Resilient: How COVID complications and a focus on holistic health prepared Jules Heningburg for a 2021 comeback

Resilient: How COVID complications and a focus on holistic health prepared Jules Heningburg for a 2021 comeback

It’s not exactly a typical comeback story. There was no injury on the field. There wasn’t even any play on the field. There was no physical pain. No surgery. No lengthy rehab process with physical trainers to build up muscle tissue and strengthen joints. You won’t see any knee braces, heavily taped ankles, or extra pads next year. In fact, there really was no injury at all. But the effects on the player, the team and the PLL Championship Series were massive. From the instant Jules Heningburg got the news that he had an underlying condition, flagged by a cardiologist and team of medical professionals prior to entering the PLL bubble, it was a given that he, the Redwoods and the league as a whole would have a very different summer of 2020 than expected.

Heningburg started the 2019 season as a member of the Whipsnakes. Early on, finding his role in the offense and adjusting to the rigors of a touring league made it challenging for him to be productive.

“I talked to Stags early on, and he asked me how my legs felt. I felt like my legs weren’t right. Flying on Fridays, off the plane, go to practice, and then just not having the burst the next day.”

So Heningburg decided to start flying on Thursdays and more extensively preparing for games physically. A midseason trade to the Redwoods sparked his game. In Week 4, the first week after adjusting his preparation and travel regimen, he set the then league record for points in a single game with eight, on five goals and three assists. His play showed off the versatility and QB approach that’s been his style for his entire pro career. In year one, the only thing that separated the Redwoods from a PLL championship was an OT goal from the Whipsnakes, and Heningburg still thinks about just how close they came.

Summer 2020 was an opportunity to finally be comfortable. Heningburg could play a full season with the Redwoods, know what he needed to do to be successful and further elevate his game. At least, that was the plan. Heningburg had contracted COVID-19 in the late spring, but had been symptom free and received multiple negative tests prior to his travel to Utah.

Part of the league’s medical protocols to clear a player included a cardiological examination. Heningburg, looking back, acknowledges the league’s foresight in including the exam. At the time of the PLL bubble announcement, nearly every league in the country was still dealing with a suspended season at some level. Getting it right was critical for the future of the PLL.

“I really appreciated how forward thinking the league was. If they let me out there and something happened, it could mean the end of the league,” Heningburg said.

When Heningburg arrived for testing, he knew that since he had already contracted and then recovered from COVID, those medical protocols would be critical to his entering the bubble. “They looked at an EKG, and they looked at oxygen stats,” Heningburg said. 

His Redwoods teammate, Garrett Epple, was going through the protocols as well after also recovering from COVID. Epple’s testing came back normal. Heningburg, however, did not.

“Normal O2 levels are in the mid-90s,” Heningburg said, “Just walking around the room was dropping mine into the mid-80s.”

Heningburg said his EKG came back with some abnormalities as well, and he knew it didn’t look good to play.

Jules Heningburg delivers the news that he won't be able to play in the 2020 PLL Championship Series to his Redwoods teammates. (Photo courtesy of PLL)

After waiting a day for results to be reviewed, Heningburg was called into a meeting with the league doctor, league CEO Mike Rabil, and Redwoods Head Coach Nat St. Laurent, who informed Heningburg that he wouldn’t be cleared to play.

“When I saw all of them, I knew what that meant. It was a rush when they said that; really emotional for me. I teared up a bit, then went back to my room to tell my teammates.”

Heningburg felt completely fine, but testing revealed a potentially serious condition that is a lingering effect of COVID.

“Coach Nat had previous heart issues, and I knew this was serious,” Heningburg said.

Going from being ready to lead an offense to contend for a title to finding out about a serious health issue and becoming a spectator in a matter of minutes is jarring to say the least.

“I swallowed the not playing pill pretty quickly once I realized the danger of the situation,” Heningburg said, but adding that knowing he wouldn’t be part of the team was the toughest part.

He wasn’t allowed to stay in the bubble, both for liability reasons and competitive advantage reasons, as his presence was tantamount to the Redwoods having an extra offensive coach. The challenge now was how to watch and support the team while being detached enough to not jeopardize health.

“Watching as a competitor and watching as a spectator, emotionally those are very different,” Heningburg said. The Redwoods would lose their first two games in the bubble, and Heningburg grew frustrated from afar.

“I knew what I could provide. My presence, making up for mistakes, being fluid in the offense, it just looked like that’s what was missing.”

When a team loses a leader on the offense, it impacts all other matchups on the field. Heningburg acknowledged that because he was out, it means fellow attackman Ryder Garnsey got a different matchup, as did Matt Kavanagh, and it even might impact the way that teams match up at the midfield as well. Being so deeply emotionally invested from afar while trying to recover was not a healthy situation.

“I’m really excited for big plays, really upset when we lose, and I needed to process better.” Heningburg said. Following his last concussion, Heningburg now speaks with a professional about issues like this.

Jules Heningburg played a pivotal part in the Redwoods' 2019 season that saw the club advance to the PLL Championship. (Photo courtesy of PLL)

“I’m open to seeking help. If you don’t know the answer, you should be able to ask for help. That’s physical, mental, shooting, dodging, if you want to be better, go ask, learn and implement,” Heningburg said. “I got a better way to frame it and was able to observe more as a fan. That was a challenge that helped me grow and get perspective.”

That perspective eventually served as a foundation to getting through rehab and back onto the field. Attention then turned to training and fitness. But how do you train when activity could result in a catastrophic heart problem? What can you really do, and how do you maximize the time? And how do you adapt a typical offseason?

“Right as the PLL and my first MLL seasons end, I take a short break, then get back in the gym a few times a week, then start incorporating the stick,” Heningburg, who also plays in the NLL, said of his typical year-long routine.

“It’s preparing for the box season with the Seals, coming back right off PLL season, going into training camp, trying to make a roster, it’s weekly workouts and maintaining my stick.”

He also serves as a coach for Torrey Pines High School, one of the top high school programs in California, and the nation. Heningburg brings equipment to those practices multiple times per week to play as well, and hits the gym afterwards.

“I’ve been trying to fill out my frame, and two months off isn’t helping that,” he said. All of that training wasn’t on the table now.

“I don’t do great with taking time off,” Heningburg said, “others are just more naturally talented than I am and can detach, but I have to be building and growing all the time.”

Heningburg turned to the approach he uses when mentoring younger players.

“When one part of you goes down, whether it’s a leg, wrist, or something else, you need to find a way to make up for a deficiency by improving something else. I could always be working on my mind. Framing recovery and mentally improving is something I was doing before PLL Island. That helped me process the whole thing. This is where I can double down on my mind and build a foundation for what I’m passionate about outside of lacrosse.”

With that, Heningburg accepted the limitations of what he could do physically, and turned towards building the foundations of his organizations and businesses, namely Black Lacrosse Alliance, Juke Lab and Mission Primed.

Heningburg is particularly passionate about Mission Primed and the company’s upcoming Senior Experience, a four-day training combine that will be held in New Jersey from August 2-5 at his alma mater, Seton Hall Prep. Mission Primed is designed to transition players to the college game through on-field training and off-field interactive workshops, while providing players with, as Heningburg calls it, the “framework necessary for players to tap into their full potential.” It is this holistic lifestyle that he himself embodies and hopes to continue to spread throughout the lacrosse community.

“Being able to have this foundation in place, whether that be through mindfulness, the commitment to relationships or the progress made through deliberate work in my craft, has been pivotal to my own training,” Heningburg explained. “Training the next generation to realize that they too can achieve what they want by embodying the Mission Primed guiding principles is something I’m passionate about sharing.”

Epoch athlete Jules Hengingburg instructs young lacrosse players at the Hudson Sports Complex in Warwick, NY. (Photo courtesy of Hudson Sports Complex)

Following his own principles, Heningburg worked with Evolution to recover and train his body to return to the field. He had weekly protocols to hit in terms oxygen levels, which included breathing into a machine that would record his O2 levels. Exercise was carefully monitored. He might get on a bike and begin to ride at a slow pace, but if his O2 levels dropped, it meant stopping completely to allow levels to return to normal. These intervals might be just a few minutes at a time. This is how it went for months, slowly building back to the point where regular training was possible.

As of October, Heningburg has been cleared by his trainers. He’ll likely have to pass some further tests for the league, but all the issues flagged by the league before the bubble are now gone.

Of course, the league that Heningburg is returning to isn’t exactly the same as the one he last played in. The last time he played a game, the league had six teams. Myles Jones still played for the Chaos, Greg Gurenlian was taking faceoffs for the Woods, and players like Grant Ament and Bryan Costabile were still playing college lacrosse.

Now, the league has eight teams following a merger with Major League Lacrosse, adding the Cannons Lacrosse Club, who join the Waterdogs as teams Heningburg has yet to play against. Another part of that merger means that a player pool of over 100 players will be looking for spots on PLL rosters, and will be more than happy to take the spot of someone else. Further, the college draft this year essentially is two classes in one draft, and positively loaded with talent. How does a player like Heningburg approach returning to a league where so much has changed since his last game?

“Professional lacrosse is getting away from young guys just slotting in for spots.  It’s more like the NBA, where some of the best players just don’t start right away.  Look at lefty attack in the league. You have to earn those minutes in pro lacrosse more than you used to,” he said.

As for competition from the MLL, Heningburg feels his ability to fill multiple roles is a strong asset.

“I can run out of the box, I can be at X, I can be an off-ball scorer. My ability to be versatile is what separates me. I look at it like this: After a full season with a team where I know my role and am comfortable with, and then worked on my game for an entire year, I am not concerned about those guys coming in.”

He added, “We were a couple points from a title in 2019, and a few points from making the title game in 2020. I feel like that’s a difference I can make.”

And so, with about four months until the PLL is scheduled to open the 2021 campaign, Heningburg is confident in himself as he returns to the field.

It’s impossible to get the impression Heningburg ever really stops working on himself and his game. Ultimately, a potentially career or even life-threatening heart condition didn’t really slow him down. He approached it like anything else. One piece goes down, it means it’s time to improve something else, and always get better. His approach suggests a fearlessness when it comes to self-improvement. It’s always about making something better. As he grows businesses, mentorships, and his game, he’s poised for a major return in 2021, and is never comfortable, but always confident.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story included a reference to Keyontae Johnson, a Florida basketball player who collapsed on the court during a game. His collapse was initially suspected to have been caused by COVID-19, but medical experts later determined that "Keyontae’s medical emergency was not related to or a result of a previous or current COVID diagnosis."

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