Editor's Note: An updated version of this article appears as the cover story for the April edition of Lacrosse Magazine, also available as a digital edition. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse to start your subscription today.
Beneath the Scars, the Face of High Point Lacrosse
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.
McKemey lost nearly all of his skin in a matter of minutes Dec. 21, 2008, when a propane tank exploded as he tried to ignite an outdoor fireplace at his family's 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 McKemey 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 rehabilitation facility closer to home, where he learned to walk, tie his shoes and button his clothes. The following month, he walked across the stage at his eighth-grade graduation.
By July 2009, just seven months after the fire, McKemey was playing competitive lacrosse again. Before he strapped on his equipment for the first time — he had to cut a hole in his left glove because he was missing portions of his thumb and index 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.
Jon Torpey was still the assistant coach at Dartmouth, but recruiting to build a brand new team at High Point, when he first read McKemey's survival story. At age 32, Torpey was set to become one of the youngest head coaches in the dog-eat-dog world of NCAA Division I men's lacrosse. He had 28 recruits scheduled to visit campus in March 2011 when an administrator handed him a copy of that month's Lacrosse Magazine with McKemey on the cover.
"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 that he said those words 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 really was off the cuff," McKemey said. "My dream was always to play Division I lacrosse, from the moment I picked up a stick. It was a new team and the one closest to me. It just gave me something to shoot for."
McKemey did know that he wanted to share his story with as many people as possible. He planned to major in mass communications and become a motivational speaker.
Torpey tracked down McKemey through High Point's admissions department and a guidance counselor at Fort Mill (S.C.) High School, 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 reconstructive surgeries McKemey has had since the fire.
None of that mattered to McKemey, who would become a three-time all-conference midfielder and defenseman at Fort Mill.
"His mom calls him a Labrador retriever. You roll a ball out, and he's chasing it for eight hours," Torpey said. "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 grew to 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 a Division I talent.
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."
McKemey feeds Dan Murray for an assist and then scores in a Jan. 16 scrimmage against Catawba. (HPU)
'I JUST HAD TO PICK UP A STICK AND PLAY'
McKemey arrived at High Point as a freshman in the fall of 2013. Torpey had carved out a role for him as the team's manager, filming practices and games and occasionally participating in pre-game walk-throughs as a member of the scout team that mimics upcoming opponents.
Since team managers come and go, McKemey decided to address the players in their first meeting to let them know just how much the opportunity meant to him. A group of them invited him to lunch afterward, a gesture of acceptance.
"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 would tap the plaque on their way out of the locker room, a reminder to take nothing for granted. McKemey felt honored to be a part of the team in this way, but he also felt incomplete. He started playing for High Point's 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. They talked afterward about how McKemey could improve, and it got them both thinking about the possibility of him suiting up for High Point's varsity team in 2016.
McKemey, Torpey and assistant coaches 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 Panthers on the field 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. I love that chip-on-your-shoulder mentality where you've got something to prove. It's just another test, seeing how far I could push this."
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."
McKemey said it was the hardest speech or interview he ever has had to give, after which his teammates roared their approval.
"They're all cheering and hollering. You know, everybody bring it in. Gave me a big hug. It was such a cool experience. It's one of those days I'm not going to forget," McKemey said. "And it really helped me all summer, when you're having a bad day or not feeling right, just thinking about how much those guys love me, how much they wanted to see me go and achieve my dream. It helped me push day in and day out."
AN UNBREAKABLE BOND
McKemey lost 50 pounds over the 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 demanding drills.
"The moment the pads go on, I'm just there. I'm in the moment. I'm living in it," McKemey said. "Especially now, I'm living out my dream. It's very hard for me to stop. I have that mentality that you never know if it's your last day, so when you're out there, you don't want to stop, no matter how much the pain is or whatever the circumstances are, because tomorrow is never guaranteed."
Torpey cringed at a recent practice when two defenders closed in on McKemey as he caught a high fading pass during a clearing drill — the kind of pass 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.
"One of the guys on the sideline said, 'How'd you know to throw it to that guy?' And he goes, 'I was in there the play before and I got killed. When I was down on the ground, I looked up and saw that guy was open. So the next time I got it, I said I'm just going to throw it right to that spot,'" Torpey said. "He can hold his own. Is he going to be a prime-time player for us? No. But if we're in a situation where we've got the ability to put him in, we'll definitely do that, and I do not think there will be that big of a dropoff."
That opportunity likely won't come for a few weeks. High Point opens the season Friday at No. 3-ranked Duke, followed by its home opener against Boston University and then games at No. 4 Maryland and at No. 9 Virginia. The Panthers, led by two-time All-American attackman Dan Lomas, made their first NCAA tournament appearance in 2015 and had Towson on the ropes early before falling in the first round.
McKemey, listed on High Point's 2016 roster as an attackman, did play in a preseason scrimmage Jan. 16 against Catawba. He scored two goals, after which he ran to the bench to hug Torpey and his teammates. Both McKemey and Torpey called it the best moment they have ever experienced on a lacrosse field.
"That article started a relationship with Connor McKemey 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."
Lacrosse Magazine writer Jeremy Stafford contributed to this article.
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