Jesse Sapolu Survived Heart Surgery, And 14-Year Career As A Faithful 49Er

Jesse Sapolu talks about his open-heart surgery as if it were a pedicure and refers to his release from the 49ers as if it were an early Valentine's Day card.

You expected something different?

If so, you haven't been paying attention lo these past 14 years as Sapolu went about his business on the 49ers' offensive line with a stoic nod, a snappy salute and a soft-spoken, "Thank you sir, may I have another?"

Since 1983, Sapolu has been the perfect 49er. Guard? He'd love to play guard. Center? He'd be happy to play center. Move back to guard? Certainly. Back to center again? His pleasure.

Nose clean? Mind right? Chest out, stomach in? You could count on it. Sapolu was a Boy Scout in shoulder pads, a friend to all, the eternal teammate. What's more, he had a heart as big as Eddie DeBartolo's summer home.

That heart, it turns out, had a problem. Sapolu and the 49ers knew that all along. The rest of us didn't find out until it was announced that Sapolu had undergone corrective open-heart surgery on Jan. 27.

Keeping an eye on it

"I knew I had the problem since I was 4 or 5 years old," Sapolu said by phone from his home in Southern California. "I had a leaky aortic valve. That was something that kept me from playing P.E. and stuff. They monitored it in college, and even when I came to 49ers my rookie year. We kept an eye on it for many years."

Sapolu, 35, didn't have surgery earlier for two reasons. One, he didn't really need it. And two, it would have ended his career. "They would have replaced it with an artificial valve," he explained. "I would have been on blood thinners."

When new medical techniques offered him a chance to continue his career after surgery, he took it. "They took my pulmonary valve and replaced the leaky valve, then they took a donor valve to replace the (pulmonary) valve that was good to begin with," said Sapolu, who has already resumed working out.

"The only thing I can't do for the next three weeks is lift weights. They're concerned about the chest bone healing. But my heart, I went back to the doctor about a week and a half after the surgery, and my heart is already back down to the size it was when I was in junior high."

He's cleared to play football. In fact, his doctors are rooting for him. They see him as a poster boy for advances in heart surgery. Too bad there isn't surgery available to correct a bulging salary cap it might have given the cap-strapped 49ers an alternative to waiving Sapolu on Feb. 13.

As it was, you still have to wonder if they made the right move. Sapolu missed nearly all of three seasons from 1984-86 with recurring foot problems, but he has missed just three nonstrike games since. He played in two Pro Bowls and would have been in his third last month (as an alternate) if not for the heart surgery.

Some people understand

Though he and they say a reunion is possible under the right circumstances, the 49ers' signing of free-agent guard Kevin Gogan most likely means that Sapolu will stay waived.

His reaction? Put it this way - the cashiering of George Seifert made it hard to be surprised by anything.

"That was a surprise to everyone," Sapolu said. "The man has the best winning percentage in the history of the NFL. He won two Super Bowls in eight years. I think (Steve) Mariucci is going to step in and do a good job. That's the way the business is. Some people take it hard, some people understand."

Guess which kind of person Sapolu is.

"I had a great run up at San Francisco," he said. "Of course, I'm human. There are some hurt feelings. (But) these are different times. In the years when we were so dominating, you could bank on Ronnie Lott being the strong safety, Eric Wright being one cornerback, Keena Turner being an outside linebacker. The core of players were there six, seven years together. You can't do that again. It's impossible.

"I was jogging close to a golf course, and one person ran up to me and said, 'Aren't you disappointed that 49ers would have let you go?' Hey, here is a guy who was an 11th-round draft choice, from a small school (Hawaii), who no one knew had a leak in his heart anyway. To walk away with four Super Bowl rings I have no regrets."

Maybe the unthinkable will happen

So why not just walk away?

"I can't retire knowing I had the kind of year I had last year," he said. "That's why I'm not retiring. I'd love to have a press conference, get on my white horse and say, 'I played on the same team for 14 years.' At the same time, I wouldn't forgive myself."

So Sapolu will throw himself into his rehabilitation. The divorced father of three will prepare for his offseason remarriage. He will listen to offers that come to him through his agent, Leigh Steinberg. And offers will come. Who knows? Maybe the unthinkable will happen. Maybe Sapolu will return to Candlestick Park one day wearing another team's colors.

"Tell the fans not to boo me when I come in with another team," he said, laughing. "It's not my fault."

San Francisco fans would never boo Sapolu. They wouldn't have the heart.