In leukemia battle, Cosgrove inspires

Connor Cosgrove of the Gophers football team was diagnosed in 2010.

Connor Cosgrove, right, helps shave the head of teammate Roland Johnson during the St. Baldrick’s Gophers Clip Cancer event Monday. Cosgrove, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010, spearheaded the partnership between St. Baldrick's Foundation and the University of Minnesota.

Emily Dunker

Connor Cosgrove, right, helps shave the head of teammate Roland Johnson during the St. Baldrick’s Gophers Clip Cancer event Monday. Cosgrove, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010, spearheaded the partnership between St. Baldrick’s Foundation and the University of Minnesota.

Dane Mizutani

Kevin and Shelly Cosgrove sit at home nearly every morning and drink from their identical coffee mugs.

“I gather my strength from you,” the mugs read, and below the words is a picture of their son Connor Cosgrove.

Connor Cosgrove learned a lot from his parents as a child, but Shelly Cosgrove said when she looks at her mug, the roles are reversed.

“Connor teaches me so much about life,” she said. “He’s been stronger and better than any of us through this whole process.”

Connor Cosgrove, a member of the University of Minnesota’s football team, was diagnosed with leukemia in September 2010.

Cosgrove’s struggle gained attention earlier this month when the Gophers announced that more than 60 football players would shave their heads for cancer research. They gathered at the Bierman Athletic Complex on Monday afternoon for the fundraiser.

He won’t play football again, but Cosgrove is nearing the final stages of his treatment. His teammates and family say his battle has inspired them.

Cosgrove didn’t have major symptoms at the time he was diagnosed in his second year of college, his mother recalled.

“It wasn’t big stuff — a little fever, headaches, some night sweats over a seven- or eight-day period,” she said. “He went to get blood work done … but never in a million years did I think that I’d get that phone call.”

Shelly Cosgrove was on her lunch break at work when she got a call from a number she didn’t recognize.

“I started to walk out [of the room] and something just told me to pick up that phone,” she said.

The person on the phone was the Gophers’ team doctor. The doctor had test results that revealed Connor Cosgrove had either a life-threatening virus or a form of leukemia.

Shelly Cosgrove said she was in denial at first because of how healthy her son looked on the surface.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is all going to be fine. They’re wrong,’” she said. “They weren’t wrong.”

It was Sept. 14, 2010 — the date that changed the Cosgrove family’s life.

Connor Cosgrove remembers that day vividly as well.

Connor Cosgrove said he was sitting on the hospital bed not knowing what to expect. His mom was on the far side of the room, and his dad was right next to him. Then the doctors walked in.

“They told me I had leukemia and I went into shock,” he said. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. I was just surrounded by that word ‘leukemia,’ and I just thought to myself, ‘This can’t be happening to me.’”

Both his parents broke down immediately, and he said in that moment, he promised himself to be strong for them.

“I immediately went into fight mode, and I’ve been fighting ever since,” he said. “It’s a competitive thing, and I can’t let this beat me.”

He won his first fight with the disease 29 days into his treatment. Since then, his leukemia has been in rapid early remission, which means there is no growth of leukemia cells in his body. He still goes to monthly treatments to make sure the disease doesn’t come back.

“It’s hard to go in there and know I beat this thing on day 29 of treatment,” he said. “It will all be worth it when I walk out of that hospital when my treatment is finished.”

His family was there for him in the early stages of his struggles, but in July 2011, they relocated to New Mexico.

Kevin Cosgrove was an assistant on former Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster’s staff, but lost his job when Brewster was fired.

He was out of work for a few months before he was offered a job as a coach at the University of New Mexico.

“I was torn as a mom if I should stay or go,” Shelly Cosgrove said, “And Connor kept saying, ‘You’ll hurt me more if you stay here.’”

So she left.

She said the drive out of town was gut-wrenching, but she accepted it.

“I have great faith in God, and at that point I let go and handed [Connor] over,” she said.

Connor Cosgrove said it was hard to see his family leave, but he knew it was necessary. He said it actually helped him grow as a person.

“It was like I was going off to college for the first time again, only this time I had leukemia,” he said.

Connor Cosgrove leaned on his Minnesota football family for support after his parents left for New Mexico.

He spoke to the team at the beginning of the season, and senior linebacker Mike Rallis said it had a huge impact on the squad moving forward this year.

“He got up and told his story in typical Connor fashion,” Rallis said. “There were some laughs in there, but by the end of it there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”

Rallis said Cosgrove is always in a good mood, no matter what he’s going through in his battle with leukemia.

Cosgrove’s roommate and teammate John Rabe said his attitude puts things into perspective.

“I look at myself, and if I’m having a bad day, my bad day doesn’t compare to any of his bad days,” Rabe said. “And for him to care so much about me when I might be struggling … just says so much about him.”

Despite his positive demeanor, Cosgrove said he struggles at times.

“There are some days when I’ll watch these guys out there on Saturday, and I’ll be like, ‘That is everything I wanted, and I’ll never have that,’” Cosgrove said. “That is hard, but no matter how sorry I feel for myself, the next morning I’ll wake up, and I will still have leukemia, and feeling sorry for myself isn’t going to change that.”

He said the idea that one day he would play football again kept him motivated through his illness, but two months ago that chance was stripped from him.

Cosgrove was diagnosed with avascular necrosis — a death of bone tissue due to a lack of blood supply in the area. He said the bones around his knees, hip and shoulders were either dead or dying because of his medication.

“I think honestly that’s the lowest point I’ve been throughout this whole process,” Cosgrove said. “It was almost like having cancer all over again.”

Shelly Cosgrove said her son has inspired her throughout his struggle, but said she wishes she could take away his pain.

“In my case as a mom, to see what the disease has taken from him kills me,” she said. “I’d give anything to have it be me and not him. He’s just a kid.”

Connor Cosgrove said he’s grown in his faith since he was diagnosed — a journey that has helped him the most in his fight with leukemia.

“I would go home and as far as I was concerned would pray to a God that I didn’t think was there,” he said, referring to when he was first diagnosed with leukemia. “I was angry, and I was selfish … but certain things happened along the way, and realized this can’t be all by chance.”

Though she lives in New Mexico, his mom has never missed a treatment. And pretty soon, she won’t have to.

Cosgrove will receive his final treatment Jan. 13, 2014, “and life will all go back to normal,” he said.

“I couldn’t imagine my life without [leukemia],” he said. “It’s so hard right now, but I used to define myself by playing football, and now I define myself by so much more.”