WORCESTER – The WPI football team was looking for another player for their roster and Keegan Concannon was looking for another team to be a part of.
Last month the Engineers and Keegan joined forces, WPI drafting the 13-year-old Hudson resident to be a member of its team for the next two years.
The school and Keegan were paired together through a program called Team IMPACT, IMPACT standing for Inspire, Motivate, and Play Against Challenges Together. Team IMPACT is a national nonprofit based in Quincy that connects children facing serious and chronic illnesses to local college athletic teams.
Keegan suffers from a Primary Immunodeficiency disease called Common Variable Immune Deficiency (CVID), which is a very rare genetic disorder that only affects two percent of the world population. CVID is characterized by repeated infections and low antibody levels.
“Keegan had had the disease since birth and has been in and out of the hospital ever since,” Laura Concannon, Keegan’s mother, said. “It took three years to find out what he had.”
Keegan, his mother said, has an insufficiency in three of the four major components of the immune system.
“Keegan receives immune cell transfusions every other week because his body is extremely susceptible to illness,” Laura Concannon said. “The last time Keegan was hospitalized we learned that part of the reason Keegan is having a hard time fighting off any illnesses he gets is because his body is rejecting the antibiotics used to treat the illness as well as the illness itself. We also recently learned that Keegan has several genetic mutations.”
A genetic mutation is a permanent alteration of a person’s DNA so much so that the sequence differs from what is found in most people. Mutations range in size and can affect anywhere from a single strand of DNA to a large segment of a chromosome that can also include multiple genes.
“The head of the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Children’s Hospital is searching the international data base almost daily to try to find another genetic match like Keegan,” Laura Concannon said. “They’re having a very difficult time treating Keegan because they don’t know what these genetic components are. Keegan is a very rare genetic mystery right now.”
Because his body doesn’t have the capability of fighting off illness Keegan is unable to attend school on a daily basis. The illness level at Hudson Middle School has been so high this year Keegan has not been in the school in more than five months. Instead, he has a tutor who comes to the Concannon house three or four times a week and Keegan is able to view his classroom lessons via a robot called a VGo.
“We’re lucky to have an incredible team of teachers in Hudson, as well as Dr. Marco Rodrigues, our new superintendent and Leslie Williams, Keegan’s private tutor who was his fifth-grade teacher, supporting Keegan and helping to ensure his education,” Laura Concannon said. “Keegan’s story prior to this year is that he – we – were fighting for classroom access by using the VGo. Now, with a new, supportive superintendent in place and the school supporting his use of the VGo Keegan can access school every day.
“Leslie is an incredible, phenomenal tutor,” Laura Concannon said. “She comes out here to the house and helps him with all of his studies.”
Laura Concannon said she hopes Keegan can return to attending school on a limited basis during the last week of March or the first week of April.
“Illness at school is still at too high of a rate to risk sending him back,” Laura Concannon said. “We’re trying to keep him healthy. Despite his illness Keegan still has a desire to attend school and he is starting to feel well enough to get back to doing so. Plus, his stamina is still a question. Hopefully, in a few weeks, we’re going to start getting him back into school one class at a time. We’ll still have the VGo representing him in school and he’ll still have Leslie coming out to the house to help facilitate his education.”
Laura Concannon said she and her husband Robert learned about the Team IMPACT program through the family of another child in the area who also suffers from CVID.
“I reached out and talked to them and they said Keegan was a perfect candidate for Team IMPACT,” Laura Concannon said. “Once Keegan was accepted into the program Team IMPACT started reaching out to several different schools and teams.”
Team IMPACT offered to pair Keegan up with a few different teams in the area, but Keegan told his mother he wanted to wait until he could be matched up with a football team.
“Keegan plays football here in Hudson, although he only plays on a limited basis. Because of that Keegan wanted to be affiliated with a football team,” Laura Concannon said. “Because Keegan wanted to get paired up with a football team it took Team IMPACT several months longer to find him a team that it would have if he just chose to go with one of the other teams they had found for him.
After months of searching Elizabeth Higgins of Team IMPACT finally found a match – the WPI football team.
“Elizabeth said WPI was very excited when they found out they had a chance to be paired up with Keegan,” Laura Concannon said. “They immediately said yes. They immediately wanted Keegan to be part of their football team. They reached out, within a day or two after learning about Keegan’s story and took Keegan on to the team.”
Unbeknownst to the Concannon family, at the same time Team IMPACT was looking for a team for Keegan, Scott Sperone, WPI’s defensive coordinator, was applying on behalf of the school to be part of the Team IMPACT program. Prior to coming to WPI, Sperone had been involved with Team IMPACT when he was a member of the football coaching staff at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
“Just before I left Fairleigh Dickinson to come to WPI we had been matched up with a young man and we were in the stages of planning out his draft day,” Sperone said. “When I got here I asked head coach Chris Robertson if he would be interested in getting involved in this program. He said he was, so we put in an application.”
Team IMPACT put Keegan and WPI together in the fall and Keegan was able to attend an Engineers’ practice and the team’s New England Bowl Series win over the State University of New York’s Maritime College.
On Feb. 28 WPI held its Draft Day for Keegan, selecting the 5-foot-10, 180-pound defensive lineman in the first round. After officially signing his “contract” with WPI, coach Robertson presented Keegan with a game jersey with the No. 1 on it. In the second round of their draft the Engineers selected Keegan’s two best friends, Ryan Yates and Ethan Bushey. Yates and Bushey received game jerseys with the No. 2 on them.
On hand at Keegan’s Draft Day was about 50 members of the WPI football team, the WPI cheerleaders and the WPI Pep Band.
“Draft Day was our way of officially welcoming Keegan to the team,” said Sperone, who explained that the ceremony was similar to the one high school seniors participate in when they sign their NCAA National Letter of Intent to attend a specific school.
“Keegan had been with us since late in the season,” Sperone said. “In addition to attending our New England Bowl win he came to the WPI basketball game with us when we were honored at halftime for that victory. He was out there with us at half-court holding up the trophy we received for winning the game.”
Sperone said the team decided to unofficially welcome Ryan and Ethan into the program as well because it seemed like the right thing to do for the two boys who have been constants in Keegan’s life for many years.
“Ryan and Ethan have been there for Keegan through all of his medical issues. So we welcomed them into the program as well. They will definitely be around,” Sperone said. “It was a nice night not only for Keegan, but for his parents as well, and Ryan and Ethan.
“We held a second round of the draft, which is something that is not usually done, and drafted them both in the second round,” Sperone explained. “Technically they’re not part of the Team IMPACT program but we’re viewing them as being a part of us as well. We’ll be doing more with Keegan but we anticipate that Ryan and Ethan will be around a lot, too.”
Keegan immediately perked up when he was asked about Draft Day.
“Draft Day was amazing; it was so much fun,” Keegan said. “I was not expecting that many people to be there. The auditorium was full. I was expecting 10 maybe 20 players to be there and so many more than that came. And I definitely did not expect the cheerleaders and the band to be there.”
During his Draft Day ceremony Keegan took to the microphone and addressed the crowd with some remarks he had prepared for the event.
“I would like to express my thanks to Team IMPACT and the coaches and players of the WPI football team,” Keegan said. “I am really excited to be welcomed into the WPI football program; the idea of being at the games and at some of the practices makes me feel so happy because I am part of this great team.
“I have not always felt like I was part of a team until recently because my illness has set me apart from other kids and this has left me feeling isolated. And then I found football and my life changed,” Keegan continued. “With my parents and this great team behind me I now know there is nothing I cannot do. Onward and upward.”
Sperone said he was impressed with Keegan’s poise and confidence when he was addressing the crowd.
“Keegan did a great job speaking; I was really impressed with how composed he was when he addressed the team,” Sperone said.
Laura Keegan also spoke at the ceremony, and her remarks were pointed directly at the WPI football team.
“It’s simply amazing that Team Impact and you guys have all jumped in to help participate in Keegan’s future,” she said, unsuccessfully trying to hold back the tears that filled her eyes. “He just has a whole new look on life and we are so thankful.”
Sperone said the Engineers held a team meeting shortly after they found out they were being paired up with Keegan.
“The first thing we did was ask the team who wanted to be involved with this and we had a group of about 15 underclassmen, from juniors all the way down to freshmen, that stepped up and said they wanted to be a part of this,” said Sperone, who believes that being part of Team IMPACT will be beneficial not only to Keegan, but to the WPI players who participate in it as well.
“Team IMPACT is designed to not only help the young men and women who have been paired up with a team, but the team as well,” Sperone said. “What often happens is the team that is paired up with the young man or woman in need receive a lot of life lessons that they wouldn’t normally receive if they didn’t have that young man or woman around.”
Sperone said that in addition to hosting Keegan at practices and games the team will hold an outing for Keegan at least once a month. He said the team is looking into taking Keegan to a Worcester Railers hockey game and possibly a Worcester Pirates football game as well. WPI’s spring football practice begins this week and Sperone said he is hoping Keegan can make it up to at least one practice, if not more.
“We have a couple of guys who are heading up the player portion of the program and hopefully they will come up with some ideas of other activities we can do with Keegan,” Sperone said.
One of those players is sophomore wide receiver/long snapper Billy Mitchell.
“Billy is the player who has taken the lead with organizing and coordinating the outings we have with Keegan,” Sperone said. “Billy came forward as one of those 15 guys that wanted to be involved. Coach Chris Robertson asked him if he would be willing to take the lead on it and he said he would.”
Sperone said the team has really embraced being a part of the Team IMPACT program.
“They absolutely have. Our team captains said they were proud to have Keegan on the team. They’re taking pride in the fact that they’re able to introduce Keegan to a college football program and have him out on the field with us,” Sperone said. “The day after we drafted Keegan I received a real nice email from Keegan’s mom and I forwarded that on to the team.”
Mitchell, who is from Groton and played football at Groton-Dunstable High School, said being involved in the Team IMPACT program is one of the rewarding college experiences he didn’t expect to be involved in when he enrolled at WPI.
“From the first practice Keegan spent with us you could tell he really likes hanging out with the guys,” Mitchell said. “Keegan definitely looks forward to coming and seeing us whenever he can. It’s pretty cool to see him so excited about joining us. It’s awesome; He loves it.
“Being able to make a difference in his everyday life really puts everything in perspective for us,” Mitchell said. “It’s been tough for him, not being able to go to school. It’s really nice to see just how much he enjoys playing football with us and that we’re making a difference in his life.”
In addition to being rewarding Mitchell said the team’s experience with Keegan has been life=altering as well.
“It’s certainly eye-opening to see how a kid like Keegan is not as lucky as we are to be able to go to college and play football and be so involved with the sport,” said Mitchell, who is majoring in management engineering. “Even in the short time we’ve spent with him we’re seeing him really start to open up to us. You can see he is definitely enjoying being on the team with us. That’s been good to see.”
Mitchells aid he was thrilled to be a part of Keegan’s Draft Day festivities.
“Draft night exceeded what I thought it was going to be. We had the help of the band and the cheerleaders. All the players were there and his family and his friends, Ethan and Ryan. There was just so much excitement among everyone involved,” said Mitchell who wasn’t surprised to see Laura Keegan get emotional during the event. It was nice to see her get somewhat emotional because you could tell that what we’re doing is making a big difference for Keegan.
“It’s a nice feeling to be a part of this,” Mitchell said. “We may be having a huge impact on his life by being involved in this program, but it goes equally both ways for sure. It is definitely a special program and I’m very glad they introduced it to us this year. It’s a pretty cool thing and I’m very proud to be a part of it.”
Keegan said being with the WPI players, even on a limited basis has been fun.
“Some of the guys are pretty funny. Getting to hear about what they’re working on in school is really cool, too,” Keegan said. “One of the players is working on making an (remote control) plane and another one is growing hearts out of cabbages. That’s some pretty interesting stuff.”
Keegan said practices with the Engineers are very different than the practices with his youth football team.
“Their practices are a lot more structured,” Keegan said. “The offense runs drills with the offense; the defense runs drills with the defense; special teams run drills with special teams. At our practices everyone is all grouped together.”
Keegan said he likes playing defense.
“Wherever my coach needs me to go along the defensive line, that’s where I go,” Keegan said. “I don’t really like playing offense because there are too may rules; you can’t do this and you can’t do that. You can’t throw them to the ground; you can’t grab their jerseys. On defense you can kind of do anything you need to do to get past them.
“I’m having a great time being part of the WPI football team; I like hanging out with the guys,” Keegan said. “I’m already looking forward to the football season.”
Keegan said he is very much looking forward to attending a WPI football practice this week.
“The coaches said I could bring my shoulder pads and cleats and helmet and run some drills with their defense,” Keegan said. “I’m hoping to do that. I’m really looking forward to it; it’s going to be fun. They have those automatic tackling bags that move around on the field. They’re robots, kind of like the one I use in school. I can’t wait to try and tackle one of those things while it’s moving around on the field.”
It’s safe to say that Team IMPACT is already having an impact on the life of Keegan Concannon.