Maryland senior tight end Chig Okonkwo has some encouraging words for Orioles outfield prospect Heston Kjerstad, who is on the road back from myocarditis.
Okonkwo also dealt with the same inflammation of the heart muscle and missed the entire 2020 season. He came back even stronger this year and has established himself as a legitimate NFL prospect.
“I feel 100 percent, perfectly fine,” said Okonkwo, who has caught 49 passes for 433 yards with five touchdowns this season. “He definitely will be at full strength. I felt better than I actually ever felt in my career. You can become even better than you were before.”
Myocarditis can be frustrating for athletes because they have to be completely shut down during the healing process. They can’t do anything that will make their heart rate rise. That was the biggest challenge for the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Okonkwo, who is a workout warrior.
“It was really challenging,” Okonkwo said. “The whole process of me getting it and then coming back and them telling me I would be out for six months and I would not be able to play the season, all that stuff was really hard. The whole thing that I didn’t know if I would get to play again, it was really scary going through that healing process. You really can’t do anything, too. You can’t do any exercise. Those were really hard times but it made me a stronger person forever.”
It only took Okonkwo about a month to get back into shape once he was cleared. However, those initial workouts were an eye-opener regarding how much time he had missed.
“I remember the first workout I did, I actually threw up,” Okonkwo said. “I had never thrown up after a workout. So getting back was really hard. For the last 10 years of my life, I’ve been training every day.”
Kjerstad was the second overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft but was later diagnosed with myocarditis that sidelined him that year. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound outfielder was shut down again in June because of continued concerns with the condition. He has not appeared in any minor-league games yet.
The hope is that he will be ready for spring training in 2022 and can be assigned to an affiliate to start the season. Kjerstad doesn’t know if the myocarditis was COVID-related.
“I’m feeling really good at this point,” Kjerstad said during fall instructional camp in Sarasota, Fla. “I went through all the steps of progressing through my rehab and getting back to full strength and hitting. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling like my old self again, swinging it well. After a full offseason and getting a lot of reps in and getting back in the weight room, I’ll be ready to get after spring training.”
In his final year at the University of Arkansas, Kjerstad hit .448/.513/.791 (30-for-67) with five doubles, six home runs, 19 runs and 20 RBIs in a season shortened by the pandemic. He was ranked as the No. 10 overall draft prospect by MLB.com and the No. 13 prospect by Baseball America.
The Orioles are hopeful Kjerstad can make the same impact in their lineup. However, the club is prepared to move slowly with him as he regains his footing as a player.
“Anytime you go through injuries or setbacks, it’s natural as a human to wonder, ‘Am I going to be the same, how will I be?’ But honestly, I think I’m going to be better for it,” Kjerstad said. “Mentally, I went through a lot through all this and I think it’s going to give me a little bit of an edge in my game. I have a different perspective on everything now and more appreciation for playing the game and being healthy and just being able to do what I love every day.”
Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias projects Kjerstad to be an impact player for the club long term. Elias likes Kjerstad’s approach at the plate and believes he can be a solid defender.
“This is a middle-of-the-order bat profile for us,” Elias said of Kjerstad when the team drafted him. “We feel he’s the best lefty hitter in the country this year. This is somebody that is going to hit for average and power and hit in the middle of our order for a long time while playing a quality right field defense.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics and Arkansas Athletics