This year marks the 25th anniversary of USA Lacrosse. To celebrate, we’re revisiting some of our favorite magazine stories of the USA Lacrosse era on the 25th of each month.
REPORT THE STORY, they say. Don’t become part of it.
But in the case of Connor McKemey, we are inextricably linked.
McKemey was a sophomore in high school when Jeremy Stafford first conveyed for a national audience the story of how he suffered third-degree burns on 90 percent of his body and nearly died when a propone tank exploded as he attempted to ignite an outdoor fireplace in his backyard.
Stafford’s reporting covered the accident, McKemey’s intensive care and recovery and the South Carolina kid’s undying love of lacrosse. The March 2011 cover story also showed how the lacrosse community rallied around McKemey, including manufacturers who designed custom gloves and cleats to accommodate his disfigured extremities and college coaches who demonstrated their support for the McKemey family.
Then-USA Lacrosse president and CEO Steve Stenersen also played a role in McKemey’s return to the sport, connecting him with industry leaders and remaining in touch with the family all the way through his high school career. But the connection did not end there.
High Point men’s lacrosse coach Jon Torpey read Stafford’s article, which mentioned that McKemey wanted to play in college, generally, and specifically for the Panthers.
Torpey invited McKemey to join the team as manager, a role he held for three years before he finally earned a roster spot — and another cover story — as a senior in 2016. McKemey appeared in three games that year. He went on to become an assistant coach and director of operations for High Point.
Now he’s a full-time motivational speaker, the CEO of his own company called Mac Mentality. He’s writing a book about his experiences. Most recently, McKemey was the guest of High Point president Nido Qubein on the PBS North Carolina show, “Side By Side.”
“If it wasn’t for you guys, our relationship with Connor would’ve never happened,” Torpey wrote in an email last week. “Always owe you and USA Lacrosse a huge debt of gratitude.”
How can you not love lacrosse?
By Jeremy Stafford
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, Georgia, he found Connor on a ventilator and with third-degree burns on 80 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 McKemey 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. McKemey’s body had become brittle. Portions of his left hands, 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 McKemey’s days as an athlete were finished.
“That was not what he was going to hear,” George McKemey said. “We just don't place any limits on him.”
As for the recovery, McKemey again recollects only photographic instances. His room stuffed full of balloons on Valentine's Day. A picture taken of him and his friends at a lacrosse tournament.
“I wanted to be out there with them,” he said. “That motivated me to get back there out on the field at a time when I didn't think I would be able to play.”
By March, McKemey was walking again. He spent only four months in Augusta, then another month at Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina. He 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 McKemey.
When McKemey finally returned to his home and Tega Cay, South Carolina, he picked up his lacrosse stick and realized that with those missing digits on his left hand, he couldn't hold the 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, McKemey was playing competitive lacrosse again. A year later, as a freshman attackman at Fort Mill High, McKemey 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, McKemey was not yet reaching his potential on the field.
During the recovery, Karin McKemey corresponded with Steve Stenersen, president and CEO of USA Lacrosse. Stenersen contacted Warrior Lacrosse product manager Tom Burns, who began work on a custom glove for McKemey.
Burns and McKemey exchanged measurements, prototypes and feedback. Throughout the last year, Burns developed the glove with a knob in the index finger and a stretch spandex nylon in the middle finger, allowing McKemey 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.
McKemey 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 McKemey 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 McKemey told New Balance, which owns Warrior, about the toe. 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 can 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. USA Lacrosse arranged custom gloves through Warrior for Wagner, now a real estate agent in California, and set up a meeting between Wagner and McKemey. 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 email to USA Lacrosse. “The rewards are beyond belief.”
McKemey’s recovery likewise seems beyond belief. He'll move to defense this season for the Fort Mill varsity team.
“It's his will and strength that put him in that position,” Stenersen said. “it's a great story in lacrosse, but it's far more than a lacrosse story.”
McKemey 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,” McKemey said. “When you play with somebody for a while, you become so close, and I haven't experienced that in any other sport.”
THE VIEW FROM ABOVE
By Jeremy Stafford
BEING SO HIGH UP, IT CAN GET PRETTY COLD, especially early in the lacrosse season. But mostly, it’s just lonely. Connor McKemey can spend an entire game in a packed stadium and still feel secluded. Distant.
But this is what McKemey, a freshman at High Point, signed up for. As the team manager, he stands atop a stadium’s bleachers or in the press box and films High Point’s lacrosse games.
The view gives McKemey a different perspective on the sport he’s spent most of his life playing. Now he can see all the big-picture stuff he couldn’t see when he played defense at Fort Mill (S.C.) High.
“It helps me understand more concepts of lacrosse,” McKemey said. “From where I am up top, you can see, if you made two or three more passes, what would happen.”
Five years ago, McKemey had a different sort of withdrawal.
In December of 2008, McKemey, then in eighth grade, was flipping logs in his family’s outdoor fireplace when a flurry of sparks popped and spewed and the fireplace exploded. Engulfed in flames, he suffered mostly third-degree burns on 90 percent of his body and nearly died.
The burns left thick scars. They made his bones brittle. McKemey wished he had never been in his yard flipping logs. He said he use to wish he could go back in time somehow and change everything.
Instead, he changed his perspective on life. He accepted the scars. Despite his brittle bones, he picked up a stick again.
Seven months after his injury, McKemey returned to the lacrosse field. He led his junior varsity lacrosse team in goals and assists, then spent the next three years playing defense for the Fort Mill varsity team.
In a March 2011 cover story for Lacrosse Magazine, McKemey said he hoped to attend High Point. Panthers coach Jon Torpey read that, reached out to McKemey and eventually asked him to join the Panthers as a team manager.
“I just fell in love with the kid,” Torpey said. “He has an awesome mentality — a mentality I want all my guys to have.”
A few days after McKemey moved onto campus, he met the team. He told them about the scars. They responded at first with curiosity. He was a marvel. But now they see him not as the guy who has survived an inferno, but as a member of the High Point Panthers.
“It’s kind of an escape,” McKemey said.
McKemey now considers the accident a blessing, giving him opportunities he otherwise would not have had. He hopes to get into coaching. During practices, he provides some of the Panthers with insights and instructions.
From his position way up in the stands, McKemey sees games the way few others can. After High Point’s season-opening loss to Delaware, McKemey told Torpey he thought the team was timid. Torpey said he was spot on.
McKemey also hopes to get into public speaking. In March, he will deliver a 35-minute speech at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center, the hospital where he resided as a patient.
“I have an incredible opportunity,” McKemey said. “Unfortunately, I had to go through what I had to go through. But now I wouldn’t change it. All the adversity I went through, it’s such a short amount of time in a long life.”
BENEATH THE SCARS
By Matt DaSilva
THE FACE OF HIGH POINT LACROSSE is burned and disfigured.
It took Connor McKemey a long time to love this version of himself. Pink and white blotches cover most of his face, reminders of the horrific backyard explosion in which he nearly died seven years ago. McKemey was 13 at the time. He first saw his reflection in the dark screen of his laptop while immobilized in a hospital bed at a burn center in Augusta, Ga. He immediately snapped it shut.
Now McKemey sees his scars as symbols of survival, rather than the wounds of a victim. He’s blunt, even funny when asked about the challenges he continues to face due to the accident that charred nearly 90 percent of his body.
“I can legitimately say that I have thin skin,” McKemey said.
That’s because his arms and legs are covered with synthetic skin that’s only four layers thick. Natural skin has seven layers.
On Dec. 21, 2008, a propane tank exploded as McKemey tried to light an outdoor fireplace at his home in Tega Cay, S.C. His mother, Karin, jumped out of a ground-floor window to put out the flames that engulfed her son. Their neighbor, a firefighter, rushed over to smother him in wet towels.
McKemey remembers only brief moments — the ball of fire, the seaming flames and the back of an ambulance — before waking up from a medically induced coma eight weeks later. At first, McKemey’s doctors wanted to keep him alive just long enough for his father, George, a U.S. Marine who was flying back from Iraq the day of the accident, to see him. They gave McKemey a 1-percent chance of survival.
Fifty-one days later, McKemey woke up. A week after that, he breathed without a ventilator. In May 2009, he moved to a rehab center closer to home. He learned to walk, tie his shoes and button his clothes. The following month, he walked across the stage at his eighth-grade graduation.
In July 2009, just seven months after the fire, McKemey played lacrosse again. Before he strapped on his equipment — he had to cut a hole in his left glove because he was missing portions of his fingers and his middle finger was fused perpendicular to his palm — he said something to his parents that now is emblazoned on a purple plaque in the High Point lacrosse locker room.
“Today is the best day,” McKemey said. “Today I play.”
SOMETHING TO SHOOT FOR
High Point coach Jon Torpey met McKemey after reading about him in the March 2011 edition of Lacrosse Magazine, the cover of which shows him hugging his mother, Karin. At age 32, Torpey was set to become one of the youngest head coaches in Division I. He had 28 recruits scheduled to visit campus when an administrator handed him a copy.
“Read this,” the administrator said. “Check out the last line.”
Torpey tucked the magazine away, then read the article later that night. Nine words would start a friendship extending well beyond player and coach.
Connor hopes to play lacrosse at High Point University.
McKemey admits today he said it in passing. He had driven through High Point’s campus once on his way home from surgery at the University of North Carolina. He liked what he saw, for sure. But what sophomore in high school — who doesn’t have early recruiters breathing down his neck — really knows where he wants to go to college?
“It just gave me something to shoot for,” McKemey said.
Torpey tracked down McKemey through High Point’s admissions department and a guidance counselor at Fort Mill (S.C.) High, then invited him to campus for a lacrosse clinic that summer. McKemey’s body does not regulate heat or cold very well. He bleeds easily. His feet, even with modified cleats, can only absorb so much pounding. The clinic came shortly after one of the more than 130 surgeries McKemey has had since the fire.
“His mom calls him a Labrador retriever. You roll a ball out, and he’s chasing it for eight hours,” Torpey said of McKemey, a three-time all-conference player at Fort Mill. “It was so hot out. He was literally passing out on the field.”
Torpey met with McKemey and his grandfather in the coach’s office afterward. McKemey was big — he actually grew two inches while hospitalized and eventually reached 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, about 100 pounds heavier than he was when he woke up from his coma — and he was skilled. But he wasn’t exactly Division I material.
Still, Torpey saw in McKemey the kind of person that could be a cornerstone of High Point lacrosse.
“When he first came into my office, you can’t help but not feel bad for the kid. He’s so scarred, and what he’s been through,” Torpey said. “But honest to God, over time, when he comes in here, I don’t even see the scars anymore. They’re not there. This guy is funny as hell, he wants to win as much as we do and he loves the sport. He’s one of us.”
HIS BEST DAYS
McKemey arrived at High Point as a freshman in the fall of 2013. Torpey carved out a role for him as the team’s manager, filming practices and games and occasionally participating in pre-game walk-throughs on the scout team.
Since team managers come and go, McKemey decided to address the players in their first meeting to tell his story and let them know just how much the opportunity meant to him.
“There’s not one kid on the team that doesn’t feel like he’s a part of something,” McKemey said. “There’s no grade difference. There’s no age difference. There’s no difference where you grew up or where you played. As long as you’re wearing the High Point gear, you’re loved just the same.”
Before home games, High Point players tap the plaque on their way out of the locker room. McKemey felt honored to be a part of the Panthers in this way, but he also felt incomplete. He started playing for the club team.
“I was around it so much,” he said. “I just had to pick up a stick and play.”
One afternoon last spring, Torpey was watching film in his office when he looked out his window and saw McKemey playing. It got them both thinking about him suiting up for High Point’s varsity team in 2016.
McKemey, Torpey and assistants Pat Tracy, Ron Garling and Ryan Cassidy met in Torpey’s office to discuss what McKemey would need to do over the summer to join the team in the fall.
“I’ve already been through the hardest thing I’ll ever have to face,” he said. “I put in a tremendous amount of work just to start walking and playing again. I love that grind.”
One obstacle remained. McKemey found himself again addressing the High Point players, again seeking their acceptance. He pointed to the plaque.
“I’m not really living my best days if I’m not out here playing,” he said. “When I’m having my bad days, be there to pick me up. And when you’re having your bad days, you know I’m always there for you.”
His teammates roared in approval.
AN UNBREAKABLE BOND
McKemey lost 50 pounds last summer to get back to his playing weight of 225. He trained so hard that he tore his labrum, battling the injury during the fall before deciding to get it fixed. What was one more surgery, anyway?
McKemey practices with the team on a limited basis Monday through Wednesday and then ramps up to full participation Thursday and Friday. Torpey tries to monitor his activity, especially in extreme weather and during physically taxing drills.
Torpey cringed at a practice when two defenders closed in on McKemey as he caught a high fading pass during a clearing drill — the kind of lob that normally gets you clobbered. But McKemey caught the ball and spun it to a teammate streaking down the field for a fast-break goal. He also scored two goals in a preseason scrimmage Jan. 16 against Catawba, after which he ran to the bench to hug Torpey.
“That article started a relationship that has grown into an unbreakable player-coach bond,” Torpey said in an email he sent to Lacrosse Magazine at 12:51 a.m. that night. “To say I love the young man would be an understatement.”
We made history together. Let’s ignite our future. Together.