Jordan Faison is a young man on a vital mission.
Some might believe it is to become a star basketball player. In his first year starting at center for varsity team, he has become a go-to player for the Chargers, averaging double digits in scoring and shooting 60 percent from the field.
Others believe it is to become an honors student. Smart and thoughtful, the senior will graduate in June and wants to attend a four-year university in the fall. He plans to major in psychology or kinesiology because of his longstanding interest in the relationship between mind and body.
While both of those personal quests are admirable and true, there is more to the soft-spoken, muscular, 6-foot-6-inch 17-year-old than meets the eye.
Jordan Faison wants to make sure that what happened to him and his younger brother, Justin, nearly eight years ago never happens to another kid.
In 2004, their father, Derrick, had a sudden heart attack and died. He was 36.
An Athlete, Teacher, Father, Husband
Derrick Faison had been a professional athlete. A native of Lake City, SC, he was a three-sport athlete at Howard University in Washington, D.C., before heading to California where he signed a two-year free agent contract as a wide receiver with the Los Angeles Rams. He played two seasons for the Rams (1990-1991), and then played briefly for the San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers before retiring.
After his playing career ended, Faison turned to education and became one of the brightest new teachers in the Orange County Department of Education's ACCESS program for high-risk students. He held the highest class-attendance record in the program and strived to "make a difference" in hi students' lives, while maintaining his physical fitness through golf and basketball.
But on June 27, 2004, Derrick collapsed on an Irvine basketball court. Despite efforts to revive him through cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Derrick died with Jordan, 9, and Justin, 7, nearby.
"From that moment, on my life change, our life changed," said Regina Faison, Derrick's wife of 10 years, who was away on a business trip that fateful day.
The official cause of death is listed as hypertropic cardiomyopathy, a virtually undetectable heart condition in which the heart muscle becomes thick and forces the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. The first symptom of HCM is often sudden collapse and possible death, and it is a major cause of death in young athletes who seem completely healthy but die during heavy exercise.
It's possible to save victims of cardiac arrest if an automatic defibrillator is immediately available to deliver an electric shock and restart the heart's normal rhythm. If one had been available for Derrick that day, it's possible he would be alive today.
Yet, Derrick's untimely death has not been for naught.
A Foundation Born of Tragedy
Three months after Derrick passed away, the Department of Education held a golf tournament fundraiser, with proceeds going to the Faison family and education. But Regina felt a pull to honor Derrick's memory by doing something even bigger—something that could save a life.
"We took what happened to us and shared our story so it doesn't happen to someone else," Regina said. "We took what happened as a meaning that God didn't take Derrick for nothing. There was a different path we had to walk."
That's when she came up with the idea of establishing the Derrick Faison Foundation. And since then, Regina, Jordan and Justin have dedicated themselves to not only helping increase awareness of heart disease through early detection and screenings, but equipping at least one local school gymnasium or community city each year with an automated external defibrillator.
"We wanted to focus on increased awareness of cardiac arrest and donating the life-saving devices, and also give scholarships to underprivileged kids," Regina said. "[Derrick] had such a positive impact on kids and we wanted to carry on where he left off. We don't want this to happen to someone else, and we thought it could have been prevented. That's why it's important that we share our story and remind people that it's important to get your heart screened and learn through CPR how to save a life, because you never know when you may have to use it."
Not only has the foundation made a positive impact in other's lives, but it has given Jordan and Justin something to hold on to. They say it can't replace having their father around to help them with their homework, or cheer them on from the sidelines, but as they support the foundation the two young men feel its namesake is guiding them.
"It's a little different not having a father around. It hurt a lot but it also made me stronger," Jordan said. "When my mom came up with the idea for the foundation I thought it was going to be great. It was a chance for us to give back and educate people on sudden cardiac arrest, raise awareness and help other people in situations like ours."
"It changed me a lot," admitted Justin, a freshman basketball player at this season. "It was very tragic but we've learned to move on. My mom has done a great job of raising us."
Both Jordan and Justin are CPR certified and often help Regina with training classes. When Jordan walks into a room, people tend to pay attention. He has grown from 5 feet 6 inches as a freshman, to 6 feet as a sophomore, to 6 feet 3 inches as a junior, to 6 feet 6 inches now.
"They are little shocked and surprised actually, but it's a lot of fun to talk to people and have fun," the senior said. "They don't know that I'm just in high school and play basketball, but they know I help my mom certify people so they get certified, too."
"We get so much positive feedback," said Regina, a financial advisor who worked at Merrill Lynch for 12 years before starting her own financial planning business last year. "Every time we do a class, the first thing we explain to people is the difference between sudden cardiac arrest and a heart attack. Most don't know the difference. Knowing those simple things can make a difference in life and death for a person."
Following in Athletic Footsteps
Though not a life-and-death matter, Jordan certainly has made his mark on the Chargers basketball team this season.
In his first full season on the varsity, Faison is averaging 14.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks a game, leading El Toro to a 16-5 record overall, 2-2 in the South Coast League heading into Friday's game against San Juan Hills.
"Jordan has worked hard to develop his game," said Todd Dixon, the Chargers' 16-year head coach. "He spent the off-season working on his skills and it has showed in his performance. As a captain this year, he has set an example for his teammates by working hard and showing a desire for excellence."
Jordan also has been a role model for Justin. The two are practically inseparable and are each other's biggest supporters on and off the court.
"I look up to my brother a lot," Justin said. "It's great to have him as a big brother. To see him play basketball it's a lot of fun."
Jordan says it's the love of the game that drives him every day in practice. He played both football and basketball his freshman year, but he was more passionate about basketball—as was his father—than any other sport.
"I still need to develop my skills and be as fundamentally sound as I can be," the 17-year-old said. "Right now I'm still working on it. I do everything well, but not one thing great. I'm pretty well balanced. If I could work on my quickness that would be great, but whatever role I have I'll do to the best of my ability."
An AED Advocate in the Making
For now that role is student, athlete and activist. Once he turns 18 on Oct. 17, Jordan says he'll be taking a more active role in the foundation as a board member.
Regina has been especially active in getting the word out about California Senate Bill 63, which would mandate that all schools have at least one AED to help prevent cardiac arrest deaths.
Last year, the foundation placed 18 defibrillators in the Tustin Unified School District, but with the cuts to education in the last several years it has been more challenging to get the bill as much traction as they had hoped.
"We try to find creative ways to get funding, and that can be a challenge a lot of time," Regina said. "So we just try to find different ways to fund raise. Jordan has some input and there are some things that he's going to want to do with the foundation. We've done about four golf tournaments now and the Rams have been real supportive. They will send us sports memorabilia for auctions and things like that. There has been so much attention placed on the devices and supporting the screening that we just want to increase awareness."
The Faisons consider themselves a close-knit family, and that hasn't changed since the passing of Derrick. If anything, having a purpose in life has brought them even closer together. They work out, run their dogs and spend quality family time. They also have a good support system. From the Chargers basketball program and the administration at El Toro to their extended family which live in South Carolina, they try to surround themselves with positive people.
Regina admits being a single mother isn't easy. But seeing how far they've come in the past seven years, Regina said she considers the family "truly blessed."
"The most important thing for Jordan is to get an education and go as far as he can in basketball and continue to do what he's doing. His path is already chosen," Regina said. "We're just taking it one day at a time and not getting where things can cloud our judgment. We know who we are. What I can say to all parents is just spend time with your kids and get to know them."
Because you never know what the next day will bring.
For more information about events or screenings hosted by the Derrick Faison Foundation, or to make a donation to support its efforts, visit http://dfaison.org/ or the foundation's Facebook page.