No Limits

Jeremy Stafford

Engulfed in flames two years ago, Connor McKemey’s comeback has inspired the lacrosse community.

The circumstances surrounding Connor McKemey’s accident on Dec. 21, 2008, are largely a mystery.

McKemey’s father, George, knows it was an especially blustery day, but can recount little else — he was on his way home from a 10-month stint in Iraq.

Connor — then an eighth grader excelling in football, basketball and lacrosse — remembers only brief moments of the incident: the ball of fire which ballooned from the McKemeys’ outdoor fireplace; the searing flames which enveloped him; the back of an ambulance.

McKemey’s mother, Karin, leapt out of a ground-floor window to put out her stumbling son. A neighbor, incidentally a firefighter, heard the explosion and smothered Connor with wet towels.

“They just wanted him kept alive long enough for George to make it back from Iraq,” said Karin McKemey, who was burned on her face, hands and legs.

When George McKemey met his family at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., he found Connor on a ventilator and with third-degree burns on 87 percent of his body. Doctors would induce a 10- week coma. After that, perhaps 15 months of recuperation lay ahead.

“They gave us very little hope things would ever be ‘normal’ again,” Karin said.

But Connor was alive. Doctors woke him up Feb. 10, 2009, and removed the ventilator a week later.

Continuing with lacrosse, of course, was out of the question. Connor’s body had become brittle. Portions of his left hand’s thumb and index fingers were gone and his middle finger was fused perpendicular to the palm. His once robust 170-pound frame had dwindled to 130 pounds.Moreover, doctors feared he lacked the ability to sweat.

No — Connor’s days as an athlete were finished.

“That was not what he was gonna hear,” George McKemey said. “We just don’t place any limits on him.”

As for the recovery, Connor again recollects only photographic instances: his room was stuffed full of balloons on Valentine’s Day; a picture taken of him and his friends at a lacrosse tournament.

“I wanted to be back out there with them,” he said. “That motivated me to get back out there on the field at a time when I didn’t think I’d be able to play.”

By March, Connor was walking again.He spent only four months in Augusta, then another month at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, N.C., although he has had numerous procedures on his skin.

During that time, Virginia men’s coach Dom Starsia offered McKemey his support following a win over Syracuse.Bill Tierney, then the coach at Princeton, had the Tigers dedicate a game to Connor.

When Connor finally returned to his home in Tega Cay, S.C., he picked up his lacrosse stick and realized that, with those missing digits on his left hand, he couldn’t hold a stick the way he used to.

“I wanted it to go back to the way it was before the accident,” he said.

He cut a hole in his glove so that his middle finger stuck out of it, and seven months after the fire, Connor was playing competitive lacrosse again. A year later as a freshman attackman at Fort Mill High, Connor led his JV team in goals and assists.

But between his makeshift glove and problems running due to the loss of several toes and the fusing of others, Connor was not yet reaching his potential on the field.

During the recovery, Karin corresponded with Steve Stenersen, president and CEO of US Lacrosse.Stenersen contacted Warrior Lacrosse product manager Tom Burns, who began work on a custom glove for Connor.

Burns and McKemey exchanged measurements, prototypes and feedback throughout last year. Burns developed a Glove with a nub in the index finger and a stretch-spandex nylon in the middle finger, allowing Connor to slip his fused finger easily into the glove.

Last summer, he snapped the big toe off his right foot while kicking a ball on the football field. His skin integrity is not what it was, so the toe fractured and came off.

Connor figured the injury wasn’t too big a deal, that doctors could simply stitch the toe back into place. And they did, with a long pin. But that meant no lacrosse in the summer, something for which Connor would not stand.

He pulled the pin out himself.

“He said, ‘The toe is coming off on my terms, and I’d rather lose it on a lacrosse field,’” Karin McKemey said.

“George and I were beside ourselves.” George told New Balance, a partner of Warrior, about the toe, and the company produced and delivered in October a modified cleat that better protected and supported Connor’s feet.His running problems were solved.

“When there’s a special need in lacrosse, we do everything we can to help those kids out,” Burns said.“They don’t want to put the stick down, and we love that about them.”

Stenersen also contacted Matty Wagner, a lacrosse player who thrived in high school and college despite losing four fingers on his left hand in an accident several years ago. US Lacrosse arranged custom gloves through Warrior for Wagner, now a real estate agent in California, and set up a meeting between Wagner and Connor. Wagner often meets with amputees to encourage them to persevere in the face of adversity.

“I know how much help I got,” Wagner wrote in an e-mail to US Lacrosse. “The rewards are beyond belief.”

Connor’s recovery likewise seems beyond belief. He’ll move to defense this season for the Fort Mill varsity.

“It’s his will and strength that put him in this position,” Stenersen said. “It’s a great story in lacrosse, but it’s far more than a lacrosse story.”

Connor hopes to play lacrosse at High Point University, a dream he said he couldn’t have without the support of the lacrosse community.

“I played football and basketball, and I haven’t had the relationships I have when I play lacrosse,” Connor said.“When you play with somebody for a while, you become so close, and I haven’t experienced that in any other sport.”