Connor Cosgrove wasn’t exactly sure what was happening.
He was in a secluded hospital room as nurses and doctors buzzed frantically around him. Only hours earlier, he’d given blood. He went to class, felt fine. Came home for a brief nap and found a series of text messages and voicemails waiting for him, calmly pleading for him to get to the emergency room right away.
And here he was, staying calm while others around him were flustered and busy.
“It’s mono,” he thought. “My mono has returned.”
Doctors briefly spoke with Connor, asked him if he was OK and then told him they were going to move him to another space in the hospital to continue tests. He agreed, still not understanding, but definitely not panicking.
The numbers on the elevator steadily ticked up until it stopped at the fifth floor. The doors opened and Connor’s heart sank. The floor was populated with children, varying in ages, some smiling, some attached to machines and almost all bald.
Connor, 19-year-old receiver at the University of Minnesota, was being admitted as a pediatric oncology patient to the university’s Amplatz Children’s Hospital, and his life was about to change forever.
Five years later, and 16 months free of the acute lymphoblastic leukemia that ravaged his body, Connor Cosgrove is turning the worst experience of his young life into a positive one. Earlier this month, Connor and his brother, Clint, created a Kickstarter page in an effort to raise money to bring comfortable clothing to patients going through the discomfort of chemotherapy.
The clothing line is called ComfPort and it combines style and comfort with functionality. The T-shirts have a pocket that unbuttons and gives unfettered access to a cancer patient’s port, the surgically planted catheter that connects to a main vein and is used to distribute chemotherapy drugs and draw blood.
“So, so many cancer patients, so many sicknesses, actually, involve a patient receiving a port in their chest,” Connor told Yahoo Sports. “During my first chemotherapy, the first thing I immediately noticed was how uncomfortable it was obviously to be receiving chemo, but also because I had to take my shirt off at least to get this port accessed. And when I put my shirt back on, the IV line was being pulled side to side by my movement because the shirt would clamp onto it. Immediately it was a problem that I wanted to fix.”
Connor said part of the reason for starting the venture was because he felt like cancer had stripped away his identity and he didn’t want others to feel the same way.
“For me, a big part of my identity has always been the way that I dressed, and for so many people fashion is a huge part of their identity and cancer takes so much of your identity away from you already, we wanted to find a way where people could keep a piece of their identity while also having the ease of access for treatments and the ability to be comfortable,” Connor said. “Everyone should be comfortable. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, but especially when you’re fighting cancer. So, we built a shirt that we would wear outside of the hospital. We didn’t want people to feel like they had to dress different just for the sake of getting treatment.”
"It’s denial at first …”
Connor and his father, Kevin Cosgrove, the defensive coordinator at the University of New Mexico, tell nearly identical stories about the way the family found out about Connor’s diagnosis.
Connor, Kevin and Connor’s mother, Michelle, were in a sterile, private hospital room when doctors broke the news. At first there was shock, then anger and denial, Kevin said, and finally acceptance. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a pediatric form of blood cell cancer, was not common in patients Connor’s age. In fact, Connor’s age actually put him at a higher risk than younger patients with a similar disease and consequently, he started his chemotherapy the same day as his diagnosis.
“I remember looking at his face and the sadness,” Kevin Cosgrove said. “When you find out you have cancer, the initial impact is unbelievable, you know, how it hit us. You know, it’s denial first, naturally, and all of a sudden it’s an acceptance. And I remember the first thing Connor and I said to each other, ‘Connor, we’re gonna kick its ass.’ And that’s what we did. From that moment forward, there was never any doubt in his mind, there was never any doubt in my mind, his mother’s mind, we knew he was gonna beat cancer. No negative thoughts every entered any of our minds.”
Kevin, who was the defensive coordinator at Minnesota when Connor was diagnosed in 2010, laments the times he saw his son, a walk-on receiver for the Golden Gophers, drop passes he normally caught because of tingling in his hands. He laments ignoring Connor’s complaints of ongoing headaches. Similarly, Connor looks back at the many nights he awoke three or four times so drenched in sweat that he had to change his clothes and sleep on towels just to get through the night. He remembers the fevers that would come and go without warning that would never respond to over-the-counter meds. He remembers ignoring all the warning signs, toughing it out in a way only the son of a coach knows how to do, all the while trying to live out the dream of playing on the same team for which his father coached.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; that was a dream my whole life,” Connor said. “I just ignored the symptoms for a really long time. I thought it was stress or it could be any number of things. I had just gotten over mono. Fevers would come and go, night sweats, little aches and pains and all that on its own didn’t seem like much to me, but after a while it kind of accumulated into a big thing to where I wanted to bring it up to our team doctor. And it was her idea to get blood work done. And so on the Monday after our second game, I went in in the morning, got my blood work done.
“It was me and my mom and my dad [when the diagnosis came] and they both, of course, were trying to be strong for me, but the whole time I can imagine it’s one of the most helpless feelings in the world hearing that your child has cancer and that you know there’s nothing you can do to help them. It’s up to the doctors to save your child, it’s up to your child to fight.
“From that moment on, it put me into a fight mode and a survivor mode that I definitely didn’t know that I had. I think when you’re put into a hard situation like that, the only thing you can do is fight. My parents raised me to be able to fight and little did I know they raised me to be able to fight for my life.”
For males, the treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia lasts three and a half years. During that span, Connor underwent countless hours of chemotherapy, more than 50 spinal taps, IV treatments, blood draws and more humbling, crippling experiences than he cares to remember.
“In the first four weeks I lost 40 pounds,” Connor recalls. “Some of the drugs ate at my muscle mass. There were nights where my dad would have to carry me up the stairs because I couldn’t get up the stairs. That went on for 10 months where it was a constant cycle where my body was being torn down and slowly trying to recover and torn down again.”
Finding family in an unfamiliar place
Shortly after Connor was diagnosed, Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster was fired and his staff was pushed out the door with him. The volatility of being employed as a football coach was nothing new to the Cosgrove family, but this time it was different. Kevin needed to work because his son needed the insurance to keep up his treatments that were, in some cases, five doses of chemo a week. His hope was to be reinstated at Minnesota with new coach Jerry Kill, who was a friend. But Kill’s staff had been with him for several years and that was the way it was going to stay. In February, Kevin was hired at Akron and he had to leave his son in order to support the family.
“His mother was with him during all the major treatments when he was in the hospital for days at a time getting mega doses of chemo,” Kevin said. “She was always with him. And any treatment that he had, she was with him. She didn’t come with me to Akron until the end of July or right around that time. But still, during his weekly treatments, she was back with him all the time. She never missed a treatment.
“We were on the phone every day and any opportunity I had to be with him, I was there too. So there were some hard times ... there were some hard times, but you gotta have faith. If you have faith, you can overcome a lot of things.”
Connor was angry the school had fired his father while he was battling for his life. He couldn’t go to class anymore. His dream of playing football was over. He spent a lot of time angry, frustrated and wondering what was next. Kill had seen this before; he’d lived it. In 2005, Kill was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and prior to that, he’d suffered unexplained seizures that he continues to battle to this day. He brought Connor back into the Minnesota football fold because he knew the worst thing that you could do to someone fighting for their life is to take away their identity, their dream.
“I think between the seizures and cancer, I think that definitely was good for us to be able to talk about those kind of things,” Kill told Yahoo Sports about supporting Connor. “I think in some ways we kind of helped each other out. As far as our relationship, he dealt with something a lot tougher than I did, but at the same time, I could kind of understand where his mind was and so forth.”
When Connor was well enough, he was with the team. He spoke to the players about his illness and his drive and his perseverance. Connor became an inspiration and Kill liked having him around because his positive attitude brought brightness to football building.
In 2013, Connor won the National Football Foundation’s Courage Award, and in 2014, Connor Cosgrove beat cancer.
“When I was away, I knew that he had a great support staff at the University of Minnesota with coach Kill,” Kevin said. “I felt confident and Jerry was unbelievable with Connor. How he took care of him and his teammates accepted him. And in turn, he did a lot for the team with just speaking and motivational things. But coach Kill was unbelievable with him. And as a parent, it was great to know that the head football coach at the University of Minnesota was taking care of your son. Jerry knew that I was away and he kind of became a father figure to him.”
"I’m slowly reclaiming my life”
Even though Connor initially wasn’t a big fan of being placed on a hospital floor with children, he slowly warmed up to the idea. Kevin describes moments when Connor would shake off whatever pain he was feeling at the time to put on a positive face for a younger patient to make sure that child had a good day.
It was the children that inspired Connor’s idea for ComfPort. When he called Clint with the idea, he had pediatric patients in mind. That’s why the two decided to do a one-for-one on all their pledges through Kickstarter. If a backer gives $50, that person not only gets a shirt, but a young cancer patient gets one as well.
“Early in the process he talked about helping other patients and kids with cancer,” Kevin said. “That’s what he wanted to do. And he certainly had ideas and he acted on his ideas when his treatments were done and he was cancer-free. That was his attitude all the way. He’s got a great personality, he’s very outgoing and he would bring smiles to little kids, even older kids, because he was so positive in everything he did.”
The ComfPort Kickstarter page has a goal of $30,000. Connor, who will graduate from Minnesota in May with a degree in business and marketing, said that’s enough seed money to start a website and place the first bulk order.
It’s been a long, tumultuous road to this place, but Connor said he wouldn’t change the way it went. The sickness, the weakness, the anger and the frustration all became motivating factors to get him to this point.
“It’s changed my perspective on life, it has,” he said. “It’s kind of changed my personality type. It changed my values extremely. With this clothing line, I just think about our goal is to help people, and to help a group of people that I might have never felt the need to do this had I not been sick. And so for that reason alone, knowing that we can help people and make their lives more comfortable, it will always have been worth it to have gone through what I went through. It’s been such a gift in so many ways. And it’s just given me a passion for living that I didn’t know I could ever have. Fortunately for me, not a lot of people get the different perspective that I have on life.
“I’m slowly reclaiming my life. It’s a long process and it’s a scary thing because you’re a totally different person on the other end of this than you were at the beginning.”
The word “proud” is one that Kevin, Clint and Kill all used to describe Connor. Clint, who is nearly nine years older than his brother, said collaborating on the ComfPort project has bonded the brothers in a way that might not have happened otherwise.
“For Connor, I think this is something where he can really dedicate his life, if we can really make this work, he can dedicate his life to this cause, and also make it his career,” Clint said. “And I think that’d be amazing for him because it’s something he’s passionate about, he can help other people. So right now, I’d say the end goal is definitely make a career out of it and help people. For me, it’s to be as supportive as possible, help make the dream come true and just kind of take it as it goes.”
Kevin said the past five years have changed the Cosgrove family in ways he can barely describe. The family was always close, but priorities have changed. When you go through a life-challenging experience, perspectives are sharpened and Kevin has seen his youngest son grow in ways he could have never imagined.
“He had to grow up fast,” Kevin said. “When you’re in a battle for your life, you have to grow up fast. But it can’t all be negative. You have to learn from it, you have to build some positive things from it. And that’s what Connor did.”
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