PHOENIX - Freddie Kitchens has endured a lot of pain in his life.
The former University of Alabama quarterback took a lot of hits during his career on the gridiron -- I should know, he was my teammate and I saw those hits first hand.
The way he would take a hit, bounce back and fight while covered in grass stains earned him a reputation as one of the toughest quarterbacks in the SEC.
Freddie, a clear leader for the Crimson Tide, was never afraid to speak up, demanding perfection from his teammates. Even backups like myself weren't immune from a tongue lashing.
Today, he demands the same from his players as a coach for the Arizona Cardinals.
On a summer day at the Cardinals training facility in Tempe, Kitchens would end up taking directions from his players that ultimately saved his life.
It's also a lesson for every person to pay attention to what their body is telling them.
As Kitchens headed out to the practice field, some of the players said he wasn't acting himself.
Kitchens wasn't joking around much, somewhat quiet, standing by himself as if he was in deep thought.
"Something was bothering him, you could tell," said Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians.
Turns out Freddie was in trouble.
While standing next to the quarterbacks he got uncomfortable.
"There was a pop in my chest," Kitchens described, while pointing to his chest. "Then my leg started going numb and I knew it was something."
The man known for his tough past thought for a moment it was a heart attack or a stroke, then tried to tell himself he was dehydrated.
Moments later, his vision blurred.
"With the combination of my vision and the popping in my chest, it should have let me know that it was something different, it wasn't dehydration," said Kitchens.
As Freddie tried to tough it out, the quarterbacks had enough and called over a team trainer and physician.
"Carson (Palmer) and our trainers did an unbelievable job, they saved his life," said Arians.
The arrival of the doctors came at a critical time.
"I couldn't function at this point, I could hardly walk and that's what got me off the field," said Kitchens.
A short time later, Kitchens was rushed to a Chandler hospital then flown to the Arizona Heart Hospital for emergency surgery.
During the flight, Kitchens said he texted his wife and took photos for his children, fearing it may be his last correspondence with them.
"It didn't look good there for a while," Kitchens recalled.
Doctors found Kitchen's problem wasn't from all the hits in college, or even a heart attack.
"This was an aortic dissection. It's when the inner walls of your aorta kind of just shred and I had a thin layer of my aorta that remained, which is the only reason I didn't bleed to death," said Kitchens. "Finally it couldn't take anymore and it splits and dissects, and once it dissects you're a heartbeat away from passing away."
Family, friends and members of the Cardinals organization waited anxiously at the hospital.
"It was a very long 48 hours. It was tough, he's like a son you know," Arians said of Kitchens.
Kitchens spent 10 hours in the operating room.
By the time he made it out of surgery, coaches and former teammates had arrived from across the nation.
For a man who heard a lot of cheers while playing and coaching, this time people were pushing him to survive.
Arians coached Kitchens at Alabama.
"He's probably the toughest quarterback I've ever coached, he's tough as nails and then he got all mad because of all the fuss and I just don't think he realizes to this day what he's overcome," said Arians.
Today, Kitchens is back on the field, back to joking around and often greeting people with hug rather than a handshake.
I asked him if he would take a snap from me like old times. "No, no, no I can't do that, maybe shotgun snap," said Kitchens while laughing. Since the life-saving surgery, he must keep a close eye on stress and his overall health.
"I would just tell people to pay attention to what their body is telling them. I was close to not being here and that would've been it," said Kitchens.
Kitchens credits the doctors for their quick thinking and abilities to conduct the surgery so quickly.
"I couldn't imagine being in that profession, people like them (doctors) are the real heroes," said Kitchens.
Kitchens said he always knew his wife Ginger was a strong person, but the entire incident reminded him of how lucky he is.
"She's in charge, there's no wavering there. She's a strong individual and she never wavered in her strength at all and it continues with our children and everything," said Kitchens.
Turns out the problem was a genetic condition that worsened over time.
Kitchens is back on the field with the team, but continues to receive messages from friends and fans.
"Heck, I thought they forgot my name back in Alabama, but I guess not. It's really been amazing, it's been humbling, I'm humbled by the outpouring of support and the emails and phone calls and everything I got. I can't even start to tell you how many