8-year-old kid was the Reno Rodeo’s first champion this week
June 28, 2003
When I was younger, I wanted to be a professional soccer player when I grew up. For a short time, I wanted to be a lawyer and a pilot. I also wanted to be a doctor and, I guess at some point, a sports writer. Now here I am.
Connor Allbee, an 8-year-old from Reno, wants to be a fireman when he grows up. He also wants to learn how to rope. That’s it. Nothing grandiose, nothing outlandish. Just two dreams. Two simple dreams.
This week at the Reno Rodeo, Connor lived one of them, which is probably one more than most Americans ever have. Fred Whitfield, the 2002 World Champion calf roper, taught Connor how to rope. Whitfield, a strapping, black cowboy who looks as if nobody has ever made him cry, was touched that he had the privilege to be Connor’s teacher. And it truly was a privilege.
Fifteen years from now, nobody will be able to teach Connor. Fifteen years from now, Connor won’t be a fireman, at least not one who will put out fires for a living. Fifteen years from now, Connor might not be alive. Twenty-five years from now, unless a cure is found, he won’t be alive.
Connor is one of the rare children in the United States to have been diagnosed with Juvenile Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinoses (JNCL). It’s more commonly referred to as Batten Disease, a crippling ailment that teases kids into thinking they can be anything they want. But their destiny is already chosen. Because it’s the same destiny for each of them.
The disease starts by taking away a child’s sight, which then leads to uncontrollable and sporadic seizures. This all happens before they become insane, before they become paralyzed, before they lose all of their motor skills, and before they have to be fed through tubes. All those things happen, in roughly the same order, before they die, which usually happens in their late teens or 20s. Death is unavoidable. There is no cure. There is no skipping of the disease’s crippling affects. Anybody with Batten Disease will be in a coffin by their 30th birthday.
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All of us will end up in a coffin, of course. But what matters most is what you accomplish before you do. It’s not a cliche’. Connor is not some cliche’. He’s an inspiration.
Sadly, Connor’s destiny has begun. He is almost totally blind. He never saw Whitfield, never saw his rope. Last Saturday night at the Reno Livestock Events Center, Connor entered the rodeo arena on a wagon. Nearly 8,000 people shed tears on their Wranglers as they were introduced to Connor. He didn’t see any of it. Like most kids, he couldn’t keep his hands to himself.
“All he kept doing was trying to jump off the wagon and feel it,” said Steve Schroeder, the rodeo’s media relations director. “He just kept feeling the wagon. One guy was trying to stop him but then just let him go. Connor just wanted to know what it felt like. Everybody was crying. He did the same thing when Fred Whitfield taught him how to rope earlier this week. Fred let him feel his buckle, his world all around champion belt buckle. Again, he just wanted to feel it. Fred’s not the type of guy who shows a lot of emotion. But he had to.”
Connor, though, heard the cheers from the crowd. He felt the vibration on his skin when the cheers rang throughout the arena. And who cares if he never saw Whitfield’s rope? He felt its fiber. They say when you lose one of your senses, the other four become more heightened. Well, what happens when you lose two, are the other three heightened even more? Watch Connor and you’ll have an answer. Watch Connor and you’ll start asking yourself a lot of questions. Maybe you’ll even find the answers to some of them before your time on Earth is over.
Connor has a bumpy road ahead of him, but already seems to have things figured out. He wants to experience everything he can. It wasn’t Connor’s fault genetics gave him Batten Disease. Just like it wasn’t Barry Bonds’ fault genetics gave him the opportunity to become a great baseball player. But I couldn’t help think of Connor after remembering what Bonds once said last season. After a game that ended in the 10th inning, he mentioned something about not getting paid for overtime.
Connor deserves to play extra innings in the game of life. Let’s just hope he makes it to the seventh-inning stretch.
Jeremy Evans is a Nevada Appeal sports writer.
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