Football Player Overcame Stroke in the Womb

By Cynthia Dagenais

Midrise room 208 is a secluded suite in one of Marist College’s sophomore dormitories.  The main door to the suite is almost always propped open with a wedge, welcoming all friends and visitors at any hour of the day or night. From the outside, a person would assume that the inhabitants of 208 are quiet because of the location they chose to live during the housing process the previous year, but a simple knock on the door and a “Who goes there?” reflects the personalities of the dwellers within.

The common room of 208 is decorated with a melee of posters and signs, from a Zelda video game cut-out to the movie posters for Cloverfield and Quantum of Solace to the “No Farting” signs hung up sporadically around the room. Lying down on the couch in a black t-shirt, light blue gym shorts, and an ace bandage around his left ankle, is sophomore Chad Connor, a football player for the Marist Red Foxes.

This 20-year-old college student from Staten Island, N.Y., is not just like any player on the football team; he only started playing the sport when he was a freshman in high school and now plays for the Red Foxes on scholarship.

From the outside a bystander would never know that the 6-foot-2 250 pound offensive lineman could possibly not have been born.  The young player has survived three strokes at the beginning of his life, a rare occurrence for someone so young.

Strokes are the fourth most common cause of death in all men, according to WebMD. Strokes occur when oxygen is blocked off from the brain, causing brain cells to die.  The longer a person goes without stroke treatment, the more cells die and the more damage can be done to the brain.  A stroke can leave a patient severely debilitated, paralyzed, an inability to communicate or even lead to death.

“I had a normal pregnancy with Chad,” said Nancy Connor, his mother, on speakerphone on Chad’s cell phone.  “I went to the hospital on March 11 and Chad didn’t want to come out, so we waited a week.  Then he still didn’t want to come out so my doctor put me on a medication that induces labor, and just like Chad, he had to have his way and didn’t want to come out.”

On March 27th, 1989, was the day Chad Connor began to budge and his mother went into labor.

“The doctor had said that his heart rate had dropped really low, so my husband and I were a bit scared,” Nancy Connor said.  “When Chad was born, the doctor said that he was a healthy baby boy 21 inches long and weighed 6 pounds 5 ounces, so I was relieved.”

Nancy and Robert had no trouble with their first-born baby son, Chad, until almost a year and a half later.

“He was a very active and strong child,” Nancy Connor recalled. “I remember he was running around at 19 months and he went over to the fridge, pulled out a gallon of milk like he sometimes did, and then collapsed onto the ground.”

“My husband and I brought him to the pediatrician to get him checked out, and he said that Chad had an ear infection,” Nancy Connor said.  “We brought him to the ER because we noticed that he couldn’t move the right side of his body at all.”

Nancy Connor said that she found it unusual for Chad to not be using his right side even though she knew that he was dominant on his left side.

“He was always picking things up with his left hand even though both sides of the family are right-handed, so we knew he was a lefty at such a young age” she said. “We knew something was wrong when he wouldn’t move his right side at all.”

In the emergency room, Chad Connor was diagnosed with a bilateral hernia, a protrusion of an organ or part of an organ wall of the cavity normally containing it.

The results from Chad Connor’s brain CT scan revealed that he had strokes in the left side of the frontal lobe of his brain, which controls the right side of the body as well as language and attention.

Chad Connor went through physical and occupational therapy to learn how to move again.  Connor’s therapy inspired Nancy to become an occupational therapist to learn more about her son’s condition.

The Connor family visited many university doctors to find answers as to why he suffered from the strokes as a child.  The doctors from Cornell and NYU could not explain what had caused them, but they had taken angiograms and found blood clots where the strokes occurred.

“My mother’s intuition kept telling me that these doctors were wrong, so we went against some of their opinions and we figured out that the drugs that I took to induce labor caused the blood clots in his brain,” Nancy Connor said.

Chad Connor was enrolled in the Jewish Community Center’s swim program to not only learn to swim, but also to strengthen his right side again.

“My husband taught him the sink-or-swim approach,” Nancy Connor laughed.  “He let go of Chad and he had to learn to tread water and stay afloat.”

Connor became quite the swimmer at age four.  His favorite and strongest race was the backstroke.

“I competed against Michael Phelps and, of course, won,” Chad Connor joked when asked about his swimming abilities.

“He was an early swimmer and he had the height advantage,” Nancy Connor said. “We thought Chad would be a swimmer but then he moved on to other sports.”

Chad Connor tackled many sports before his football career.  He started playing baseball in the third grade and basketball in sixth grade.  He enjoyed the sports at the time, but quit them both in eighth grade.

“I got bored of baseball and hated the politics of the game,” Chad Connor said. “In that age group, parents were the coaches and only played their sons in the game.  It was time to move on.”

Chad Connor did move on; he decided to try out for a sport he had never played on a team.  He remembered the day that he told his parents that he wanted to play football in high school.

“They didn’t know until I told them that I was doing football in high school,” Chad Connor said. “They were going to fight me to the nail about it because they tried to prevent me from playing contact sports my whole life.”

“My husband and I were thrilled when he did swimming, baseball, basketball and drama,” Nancy Connor explained, “but when he came up to us and said ‘I’m going to play football’ we were both confused and just asked ‘why?'”

Nancy explained how she thought that Chad was safe from contact sports, but when he became interested in football she got worried because she was unsure of the safety of the sport for Chad’s condition.

“My parents were still worried that the stroke will come back to haunt me,” Chad Connor said. “They were nervous that something else would happen to me.”

Although his parents disagreed with Chad, they let him play after going to doctors and getting enough tests done to clear him to play.  So in his freshman year of high school at Curtis, he sat on the bench in his uniform, ready to take on any challenges.

Though Chad Connor did not get playing time his first year, he lifted weights with the varsity team during the off season to prepare for the next fall.  The varsity coach saw him bench press 250 lbs as a freshman and told Chad that he wanted him on the varsity team from that point on.

In high school he played on the offensive line as center, tackle and guard.  His mother proudly pointed out that he won a few awards and even became the varsity captain his junior and senior year.

“Chad is a very motivated football player, student and individual,” Nancy Connor said. “He cheered louder than the cheerleaders.”

When it came time to look for colleges, Chad Connor looked for schools that offered him scholarships or grants to play football, and Marist offered the highest grant of $20,000 a year.

Chad Connor is currently an offensive lineman for the Red Foxes and sports the number 60 on his red jersey.  He and his family are very proud of his accomplishments.

“When Chad was younger, one doctor came up to me and said ‘I’m sorry Mom, he could be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life'” Nancy said. “And I told him, ‘You’re gonna eat your words.'”

Chad Connor had never been in a wheelchair in his life.  His health condition has not stopped Connor from playing football or any other sport.  As Connor laid on the couch in the Midrise 208 common room, he told us about how he sprained his ankle, which was accessorized by a bag of ice, while playing basketball with some friends.  Ironically, football was not the sport that caused him injury like his parents feared.

Chad Connor is not only an athlete; he has many other interests to add to his profile besides sports.  In fact, he enjoys theatre and the performing arts.  He became interested in the performing arts in the sixth grade at Intermediate School 61 in Staten Island.  His school had a “magnet program,” which introduced students to the variety of creative outlets available.  He chose drama and dance as his fields of study for the program and participated in many musical productions as a villain because of his tall stature and typecast appearance for the parts.  His acting career, however, is not limited to the Intermediate School 61 stage.

“I played an abused child on Law and Order when I was 2 or 3,” Chad Connor said. “That’s the extent of my professional acting career.”

Connor enjoys theatre almost as much as football.  He is an avid New England Patriots football fan who has also seen The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway eight times.

“I saw Phantom for the first time with the original cast and I absolutely adored it,” Connor said.  “I have gone seven times after that.  If I didn’t play football I definitely would have continued with the performing arts.”

Chad Connor is a psychology/special education major and plans on teaching at the elementary level and coach football for the high school level when he graduates from Marist in 2011.

“We were afraid to let Chad play contact sports,” Nancy Connor said.  “He overcame such challenges and had such determination that we just had to let him go.  Now he’s healthy and happy and doing what he loves best.”

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