the NFL does anything to address heart issues.
Give the parade a watch today, and you might be able to catch Jesse and Kaelyn on the Union of Hearts float!