FORMER Millwall striker Tobi Alabi has described for the first time the horrifying moment "the penny dropped" and he realised his career was over.
The 20-year-old, who came through the Lions youth academy, was forced to retire from the game last month due to an underlying heart condition.
Alabi collapsed whilst playing for non-league outfit Met Police on October 15 and was admitted to hospital.
Doctors discovered that the left atrium of the youngster's heart is abnormally large and suspect he has a condition known as Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), which can cause sudden cardiac arrest in athletes.
But Alabi has revealed that this was not the first time he had dropped to the floor unconscious during a game.
He said: "It happened two or three times before when I was much younger, but it was never as bad and I sort of brushed it off.
"I think the first time was when I was about 14 – I was training with Millwall and the paramedic put it down to dehydration, so I didn't think anything of it.
"When it happened again the same year, I had it in my mind that I was probably dehydrated again so I didn't look into it. I thought it was just me fainting."
Having been told by Millwall that he was free to find a new club at the turn of the year, Alabi went on loan to Ebbsfleet United before signing a contract with Swedish side Ljungskile SK in April.
And it was during his time in Scandinavia that the powerful forward collapsed again.
"That's when I started to get worried about it because on that occasion I had a seizure on the pitch," Alabi said. "I had some minor tests and the doctors said I had asthma.
"My club in Sweden arranged for me to have some more detailed medical check-ups but I terminated my contract before they took place and I returned to England."
But Alabi lost consciousness once again during a friendly appearance for Met Police.
"All I remember is getting short of breath and feeing really, really dizzy and I couldn't really see anything," he recalled. "I fell backwards and came to on the floor.
"I was quite lucky that there was a doctor on the other team who put me in the recovery position and was there when I woke up. I was unconscious for about a minute and on the floor for ten.
"I got escorted off the pitch and watched the second half, but I started to feel really groggy – I couldn't stand up properly – so I was taken straight to the hospital, but even then I didn't think it was anything majorly serious."
But that soon changed as a series of tests revealed the extent of Alabi's condition.
"I had an ECG and blood samples taken, and that's when alarm bells started ringing," he said. "The doctors saw that my ECG results were abnormal and that in my blood was a high level of a chemical called troponin, which is what happens when people suffer heart attacks.
"The normal troponin level is supposed to be 100 and mine was 250, so it was quite high. Their first assumption was that I'd had a mild heart attack, so they kept me in for observation.
"I then had a chest X-ray and a heart scan and it was after that that the suggestion of having HCM was first raised. I was referred to St Thomas's Hospital and they carried out further tests on me.
"They made me perform a stress test by running on a treadmill connected to lots of wires and I collapsed again. I started feeling funny and told the doctors that I needed to stop, but as I stepped off the treadmill I blacked out again.
"I woke up on the floor, there was a bunch of noise, an alarm was going off and there were doctors everywhere. I was struggling to breathe and I was sweating heavily. It took about five guys to lift me up so that I could sit down."
And that was when it dawned on Alabi that he would not be able to carry on his professional career.
He said: "While I was on the floor, I remember seeing three doctors to one side of the room talking amongst themselves in a worried way.
"I was still disorientated so I wasn't taking anything in, but later I asked, 'what were you guys talking about?' The doctor waited for the other two to go out and then he told me that my heart had paused for five seconds – it had stopped.
"That's when the penny dropped for me. I just broke down and cried. I knew from then that my career was probably over. The doctor told me it wouldn't be safe to keep playing football – the risk is too great."
Alabi has since had surgery to implant a device that will monitor his heartbeat.
"There is a lot of scarring on my heart and they think that's down to the amount of times I've collapsed, but they can't say with absolute certainty that it's HCM," he said.
"The device will be in for the next three years and they've arranged to do more tests so that they can come to a final conclusion."
During his time at The Den, Alabi, along with each of his academy teammates, was screened for a heart condition by a Football Association approved cardiologist, and the club's record in that area is recognised as being excellent.
"We did have a scan but it wasn't in-depth – there were a few ECG cables and an ultrasound machine," said Alabi, who is calling for rigorous testing to be carried out on all players throughout the game.
He added: "I know a guy who passed away a few months ago and he was on the verge of being signed by Fulham. The boy was 15 or 16 years and the way the doctors were talking about it with me, this condition can be quite common in young athletes.
"If doctors know it's common, then physios and club doctors must know too. Precautions should be taken to find out if any players have these problems."
Alabi now intends to raise awareness about HCM and could even join forces with Fabrice Muamba, who has helped shine a national spotlight on the issue since his retirement in April 2012.
But Alabi wants to go a step further than the former Bolton midfielder.
"When Muamba collapsed on the pitch, people took a step back and said 'whoa' for a couple of weeks but yesterday's new is yesterday's news – and that's just how the world is," Alabi said.
"People felt sorry for him and said how bad it was, but they can't necessarily relate to him and that's not their fault. Muamba has since pioneered the use of defibrillators at grounds around the country, which helps deal with a player collapsing on the pitch.
"But why wait for it to happen? Why deal with it? Why don't we prevent it? It's great what Muamba is doing but we shouldn't wait for something to happen – we should nip this in the bud from the start.
"There are a few things I'm working on but I don't want to speak prematurely. There are others who are passionate about this subject like I am and we really want to keep this issue in the forefront of people's minds."
In the meantime, Alabi, who wrote on Twitter that he was "inconsolable" when he called time on his playing days, has been comforted by the support and good wishes he has received.
"I've been taken aback by it – it's been really humbling to be honest," he said. "I always knew that Millwall fans and my followers on Twitter were really supportive, but I didn't know how supportive they could be.
"I've had messages from players at other clubs and British sprinter Adam Gemili, so it has helped me a lot."