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    Connor Lair, a former West Plains star, seeks new chapter in life after beating cancer

    By Wyatt D. Wheeler, Springfield News-Leader,

    2024-04-16

    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=29Oeh0_0sSLkc7m00

    Sitting on the team bus on the way to an away football game, Connor Lair received a phone call that changed his life forever.

    Lair, a former West Plains star and running back on the Missouri State football team, was told that he had cancer.

    The scary thoughts cancer brings flooded his head throughout the six-hour bus ride but he never wavered on the idea of playing in the following day's football game. In what he thought could be his final opportunity to play the game he loves, Lair took the field the following evening.

    "My escape was football and exercise," Lair said. "If I were to go out, I wanted to go out like that."

    Diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, it was the last game Lair participated in while wearing a Bears uniform. He spent the later months undergoing six rounds of chemotherapy in addition to 17 days of radiation, fighting for the chance to return to a normal life and an opportunity to retake the field.

    Seven months later, Lair is cancer-free and is on pace to make a comeback to the football field this season. Only, it won't be at Missouri State as he begins his next challenge — life in the transfer portal.

    "It was a tough, but good conversation with Coach (Ryan) Beard," Lair said. "I voiced that I wanted a fresh start and he completely understood."

    More: How Cuonzo Martin sold Vincent Brady II on Missouri State basketball's championship future

    Lair enters the transfer portal looking to begin the next chapter in his life. After growing up in the Ozarks, Lair wants something new and an opportunity to branch out. He has a new appreciation for every day he wakes up and desires the chance to explore more of what life has to offer.

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    What kept Connor Lair strong through his cancer battle

    There were times throughout his cancer battle when he didn't think he'd get that opportunity.

    After starting cancer treatment, Lair saw his physique dwindle. Those who watched him suit up for the Zizzers or his presence at Plaster Stadium saw an explosive athlete with a motor not many could match. He's the type of player that would come off the edge to strip-sack the quarterback, hop up and recover the ball to return it for a touchdown.

    But his body was suddenly in survival mode. There were times he'd have to stay in the hospital for days because he couldn't get his vomiting under control or his temperature would drop too low. There were times he felt death was "closer than far away."

    Thoughts when he was alone late at night sometimes got the best of him but he'd overcome them by leaning on his faith and the motivation he received from being around the younger kids at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

    More: How Cuonzo Martin will go about returning Missouri State basketball where it needs to be

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    "It just gives you a different perspective," Lair said. "It gives you a little bit more of a purpose and it definitely helps you find your 'why' when seeing kids going through even rougher situations that one may go through. It's just an inspiration in itself."

    Lair, the big, strong college football player at the children's hospital, was instead inspired by those who fought their battles around him. He didn't leave his room much, but he remembered walking the hallways late one night where he befriended a younger kid named Maverick who was battling brain cancer. The two shot a basketball around and learned about each other's journeys.

    Maverick and others gave Lair a new perspective on life. He had always been considered one of the toughest players on every football field he stepped on but the experience gave toughness a new definition. Inspired by those around him, Lair stayed strong and stayed determined to get better.

    "When you're left with no chance, sometimes people want to run away," Lair said. "They tuck their tail a little bit. I have a good support system and a good group that helped keep me on the good path, keeping a strong mindset and knowing that if there's any percentage... I had no other choice but to try and shoot for that."

    How Missouri State football rallied around Connor Lair

    Lair's support system wasn't only his family, friends and those he formed relationships with at the hospital. Southwest Missouri and the Missouri State football team showed their support for Lair throughout the entirety of his battle with cancer.

    Nearly $6,000 was raised for Lair through a T-shirt campaign alone, blowing away the initial $500 goal. Donations were also collected through Great Southern Bank and FNBC Bank locations in West Plains. Other fundraisers took place with the football program preaching "#40Strong" in recognition of Lair's jersey number.

    "We're fully supporting him and we're going to come out throughout the next few weeks in some ways to support him as a community and try to rally support around him," Bears head coach Ryan Beard said in September. "He's in our thoughts and prayers constantly. If anybody can do it, he can."

    "I couldn't have asked for a better support system or a better man to lead me in Coach Beard," Lair said.

    More: Cuonzo Martin contract details at Missouri State: Salary, buyout, incentives

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    Connor Lair enters transfer portal after two years at Missouri State

    Attempting to accelerate his return to the field, Lair pushed himself further than he was supposed to. He wasn't supposed to lift more than 10 pounds because of the PICC line in his arm but he pushed himself too far. After he broke four, he decided he should probably chill out for a bit.

    When the PICC line was removed, he was back at it. He started lifting and running again, trying to get back in shape. He didn't participate in Missouri State's spring practices but he's nearing a return date to the field.

    "I have a pretty good personal trainer in West Plains and we're doing cardio in the morning and weightlifting in the evening," Lair said. "it's been a big part of getting back into shape. I'm right back to where I was, if not better than I was."

    Lair entered the transfer portal with the support of Missouri State and its coaching staff. Beard, the Bears' head coach, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, following Lair's transfer portal announcement encouraging him and saying he was thankful to be a part of his journey.

    More: Missouri State women's basketball starts roster rebuild with familiar names

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    Lair's next journey begins with him looking for a new cultural fit. He wants a football program with high expectations of himself and his future teammates. He wants coaches to demand a high work ethic and expectations of doing the right thing. He wants like-minded people to help push him into his next chapter in life.

    Although it was scary at times, Lair persevered. The toughness he's always been known for on the football field didn't let him quit.

    Someday soon, Lair will take the field once again.

    "It was just so inspiring in itself to see the amount of people that had actually been affected, not by the same thing, but by cancer in itself was insane," Lair said. "You never realize how many people have gone through it until you get it or are around it. Just the backing and the advice and the support I had was tremendous. I couldn't have dreamt of anything better."

    Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at wwheeler@news-leader.com or X at @WyattWheeler_NL .

    This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Connor Lair, a former West Plains star, seeks new chapter in life after beating cancer

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