Connor McCaffery's two-sport plan at Iowa has become a zero-sport reality this school year, as he hasn’t played much basketball or baseball after repeated illnesses. Here, he talks with Chad Leistikow while in Ann Arbor, Mich.
If you’ve watched Hawkeye basketball this season, you’ve probably seen the coach’s 6-foot-5 son sharply dressed in a suit on the end of Iowa’s bench.
What you haven’t seen are the persistent health struggles that Connor McCaffery has faced.
In a recent interview with the Des Moines Register, Connor detailed the string of setbacks that has turned his two-sport plan into essentially a zero-sport reality as a University of Iowa freshman.
A missed diagnosis that only made things worse.
The scary inability to swallow.
Spitting up blood in the middle of the night.
Ringing in the new year from a bed at the university's hospital.
“I want to help the guys,” Connor says. “I want to be out there. I just can’t.”
It all began two days before the basketball season he was planning to play. It’s taken more than three months for Connor just to regain his strength.
A 3:30 a.m. phone call
“From the start of the year,” Connor says, “things didn’t go how I expected.”
That’s putting it mildly.
The plan was to redshirt in basketball as a freshman while devoting the majority of his athletic time to Rick Heller’s baseball team. A power-hitting left-hander, Connor is a legit prospect in both sports out of Iowa City West.
But when Christian Williams abruptly decided to transfer on the eve of Iowa's exhibition basketball season, the plan quickly changed. He would take off the redshirt and play basketball, as Iowa needed a backup to Jordan Bohannon at point guard.
That was a decision Connor could control.
Most of what happened next, he couldn’t.
Two days before the Nov. 10 regular-season opener against Chicago State, he sprained an ankle and missed two games.
“At the same time, my lymph nodes were really swollen,” Connor says. “… I wasn’t in pain, and I wasn’t sick. It was just weird.”
On Nov. 14, the day of Iowa’s second game, his throat was in severe pain. After consulting with trainer Brad Floy, Connor got tested for mononucleosis and strep throat.
The strep test was negative. The mono test, which normally takes a few days, was back within two hours: positive. It was a bad case.
The primary treatment for mono is rest, and the timetable is different for everyone. But as the days wore on, Connor's throat pain got worse. It turns out, he did have strep throat all along — and it had gone untreated.
Oh, and he also was diagnosed with tonsillitis.
So with that unwelcome trifecta, he didn’t travel to Iowa’s tournament in the Cayman Islands just before Thanksgiving.
“He was really hurting,” Fran McCaffery, Iowa’s coach and Connor’s dad, says now. “I’m so glad we didn’t take him to the Caymans.”
While in the Caymans, Fran remembers getting a 3:30 a.m. call from his wife, Margaret. She was crying; so was Connor.
He couldn’t drink water, couldn’t take his medicine.
“I was throwing up, but my throat was swollen shut,” Connor says.
It was as horrible as it sounds.
But after spending all day and night at the hospital, where he got IV fluids and medication, Connor soon felt he might be turning a corner.
More setbacks, surgery
Connor lost a lot of weight — he said he went from 204 pounds to 182 — but regained enough strength to make his Hawkeye debut Dec. 10. He scored five points with four assists in 17 minutes in Iowa’s 31-point win against Southern and played in Iowa's three games after that, all victories.
An 80-73 win against Colorado on Dec. 22 marked Connor’s last game to date.
“My throat was getting bad again. I was getting more tired,” he says. “The mono, I don’t think, was completely gone. I wasn’t myself. By the time the Colorado game came around, my energy had gotten gradually worse.”
There was a reason for that.
On the morning of Dec. 27, Connor went back to the hospital for an emergency tonsillectomy.
He was out indefinitely, a recovery of at least a month after the surgery. He knew he couldn’t eat solid foods for two weeks. His diet sounded like that of a toddler — applesauce, yogurt, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, ice cream.
On New Year’s Eve, he thought to himself: Nine more days, and I can eat again.
Then, another setback.
He woke up spitting blood, and it was gushing out of his throat. Connor’s cauterized throat had broken open; so he had to have the same surgery all over again.
And the time when he could eat something besides runny food was reset to 14 days.
“I was like, ‘Really? Come on,’” Connor says, adding sarcastically: "Perfect New Year’s party."
From Dec. 27 to Jan. 15, he went without solid food.
Amazingly, he still made the Dean’s List in his first college semester.
And he’s gradually gotten better since. He still isn’t cleared to play. What he can do in practice is limited. But he said he has more energy in the classroom, a refreshing change. He has made each of Iowa's past six road trips.
“It’s just good to see him where he’s not miserable,” Fran McCaffery says, “where he can go to class and just function as a normal student.”
A medical redshirt likely
Connor telling his story of health struggles isn't at all a tale of woe-is-me. A mature and impressive 19-year-old, he understands what he experienced wasn't life-or-death. Just four years ago, younger brother Patrick was battling cancer. (Patrick is healthy now and is one of the nation's top 50 prospects in the Class of 2019.)
But Connor's story is important to tell and understand for two reasons.
First, his absence did leave a mark on this year’s Iowa basketball team. Connor could have helped a squad that desperately needs ball handlers and guards who can defend. The Hawkeyes enter the final week of the regular season tied for last in the Big Ten Conference, at 12-17 overall and 3-13 in league play.
“It affected us a lot, because we didn’t have the depth we thought we would have,” Fran McCaffery says. “We didn’t have another true point guard. (Shooting guards) Maishe (Dailey) and Brady (Ellingson) have really battled there. And it takes them away from the things they do well, and that part of their development.”
Second, the story is important to Connor’s eventual application for a medical-hardship waiver. If granted by the Big Ten Conference panel, Connor still would have four years of basketball eligibility remaining.
Connor meets all the key requirements, as long as both Floy and Connor’s doctors have been thoroughly documenting his medical issues and slow progress (which Fran McCaffery said they are).
This should be a cut-and-dried case.
“I think they’ve got plenty (of evidence),” Fran McCaffery says.
But what's next for Connor?
Playing baseball is no longer a realistic option this season; Heller's team is already off to a 3-0 start. Connor plans to join the team at some point, but realizes that the sensible plan is to redshirt.
Though his strength his better overall, he's not in Division I-ready shape. Even though he’ll likely end up redshirting in both sports, he hasn’t enjoyed the benefits of a true redshirt year — the intense strength training, the full-speed practices.
His father says in hindsight, “maybe it was too much” to try both sports as a freshman.
Connor says playing two sports remains the plan, and that this year isn't a fair sample size of whether he can handle it. For now, he just doesn't want to get badly sick again.
“Just taking things slow, trying to get back to a healthy state,” he says. “Big-picture, I don’t want to have more of these hiccups and then end up worse.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.