By Fred Inglis

HESPERIA – Connor “Baby Hulk” VanBuskirk is spending Wednesday – his 16th birthday – at DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.

Not long ago, that was unthinkable for the promising young athlete from Hesperia High School.

As a freshman, he was a starting lineman who played both ways for the Hesperia varsity football team. He weighed 365 pounds and stood six feet tall.

No. 71 Connor VanBuskirk carries the Hesperia flag onto the field before a game in 2016. Photo/Leo Valdez

VanBuskirk has always dreamed of someday playing in the National Football League, and was off to a pretty good start.

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

But then the warning signs started popping up.

Last summer Connor suddenly lost more than 100 pounds. At first his parents chalked it up to his rigorous offseason training, and working for his father in the physically-demanding family concrete business.

But during his sophomore football season last fall, Connor felt back pain, developed a cough, and had trouble breathing. Yet he only missed one game, and that was because of a sore shoulder.

He wasn’t going to let the other stuff slow him down.

“We later learned he played the entire season with a fractured collarbone,” Bolles said. “He never complained.”

During that time doctors thought Connor might have had bronchitis, acute sinusitis, or maybe pneumonia. He took antibiotics, but only got worse.

After the football season, Connor joined the Hesperia wrestling team, but had to withdraw after one match because he struggled to breathe.

VanBuskirk, No. 71, stands in a team photo during the 2016 season. Photo/Leo Valdez

Finally, Connor saw a lung specialist at DeVos Children’s Hospital and had a CAT scan. Then he was referred to a cancer specialist.

That’s when Connor was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The cancer had spread to the lymph glands around his heart and lungs.

The news was a crushing blow for Connor and his family, right around the holidays.

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

“It hit me real hard,” said his dad, Wayne VanBuskirk. “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 January 13th, Connor began an aggressive 6-8 month recovery program. His dad takes him to DeVos Children’s Hospital, where he spends 3-4 days at a time receiving massive doses of radiation and chemotherapy.

Doctors installed a port under his skin to assist with 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.”

Spending his 16th birthday in the hospital is obviously not what Connor had in mind.

But he’s a football player who’s used to physical challenges. He understands the need to dig deep and battle, and this is all just part of the fight.

“It’s just another day,” Connor said. “It’s kind of like ‘whatever.’ It doesn’t bother me.”

Hesperia steps up to help

Connor and his family have strong ties to the Hesperia High School athletic program, and the community as a whole.

His older brother, Brandon Gowins, played sports until he graduated. Another older brother, Tanner Gowins, is an athlete completing his senior year.

Conner, a sophomore, is just getting started. He’s a very promising football player who has started on varsity since the ninth grade, and has two seasons ahead of him.

Wayne VanBuskirk and Shelly Gowins, Connor’s parents. Photo/Fred Inglis

Connor’s parents are big Panther boosters. For the past seven years they’ve cooked pregame meals for the varsity football team.

They say “Momma G,” as Connor’s mom is affectionately known, has been like a second mom to many Hesperia athletes.

As it turns out, all the dedication and affection the family has shown the community definitely goes both ways.

Relatives, friends and classmates have rallied around them since Connor became ill. 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.”

During his initial recovery period, Connor designed a T-shirt that includes his football jersey number 71, 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.

Hesperia and Kent City boys and girls basketball players wear Connor shirts before the final home games of the season in Hesperia. Photo/Kim Smith

More than 500 of those “Believe” T-shirts and sweatshirts have been sold, with the proceeds going to the family to help cover costs.

The Hesperia varsity basketball team wore similar T-shirts during pregame warm-ups during the recently concluded season.

Proceeds from the final Hesperia home basketball game were given to the family.

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

Friends from all over

Other schools in Hesperia’s conference – the Central State Activities Association (CSAA) – have also jumped in to show their support.

Basketball teams from Holton, White Cloud, Newaygo and Shelby all wore “Connor Strong” pregame T-shirts during the season.

“This is quite emotional for me,” said Holton basketball coach Mike Fosburg, a former athletic director at Hesperia High School. “I know just about everyone over there, and when they have problems I feel their pain. Buying a few T-shirts is an easy thing to do.”

Aaron Herron, a Holton varsity basketball player, joined his teammates in wearing Connor T-shirts during warmups. Photo/Michael Cherry

A group of friends have started fundraising efforts to help Connor’s family cover the costs of the long, expensive recovery process.

One of those friends is Gilbert Castillo, who coached Connor in middle school football. He remembers when Connor was in the 8th grade and competed against high school seniors in weightlifting.

The 13-year-old “Baby Hulk” could bench press 350 pounds, back squat 475 pounds, and dead lift 550 pounds at the time, according to Castillo.

As an eighth-grader he finished 10th in the state in weightlifting. As a freshman he finished seventh.

Castillo has organized a slow pitch softball tournament in Hesperia, which will be this Saturday, to benefit Connor and his family.

Several businesses from communities like Fremont, Muskegon, and Grand Haven are donating prizes, raffle items, and concession items for the softball tournament.

“I’ve known 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.”

Castillo also contacted Newaygo native Joe Berger, a 12-year NFL offensive lineman who currently plays for the Minnesota Vikings.

Berger responded by sending “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 made his professional mixed martial arts fighting debut last month in Grand Rapids.

Connor was in his corner during the bout, which Yates won, and afterward had the opportunity to go in the cage.

Part of Yates’ earnings from that fight were donated to Connor’s “Go Fund Me” site. He also convinced the promoters of the bout to hold a raffle for Connor at the event.

“I call or text Connor a lot,” Yates said. “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.”

Some welcome news

All of the support has reminded Connor and his parents that they are far from alone.

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

Connor said all the support has reminded him that he has a lot to be thankful for.

Hesperia native Dan Yates, a pro mixed martial arts fighter, had this poster made in Connor’s honor. Connor is at the bottom left.

“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.

“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). I didn’t appreciate it as much then as I do now.”

Connor recently received some good news. The large cancer area around his lung has shrunk a full centimeter.

He’s still facing a long journey, but doctors say there is a good chance of full recovery.

“This is something none of us saw coming,” his mother 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,” his dad said.

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

But Connor has already told Coach Bolles he plans  to play football this fall. But he’s slimmed down to about 250 pounds, and he knows he will have to be a different player with a different outlook.

“I told (Bolles) I want to play fullback,” Connor said with a chuckle.