Hamilton resident Carl Romero suffers a stroke while training for a Trenton Freedom tryout

One year ago this month, Carl Romero was lying in a hospital bed. The 46-year-old had suffered a stroke.

The Hamilton resident was thankful to be alive after doctors found something on his brain, which he initially feared was a tumor. He has since gotten back on his feet, and Romero decided to celebrate by trying out for a professional football team.

Romero went to Dartmouth College, where he was the football team’s starting kicker from his sophomore to senior year. He was the team’s leading scorer each of those three seasons and says he never missed a game-winning kick. The Steinert High football team’s kicking coach, Romero heard that a new professional indoor football team was coming to Trenton, and signed up for the open tryout. He prepared by lifting weights with his son, logging hours on a stationary bike and honing his range and accuracy on the field, as the indoor football uprights are much more narrow than he is used to.

Amped up for the tryout, he arrived early at the Oct. 26 event, the first one there. He then promptly hurt his back in warmups, and didn’t even get a chance to kick.

“That was kind of embarrassing,” he said.

Romero, a history teacher at West Windsor-Plainsboro High North, came back, though, and decided to kick at the second open tryout on Jan. 18. After about two hours of kicking against 10 other hopefuls, he didn’t make the cut. But his results were nothing close to “embarrassing.” He narrowly missed four of about 15 kicks, and lost out to three players half his age and with double the free time.

“I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” he said. “I think I did what I needed to do. Sometimes you have it, and sometimes you don’t. I think I did a pretty decent job today. I think the one thing that I wish I had was a little bit more prep time. In January, where do you kick? It’s outside. I’d like to be in college, then I could be practicing all the time.”

Last year, Romero was working out with his son, Rob, when he noticed something was off. The heart rate sensor on the stationary bike he was using showed an unusual spike in his pulse.

“I’d been going there for a few weeks, and I’ve been noticing when I pedal faster, it goes up to 117, 118,” he said. “This was at 143, then 209, then 175, then 192. I said, ‘Rob, I got the broken machine.’”

He got off the bike, took a break and hopped on another.

“When the same thing happened, I felt a little flutter in my chest,” he said. “This is not coincidental. I have a problem. I have my son with me, so I need to set an example. I really didn’t want to go to the doctor. I didn’t feel chest pain, I didn’t feel short of breath. I went the Robert Wood Johnson, and they said I had atrial fibrillation.”

He was admitted and given medicine to control the arrhythmia. He said where the atrium is supposed to pump, it quivers instead. Residual blood doesn’t get pumped, allowing it to clot. The blood eventually starts pumping again, pushing the clots up through the body. That’s where the stroke comes in.

“I was sitting at the computer one day, and all of a sudden I had a wicked headache,” he said. “I couldn’t see out of the right upper quadrant. I thought I had a migraine. I took some aspirin. That didn’t help. I went to bed early. When I woke up the next morning, I realized my vision was still black and blotchy.”

He went back to RWJ, where he was diagnosed with a small stroke. He was, strangely enough, relieved.

“The doctor said, ‘We took a CAT scan, and there’s something on your brain,’” he said. “I thought, ‘It’s a tumor, it’s pressing up on my optic nerve’ or something like that. When they told me I had a stroke, I was like, ‘Yes.’ I knew that it was over. If that’s the worst that it is, I’m in good shape.”

It took a couple of months for his vision to return to normal, but now he has no problems. He has since passed all of his neurology exams, and had surgery in August to correct the arrhythmia.

“I’ve lost a considerable amount of weight since then,” he said. “I ran a 5K for the first time a week before my procedure in August. I haven’t looked back. I came off the table after an eight-hour procedure on a Friday night. By Monday morning, I was at Steinert’s practice. It was awesome. I’m very, very grateful. I feel like I have a chance.”

To prepare for both tryouts, Romero started a weightlifting routine, ran when he could, corrected his diet and practiced kicking off the ground as opposed to from a tee. He even invested in a coach: Steinert’s own Barri Deptula, whom he instructed during the season.

“Now, I just get to put him through torture,” Deptula said. “Now I point out to him stuff that I notice, which really shows me how much he’s helped me. When I first started out, I never would have known that I was lifting my head or lifting my toe. I’ve learned so much and now I can help him and repay him in a way, but not enough.”

The pair worked out at West Windsor North, where some of his students helped shag balls, leading up to the Jan. 18 tryout at the Sun National Bank Center.

Romero was, again, the first player on the field. He stretched, took a few practice kicks and talked to coaches and other players. He took about 15 kicks from various lengths during the actual tryout.

Others struggled in areas he didn’t. He noticed, of course, and just couldn’t suppress the urge to coach.

“We don’t have to cut each other’s throats.” he said. “The one guy can kick the ball long, but he kept picking his head up. I told him, ‘You have no problem with the length, just keep your head down.’ That ball kept hooking. The whole thing is fun. I think that’s the part of this that you can’t duplicate.”

Though he was cut at the end of the day, Romero told Deptula before the tryout that he would have been satisfied either way.

“I think making it or not, it’s honestly just the experience for him,” she said. “I think it’s not about him gaining anything. I think he just likes to do it, so he wants to see how far he can take it.”

Romero agreed, saying the experience was about more than just making a team.

“I think for me, it’s a reminder that when you’re alive you have to live,” he said. “You have to do the things that you enjoy doing. You can’t make excuses about getting them done. I made no excuses about this. I made none now. I didn’t make the cut, but I’m happy with that.”