Montclair Norsemen rugby player Tevita Bryce, 28, suffered a major heart attack while playing in a match Saturday in Denville. As of Wednesday, a GoFundMe campaign to cover Bryce’s medical expenses has raised more than $52,000. (COURTESY LOPETI TU’IPULOTU)

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Members of the rugby community are rallying around one of their own — a player who collapsed on the field while playing for the Montclair Norsemen Saturday, just weeks after moving to the United States.  

Tevita Bryce, 28, was in the ICU for days, following a heart attack on the field and then another on the operating table. Now he’s facing mounting medical bills in the tens of thousands of dollars, as well as a groundswell of financial support from those wishing him well. 

Bryce has been playing rugby for his entire life. Growing up in New Zealand, Bryce was surrounded by the sport and received a scholarship to play at Rissho University in Sairama, Japan. After graduating, he got a professional contract to play for the Akita Northern Bullets in Akita, Japan and then another to play in Canada. 

Two days after Bryce married his wife, Ashley Tu’ipulotu, his mother was diagnosed with colon and stomach cancer. Bryce gave up his contract to play in Canada and flew home to New Zealand. Bryce poured all his time and money into his mother, spending his savings to cover chemotherapy and an experimental cancer drug. A year later, on Oct. 28, 2020, his mother died. 

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After his mother’s death, Bryce received a Green Card and in July, he moved with his wife and their 16-month-old son to Totowa.

Bryce, eager to continue playing rugby, joined the Montclair Norsemen. His brother-in-law, Lopeti Tu’ipulotu, is also on the team. 

On Saturday, Bryce stepped onto the St. Clare’s Pocono Road Field in Denville for a semi-final match against Morris Rugby. The game began like any other, but as the minutes ticked by, Bryce began to complain of a tightness in his chest, Lopeti Tu’ipulotu said. But Bryce just thought he was winded or extra tired and continued to play.

Then with about 20 minutes left in the second half, Bryce kicked the ball out of bounds, collapsed to the ground and began to seize. 

What came next was 28 minutes of a community coming together, Andrea Matthrews, Morris Rugby’s president, said. Her husband, Karl Matthews, is head coach of the Morris Rugby men’s team. 

The Morris Rugby athletic trainer was first on the field to help Bryce, followed by a couple of trauma nurses and firefighters who happened to be in attendance. The group began to perform CPR and used a defibrillator to administer three shocks to Bryce’s heart.

Players ran to the main entrance of the field to direct first responders to Bryce. The rest of the crowd, unsure of what to do, formed a line from the field entrance to where Bryce lay, Andrea Matthews said. 

“I think everybody automatically just went into action to make sure they were doing their part, which probably saved the gentleman’s life,” she said. “You couldn’t have had a better group of people to help you then he had that day.”

An ambulance arrived and loaded Bryce onboard, but instead of rushing off to the hospital, the vehicle sat still. 

“We all thought he died,” Matthews said. “I don’t know how long that was — it could have been 10 minutes. But it felt like a lifetime.”

Finally, the ambulance drove to St. Clare’s Denville Hospital, less than half a mile from the field. Bryce had experienced a major heart attack and a stroke due to a blood clot in his groin. While in surgery, he went into cardiac arrest again and had to be resuscitated on the operating table.  

“The hospital really doesn’t know how he’s alive,” Lopeti Tu’ipulotu said. “They did all the blood work, and they can’t find anything wrong. They don’t know why this happened.”

Bryce was released from the hospital Tuesday and is now able to walk around at home, Lopeti Tu’ipulotu said. But the recovery is ongoing. It’s estimated he won’t be able to return to work for two months while he undergoes physical and cardiac rehabilitation. 

On Monday, Lopeti Tu’ipulotu created a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for Bryce’s medical expenses. Bryce has only been working for four weeks and his insurance benefits have not yet begun. As of Wednesday, the fundraiser has raised more than $52,000 of the $75,000 goal. 

“The rugby community is amazing,” Lopeti Tu’ipulotu said. “The support is just spreading across the country.”

Not only did rugby community members band together in support of Bryce, they rallied around each other, Matthews said

After every Morris Rugby game, the team gathers at the Denville Moose Lodge to eat together. After Bryce was taken to the hospital, Matthews invited the Montclair Norseman to join them at the lodge. 

Both teams arrived with families and friends in tow, and it was the first time the event had run out of food, she said. While everyone was at the lodge, they got word that Bryce was out of surgery and in recovery.

“We had no idea if he was going to survive, but I felt that we needed to be together,” Andrea Matthews said. “Everyone was just there to support each other.”