Ohio State still honoring Connor Senn
Sometimes the people who have the most to offer are with us a relatively short time. And when you attempt to measure their lives, the equation is always this: Their lasting impact is exponentially greater than the years they spent making it.
That's why any young man who comes to Ohio State to play soccer this year, or 10 years, or 20 years, or 30 years from now -- or more -- will know about Connor Senn.
A decade ago, the country was still shocked and in mourning after the events of Sept. 11. Two weeks after that, though, the family, friends, fans, teammates and peers of Senn went through their own tragedy.
Connor was a freshman walk-on who surprised everyone -- except probably himself -- by quickly working his way into the Buckeyes' starting lineup. A defender whose passion for the game had already opened the eyes of his teammates, he was hyper-competitive while still being a down-to-earth and happy-go-lucky person.
On Sept. 26, 2001, he and the Buckeyes were playing a match at Akron when Connor slumped to the ground.
"I was at the other end of the field, but I could tell from the panic around him that it might be bad," Connor's father, Lance Senn, remembered. "I went out there; it looked like he wasn't moving at all. I didn't get a pulse. It's a difficult thing when you're doing CPR on your son."
Connor died at the age of 18, a victim of a heart abnormality that at the time was essentially undetectable. It is similar to that which killed basketball legend Pete Maravich, then 40, while he was playing a pickup hoops game in 1988.
Connor appeared in just a handful of matches at Ohio State, yet his spirit remains strong in the program. No matter that all these years have passed, or that today's college players were still children when Connor was in school there. In a way, he will be every subsequent Buckeye's teammate.
"Right from the start, even before kids commit to us, they've already heard the story about Connor," Ohio State coach John Bluem said. "Anybody that we recruit who comes on a visit, they learn about him on that trip.
"They've seen the tree that's been planted in his honor, the plaque in the stadium, the things we have for him in the locker room. That history is part of the culture of Ohio State soccer. It does nothing but enhance what our program has to offer: People see that kind of care and concern, and what we've done after that tragic event."
Each spring, the program plays the Connor Senn Memorial match. It's raised enough money to both endow a scholarship in Connor's name and now partner with Ohio State Medical Center's Dorothy M. Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute.
"We're at the 10th anniversary of Connor's death, and we've come an amazing way in the last 10 years," said Dr. Peter Mohler, a researcher at Davis. "We've advanced in our understanding of diagnostic tools, drugs, and ways we can use [combinations of methods] to test not only athletes but children who also have the same issues.
"Our aim is to use the funds generated from this partnership for research so one day, athletes and their families like Connor's don't have to go through this again."
Before attending dental school, Lance Senn played tennis at Ohio State in the early 1970s.
"The prehistoric days of wooden rackets," he said. "I was pretty intense back then. Connor was an intense competitor, too, but I was a lot more vocal. More a bad-behavior, John McEnroe type. Connor wasn't like that. He was just a good kid."
Lance's goal, still, is getting through a conversation reflecting on his son's life without crying. The more you hear about Connor, the harder you realize that must be.
Born in Granville, Ohio, Connor was the youngest of three siblings, and soccer was his great love. But he was able to balance his drive to win with his natural cheerfulness and generous spirit. Those who knew him said he didn't have bad days.
We're at the 10th anniversary of Connor's death, and we've come an amazing way in the last 10 years. We've advanced in our understanding of diagnostic tools, drugs, and ways we can use [combinations of methods] to test not only athletes but children who also have the same issues.
--Dr. Peter Mohler
And, certainly, he never had lazy days on the soccer field. A lot of people give their all to college sports. But Connor seemed to have more "all" to give than most.
"He was a kid with great values," Bluem said. "For recipients of the scholarship named after him, I look for someone in whom I see the qualities of Connor. The sportsmanship, the ethical approach to life, the great spirit and friendliness he had."
In the dark days after Connor died, his loved ones were devastated by grief. Dave Tumbas, a family friend who went to the school to retrieve Connor's possessions, became instrumental in helping establish the memorial effort.
"Dave heard one of the other freshman players say something like, 'Let's play like Connor today,'" Lance said. "And that's been kind of the motto of this whole thing. Dave is such a giving, organizer-type guy -- whatever he sets his sights on, he gets done.
"There's been a lot of work by many people, including Coach Bluem. The spring after Connor died, we had the first memorial game. We got the scholarship fully funded, and that's when we started to think about what comes next in this? The important thing, I thought, was let's look at research, see how much testing costs," he said.
"I was kind of put off at first by some people who said that trying to find athletes predisposed to these conditions was like looking for a needle in a haystack. But once we met the researchers, themselves, they were so excited about what they were doing."
Indeed, optimism radiates from Mohler. Yet, he's also realistic: A researcher who knows the awe-inspiring amount of discovery we humans still must do in regard to our own physical makeup. It's an on-going exploration of ourselves.
Mohler was 17 when Loyola Marymount hoops star Hank Gathers collapsed on court and died in 1990 at age 23. Gathers had been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat but reportedly was not really aware that his situation was life-threatening.
Mohler played basketball as a kid growing up in Colorado, and Gathers' death resonated with him. He knew even as an early adolescent that his future was in science.
"With Connor, it's a story of a father seeing his son die on the field, and it just breaks your heart," Mohler said. "It makes you say, 'We can do something about this.' We've got a group of families involved, a soccer program that's passionate about it, an athletic department that wants to make things happen. And when you put that with scientists and clinicians where that's their passion as well, you can make a big difference.
"Someone like Connor -- everyone in the area knew him, he had a large group of friends. That put a face on this issue."
Sadly, there are several faces for sudden, cardiac-related death in the sports world. Just a very few are former Boston Celtic Reggie Lewis, Sergei Grinkov of the golden figure skating duo Gordeeva and Grinkov and Army women's basketball coach Maggie Dixon. All were in their late 20s when they died of various heart defects despite appearing outwardly healthy.
Connor Senn was even younger, at 18. Children and infants fall victim, too. It may seem like an unsolvable nightmare that, with little or no warning, strikes out of the blue and cuts down people either before they reach the prime of their lives or just after they've arrived there.
Mohler said there is not a lot of hard data available on the exact number of incidences of what's called sudden cardiac death (SCD) among college-aged athletes. However, he cited a report from researchers at the University of Washington who examined cases among NCAA student-athletes from January 2004 to December 2008 that were thought to be SCD.
The report estimates that of 273 deaths in that period, 45 were linked to SCD. The report thus concluded this: SCD is the leading medical cause of death, and current methods of data collection actually underestimate the risk of SCD for college athletes.
But as frightening as they are, these heart issues actually do have powerful adversaries -- centers such as OSU's Davis Institute -- that are gaining ground on the killers.
Mohler said when athletes die suddenly of heart-related issues, those issues typically fit along a spectrum that may include two general areas: electrical dysfunction and/or structural abnormalities.
He explained that the things that happened to Connor were harder to detect 10 years ago. Now, there is a better understanding of the genetics, plus improved and more cost-effective imaging modalities. They can detect issues with cardiac structure as well as potential problems with cardiac electrical activity resulting in susceptibility to arrhythmias.
"We are aware more about family history, and medications that predispose athletes to certain types of heart defects," he said. "We are not saying we understand everything now, but we want to bring more spotlight on where we have been in the last 10 years. For each [type of cardiac disease] you're going to have different therapies. Some will involve putting a patient on a different type of drug, some will involve a pacemaker."
And going hand-in-hand with the research improvements is the progress toward lowering the costs of screening tests to identify athletes with a potentially high risk of heart issues.
"People once thought it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to sequence the genes of individuals," Mohler said. "Now, these are very simple technologies that are on the level of $300-$400 per patient to find out if there are susceptibility markers. And the imaging costs have gone down, too.
"We're not where we need to be as far as having something [effective] people could do routinely with a high school physical. But we're getting closer."
What if athletes were tested and found to be at risk? Would their athletic careers be over? Or seriously limited?
"That's one of the myths we want to get at," Mohler said. "There are a lot of kids that have had a positive gene test that they may be susceptible to [heart disease]. But that doesn't mean they need to sit around in their rooms and play PlayStation.
"[Many] can still be out on the field. We have an educational symposium that goes along with Connor's [memorial] match to talk to trainers, coaches and parents about what it means to have one of these conditions. There are ways you can still compete in sports. There are some exceptions, of course, that would limit activity. But for the most part, a lot of these conditions are manageable, and that's the word we want to put forward."
That and "hope" -- because there is definitely that. And also "help" -- because researchers need fund-raising.
"We hope, through this symposium that will go on in May, that we'll bring more researchers in and be a source of information for everyone," Lance Senn said. "That's our goal. Also what we want to happen is that we can tap into more major fund-raisers."
The rest of the 2001 season after Connor died, Bluem said there was a kind of emptiness on the team. Gradually, though, the Buckeyes pulled themselves together and earned an NCAA tournament berth. "Play like Connor today" became the program's mantra then. And it still is.
Bluem, now in his 15th season at Ohio State, has led the Buckeyes to the NCAA tournament eight times, including the past four years in a row. In 2007, they advanced to the College Cup and were national runners-up to Wake Forest.
The 2011 squad is 5-3-1 and is coming off back-to-back games against teams that were in the College Cup last year. OSU lost 1-0 to Louisville on Wednesday, then defeated archrival Michigan 3-2 in overtime Sunday.
A victory against the Wolverines would most assuredly have pleased Connor. And so would the fact a great many people have worked on a noble cause inspired by his life.
"I think he'd be happy," Bluem said. "Probably he is happy, looking down on us and seeing what we're doing to carry on his memory and his tradition. I'm sure he would be part of this and helping in any way he could if it had happened to somebody else."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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