Hesperia community rallies around athlete battling cancer.

February 21, 2018

Connor VanBuskirk

Hesperia community rallies around athlete battling cancer.

#ConnorStrong

By Fred Inglis. Contributing Writer.

The Village of Hesperia is a typical quiet, close-knit Michigan town. Everybody knows everybody and their business.

So when they hear “Baby Hulk” developed a life-threatening disease, like Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the entire community knows 15-year-old Connor VanBuskirk and his family needs all their emotional and financial support.

Connor’s parents, Wayne and Shelly.

“Baby Hulk” Connor VanBuskirk was always a big kid. As a freshman, Connor weighed 365 pounds and stood 6 feet tall. He started on the. Panther varsity football team and played in the trenches on offense and defense.

“He often took on two and three men at a time,” said Panther football coach Doug Bolles. “He made other players better by doing most of the dirty work.”

He was headed in the right direction on the road to his goal of becoming a professional football player until warning signs started to pop up.

Last summer, Connor lost more than 100 pounds. His parents, Shelly Gowins and Wayne VanBuskirk thought it was because of Connor’s off-season training and working for his father in the physically-demanding family concrete business.

During the football season this fall, Connor felt back pain, developed

The Panthers’ rival, Holton, joins in the effort during a recent basketball game.

a cough, and had trouble breathing. Yet Connor missed just one game, and that was because of a sore shoulder.

“We later learned he played the entire season with a fractured collarbone,” Bolles said. “He never complained, and his example really inspired the other guys.”

During that time doctors thought Connor might have had bronchitis,

Panther fans show their support for Connor.

acute sinusitis, or maybe pneumonia. He took antibiotics, but he was only getting worse.

After football season, Connor joined the Panthers’ wrestling team, but had to withdraw after one match because he couldn’t breathe.

Finally, Connor saw a lung specialist at the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Grand Rapids and had a cat scan. Then they referred him to a cancer specialist. That was when Connor was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The cancer had spread to the lymph glands around his heart and lungs. It was a crushing Christmas present.

“We didn’t know what to do at first,” Conner’s mother Shelly said. “We went through all the stages of grief. We had a lot to learn.”

“It hit me real hard,” Connor’s father Wayne said. “I couldn’t even talk without breaking down. I had a million thoughts go through my head. I just wanted it to happen to me so he wouldn’t have
to carry it.”

On Jan. 13, Connor began an aggressive six to eight month recovery program. Several times a month, Wayne takes Connor to DeVos Children’s Hospital where he spends three to four days at a time receiving massive doses of radiation and chemotherapy. Doctors installed a port under his skin to assist in all the blood transfusions. Connor takes as many as 12 strong pills a day.

“I get really tired,” Connor said. “I’m starting to look like a 90-year-old man.”

But the VanBuskirks quickly learned they would not have to battle this disease alone. Family, friends, and school classmates rallied around them. It started with neighbors dropping off food and reaching out with words of encouragement.

“Some friends came by the other day and dropped off some soup, and I nearly broke down again,” Wayne said. “Everyone’s been so generous. It’s hard to take because we’re usually the ones that are doing the giving.”

During the initial recovery, Connor designed a T-shirt that carries his football jersey number 71. It also features a gold ribbon to show support of the Children’s Cancer Foundation and a green ribbon to acknowledge the battle against lymphoma.

“I also added the word “Believe” because my mom always uses that word,” Connor said.

More than 500 of those “Believe” T-shirts and sweatshirts have been sold, and the Hesperia varsity basketball team wears similar designed T-shirts during its pre-game warm-ups.

“We really didn’t really know how far this was going to go,” Hesperia Athletic Director Joe Conkle said. “No one has a plan all set up on how to deal with this kind of issue. We’re just excited how it’s helping the VanBuskirk family.”

It has also inspired other schools from the CSSA (Central State Activities Association) athletic conference to join the campaign. White Cloud, Newaygo, and Holton basketball teams have worn “Connor Strong” pre-game T-shirts.

Holton varsity basketball coach Mike Fosburg was formerly AD at Hesperia. “This is quite emotional for me,” confessed Fosburg. “I know just about everyone over here, and when they have problems I feel their pain. Buying a few T-shirts is an easy thing to do.”

The Panthers final regular season basketball game is this Friday evening, Feb. 23, versus Kent City. Boys and girls teams from both schools will wear special memorial uniforms. Conkle hopes to fill the Panthers’ gym with people. Money from that game will be donated to Connor’s cause. The girls’ game begins at 5:30 p.m. followed by the boys’ game. T-shirts will be available for $12 with all proceeds going to Connor’s family. Order forms are available at the high school office or at Sign Power Plus in Hesperia.

“It’s a reminder that sports is about more than just winning or losing,” Conkle said. “These kids are learning a lot about relating to others and feeling empathy.”

Some other friends started fundraising programs to ease the cost of the long, expensive recovery process.

Gilbert Castillo coached Connor in junior high football and remembers when Connor was in the eighth grade and competed against high school seniors in weight lifting.

The 13-year-old “Baby Hulk” could bench press 350 pounds, back squat 475 pounds, and dead lift 550 pounds. He placed 10th overall. He finished seventh place as a freshman in 2017.

Now Castillo is organizing a slow pitch softball tournament that will run in Hesperia March 24. He has already signed up 22 teams and raised more than $3,000.

“I knew Connor and his brothers for a long time and I wanted to help somehow,” Castillo said. “It’s cool how people are joining in who don’t even know who Connor is but heard his story.”

Several businesses from as far away as Fremont, Muskegon, and Grand Haven are donating prizes, raffle items, and concessions to the softball tournament with the proceeds going to the VanBuskirk family.

Castillo also contacted Newaygo native Joe Berger. Berger is a 12-year veteran of the NFL and currently plays offensive guard for the Minnesota Vikings. When Joe heard about Connor’s disease, he sent “Baby Hulk” some autographed items.

“That was pretty cool,” Connor said. “He didn’t even know me but he took the time to wish me good luck.”

Hesperia native Dan Yates recently returned to the area and is going to make his professional MMA (mixed martial arts) debut Saturday, Feb. 24, in Grand Rapids. He also developed a “Fight for Humanity Foundation.” Part of Dan’s earnings will be donated to Connor’s “Go Fund Me” site.

Yates also convinced the MMA promoters to hold a raffle for Connor at his pro debut against Khaos Williams.

“Every time I get tired preparing for my fight, I think about what Connor goes through,” Yates said. “Then I’m able to keep working hard.”

“I call or text Connor a lot. I make up jokes or silly songs and stuff like that. I just hope to keep his spirit up. He can use a good distraction.”

Shelly and Wayne have been big supporters of the Hesperia school system for a long time. For seven years they have cooked meals for the football team. “Momma G” has been like a second mother to so many of the student athletes.

Now they are getting paid back with these generous contributions and comfort from the school and community.

“This is a true eye opener in how supportive this area is,” Shelly said. “It’s like they’re telling us ‘Friends don’t let friends get cancer.’”

“I had a few moments when I wondered, ‘Why me?,'” Connor said. “But I’m overwhelmed by the support. I can’t ever thank all of them enough.”

Connor also has youth is on his side, and they recently received some positive news. The large cancer area around his lung has shrunk a full centimeter. It’s a long journey, but doctors say there is a good chance of full recovery.

“This is something none of us saw coming,” Shelly said. “But we’ve got to believe that Connor will beat this. If you believe, you will achieve.”

“We hope this is just a “Michigan pothole” in his road to the NFL,” Wayne said.

Connor’s immune system is very weak and he is susceptible to contagious diseases like the flu so he studies at home and maintains a B+ average.

He has also been careful about attending Panther basketball games, but all the outpouring of love and support has helped him develop a new perspective about tackling challenges in life.

“I try to think about how lucky I am. I remember when I was a freshman and playing football on the same field with my two brothers (Brandon and Tanner),” Connor said. “I didn’t appreciate it as much then as I do now.”

Connor turns 16 in March and he’s already told coach Bolles he plans to play football this fall. But slimming down to 250 means he’ll be a different player with a different outlook.

“I told him I want to play fullback,” chuckled Connor.

Connor’s family and the entire Hesperia community hope Friday night’s basketball game and fundraiser will add a new chapter to the “Baby Hulk” comeback story.

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