Austin Conner’s eighth-grade year at school hasn’t gone as planned — not at all.
The 14-year-old had been playing football for the Colmer Middle School Panthers, looking forward to helping his team win the district championship.
He wore number 61 and his twin brother, Wyatt, wore number 60.
But both of them had to stop playing this year because of serious health issues.
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Wyatt, who had open-heart surgery after birth, had a second surgery over the summer and can’t play contact sports anymore.
And just three months later, Austin was diagnosed with leukemia.
He hadn’t been feeling well, but with football season in full swing, he kept going to school, practicing and playing games. He’s the type of kid “who shows up and gives it everything he’s got,” said Brett Merrill, his football coach.
“Before being diagnosed, he battled being sick, but that never stopped him from showing up and giving 100 percent to his team.”
Austin played until his diagnosis on Oct. 10, 2018. Leukemia is a cancer of the blood or bone marrow. In Austin’s case, the cancer has moved into his bone marrow.
Learning he has leukemia was “news that you are never prepared to hear,” said his mother, Christina Conner.
The football team dedicated the rest of the season to him, and went on to win the championship while continuing to give Austin moral support.
“I truly feel like their support is what got him through the first two weeks of treatment,” Conner said.
Wyatt spent the first 10 days with Austin at the hospital because they couldn’t bear to be apart.
The twins are more alike than not, said their mother. They love the same things — hunting, fishing, football, boating and spending time together.
They grew up knowing Wyatt would eventually need a second open-heart surgery. But they never predicted cancer.
‘No one fights alone’
Leukemia can cause persistent fatigue that makes patients feel physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Add to that chemotherapy and other forms of treatment, and it can be debilitating.
Austin’s teammates have done much to boost his spirits, his mother said. They signed his helmet and gave it to him and have let him know he’s not alone.
Keilon Parnell, team quarterback, came up with a T-shirt that says “In this family, no one fights alone. Tackle Leukemia For Austin.”
“He loves Austin,” said Keilon’s mother, Anita Parnell. “When he found out Austin has cancer, he said, ‘Mama, we got to do something for my brother.’”
Keilon wore his T-shirt under his jersey the remainder of football season.
Classmates used markers to write “#61” on their arms.
Team members, the school, friends and even strangers started fundraisers. They sold wristbands and T-shirts that say #austinstrong, “We stand with Austin” and “Losing is not an option.”
Austin displayed his positive attitude in a video shared with friends. Wearing a surgical mask on a hospital floor, he did the floss dance next to his IV pole.
He was released from the University of South Alabama Children’s Hospital in Mobile, but had to go back for an infection two days before his football team won the championship title on Nov. 1.
By mid-November, he was receiving chemotherapy treatment at the University of Alabama Hospital at Birmingham.
He spent Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas in the hospital. But he did get to go on the annual family hunting trip in Leakesville.
By December, Parnell planned a dance with music and food for sixth-grade to ninth-grade students. It raised almost $1,000. Parnell said she didn’t know Austin personally, but was humbled to be a part of it.
‘He never complains’
Austin had some rough weeks in December. He was taken to USA for a fever, and was taken by ambulance to UAB. He went home a week later, but developed pancreatitis and an infection and went back to USA.
“It has been heartbreaking to see him suffer and not be able to do anything,” Christian Conner said.
On Christmas Day, he was surrounded by family in the hospital, including their Dad, Brian Conner, and 21-year-old brother Dylan, who also played for Colmer football. Austin was able to sit up while they opened presents.
He was sent home a week later. On New Year’s Eve, the family enjoyed their first meal at a restaurant together in months.
Austin’s mother is now making three-day trips to Birmingham once a week for his treatments. In the next phase of treatment, Austin will be hospitalized one week, stay home one week — for a year.
He has a tough road ahead but is expected to recover.
“Austin is a very strong young man,” his mother said.
“He smiles through it all. He never complains. This child amazes me at his strength and faith.”
His teachers provide him with school work and instructions so he won’t be left behind.
A third diagnosis
Between her son’s two health battles, Christina Conner was diagnosed with lupus.
She gave up her work with a children’s ministry at First United Methodist Church so she could focus on her and Austin’s health.
Brian Conner, a nurse at Singing River Hospital, took off work during the heart surgery hospitalization and has returned to work three days a week.
“We take it one day at a time,” she said, “because that’s all we can do. That and trust God.”
One of Austin’s main battles is low white blood cell counts. His mother has lost track of the number of blood transfusions. In mid-January, he was given blood products twice in one week. It’s turned his mother into a staunch supporter of giving blood.
“He isn’t the only child fighting the war,” his mother said. “We have met children in Mobile and in Birmingham that need blood as often as he does. They need you to donate. They can’t win without your donations of blood.”
Conner said her faith in God has not been shaken by Austin’s diagnosis.
“I haven’t felt discouraged through any of this,” she said. “We have such a large support group that it is hard to get down. Someone is always reaching out to us.”
$6,000 Boston butt sale
Community support, fundraisers and prayers have made a tremendous difference, Conner said.
First United Methodist, where the family worships, has held a barbecue. A GoFundMe page, named “Austin Conner - Fight Leukemia!” has been set up with a goal of $15,000. And they got an unexpected windfall from a stranger.
Pascagoula businessman Steve Jordan, a deacon at Ingalls Avenue Baptist Church, didn’t know the Conners when he planned a Boston butt fundraiser for the family in the fall.
He had read about Austin’s plight on a Facebook post.
“It kinda touched my heart,” said Jordan. “I’ve got grandkids the same age.”
Jordan, owner of Master Turfs Lawn Care, had bought a large grill 10 years ago when his nephew was diagnosed with leukemia. He held a Boston butt fundraiser for his nephew in Mobile.
Jordan again fired up the grill plus two others at his home and cooked 104 Boston butts to sell along with plate dinners.
Austin and his mother returned home from the hospital just after the fundraiser. Jordan went to the family’s home and gave the parents more than $6,000 — all the money raised. Jordan paid for all the expenses.
“I think they were overwhelmed at the support of the community,” Jordan said.
Wiping tears from his eyes during a phone conversation, Jordan said he is grateful he had the means to help them.
“A little bit of financial help is the least I could do,” he said. “God has blessed me, not just with the financial means to do it, but to do it with the help of my 11 grandkids.”
The Conners considers any help, including prayers, a blessing.
“I look forward to the time when I can bless others the way I have been blessed,” Christina Conner said.
Arm wrestling for Austin
Sean Hancock, director of Mississippi Arm Wrestling Inc., has chosen the Conners to benefit from this year’s Coney Island Clash, a fundraising tournament in memory of Billy Fokakis at the upcoming Hub Fest in Hattiesburg. The Fokakis family has owned the Coney Island Cafe in downtown Hattiesburg for about 100 years.
Billy Fokakis died after a brief bout with cancer in January 2018. His son B.J., who now owns the cafe, is a multi-state arm wrestling champion, as is Hancock.
Hancock is a certified promoter with the United States Arm Wrestling Association, which sanctions the arm wrestling group’s tournaments.
Hancock has known the Fokakis and Conner families for years.
The Coney Island Clash will be held at the Coney Island Cafe during Hub Fest in Hattiesburg on March 30.
The tournament features professional super matches starting at 11 a.m. and tournament play runs from noon to 5 p.m.
The tournament has different weight categories for men and women and the cost to enter is $30 per arm.
MAW is looking for sponsors and additional super match players for the tournament. For information on contestants in super matches and other details, check the Facebook pages of Mississippi Arm Fighter and Coney Island Cafe.