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Former Oakland Raiders football player George Atkinson, center, stands with his two twin sons George III, left, and Josh, right, in Livermore, Calif., on Thursday, May 7, 2009. (Doug Duran/Staff)

George Atkinson's 63-year-old body, revived and newly fortified, wakes up today thankful for the rhythmic beat of his heart.

The Raiders legend will make the 40-minute drive from his Livermore home to downtown Oakland, park near Lake Merritt and spend the next several hours at the Oakland Heart Walk, an American Heart Association event that begins at 11:30 a.m.

He's both emcee and participant, servicing his health and that of others. He survived a scare, and this is an expression of gratitude.

As he walks and talks, Atkinson's mind will wander back to the life-altering events of July, which brought the sheer euphoria of the little miracle that may have spared his life and the brutal reality of losing a great friend.

Jack Tatum and Atkinson were twin terrors on the field, undersized but resolute safeties operating at the back of the ferocious defense that helped define the fabled Raiders of the 1970s.

Moreover, they were buddies for 40 years, tight for life -- until Jack died of heart failure July 27, mere days after George was forced to confront his own mortality.

He was at the wheel on that Monday afternoon, returning home from the post office with his son, Josh. They were about a block from the driveway when George suddenly felt nauseated and passed out.

"The next thing I know," Atkinson recalls, "my son is shaking me: 'Dad! Dad! Dad! Wake up! Wake up!' I was out. I didn't know what had happened."

The car, having slowed to about 15 mph, bumped a pedestrian near the sidewalk. Much of the incident was witnessed by a police officer. Within seconds, a revived George was out of the car, attempting to explain what happened -- only to collapse.

Paramedics were summoned, after which Atkinson was taken to Valley Care Medical Center in Pleasanton, where he stayed for eight days and what seemed like 800 tests. His NFL machismo told him he was OK, but his common sense listened to doctors who insisted otherwise.

While his cardiac "plumbing" checked out, a problem was detected during the test for arrhythmia, performed under the supervision of Dr. Michael Lee of Cardiovascular Consultants Medical Group. When Atkinson's heart rate soared past 300 beats per minute, it was evident his cardiac "wiring" needed urgent attention.

Dr. Lee installed an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), an advanced pacemaker designed to restore a normal rhythm to a heart beating out of rhythm.

"One of the nurses described it as an 'emergency room' in my chest," Atkinson says, laughing. "Sounds good to me."

His mind eased and his body improved, Atkinson embraced his good fortune. The pedestrian sustained only minor injuries. Emergency personnel were nearby. And his timing was impeccable; the night before he collapsed, he had spent five hours on I-5, driving from Los Angeles with twin sons Josh and George III.

"I think about what might have been and know it could have been worse," Atkinson says.

The ordeal gave him a new appreciation for life and the things that sustain it. He saw modern medicine at work -- "I had had no idea how valuable these people are" -- and better understood its value. He was alive. He had received another chance to see the boys, both of whom recently committed to play football at Notre Dame, become men.

Atkinson was home for a week when he got the call informing him of Tatum's death.

"That really, really hit hard," he says. "And then to know that could have easily been me ... I guess it takes certain events to put life in perspective."

Atkinson says he spoke with Tatum several times in July. Well aware of Jack's health issues -- diabetes had led to amputations -- George kept quiet about his own issues.

"I never mentioned what was going on with me," he says. "Maybe I should have."

Atkinson now pays closer to attention to the health of retired NFL players. Between his experience and Tatum's death, how could he not?

"At one point there were seven (former Raiders) standing together talking about Jack," he says. "Five of us have defibrillators."

Atkinson says he spends an hour a day alternating between walking and gentle running. He now feels he has a third family. There is his immediate family, his Raiders family and, now, the AHA.

"I'm not doing this as a celebrity," he says of his commitment today. "This is personal. I'm doing it because of the organization. The funds they raise, the doctors they have, the research work they do. I want to show my gratitude.

"They did something for me. I'll do whatever I have to do, whatever they ask of me."

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Bay Area Start!
Heart Walk
  • Today, in Oakland
  • 11:30 a.m.: opening ceremonies
  • 11:50: warm-up
  • Noon: Walk around Lake Merritt (3.1 miles)
  • Volunteers are accepted until 9 a.m.
  • For more information, contact Melvin Rhymes at Melvin.Rhymes@heart.org or by phone at (510) 904-4000.
  • Additional walks
    San Francisco,
    Friday-Saturday
    Danville and San Mateo, Sunday