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Connor Lenahan is obsessed with sports. After only six months on campus, he is the game announcer for women’s basketball, men’s lacrosse, and swimming. When he’s not behind a mic, he can be found in the stands any time another BU team is playing. In his free time he blogs on a wide range of subjects, from Derek Jeter’s retirement to NFL prospect Michael Sam’s recent announcement that he is gay. And he’s an avid follower of ESPN and the sports and pop culture blog Grantland.
So it begs the question: why does Lenahan (COM’17) stick to the sidelines instead of joining a team? He has a incurable congenital bone disease that causes weak bones, and weak bones can break easily. Those born with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) have defective connective tissue or lack the ability to make enough of it. Also known as brittle bone disease, it afflicts between 20,000 and 50,000 people in this country every year. Lenahan spends most of his time in a wheelchair as a precaution against falling and injury.
Even though he has the least severe form of OI, the BU freshman could already count 10 broken bones by the time he was 18—each of his tibias and fibulas twice, his left femur, his right femur three times, his right elbow, and his L5 vertebra. All it took for a snap was a fall or an accidental bump from a passerby.
In January, his wheelchair got stuck on a snowbank in Kenmore Square. It took five Good Samaritans to stop traffic and push it out of the sludge and ice. Unable to move much during the ordeal for fear of injury, Lenahan’s hands got frostbitten. That incident is just one of the brutally honest experiences he shares on his blog—fittingly named Unbreakable—which reveals what it’s like to live with the condition. One blog entry:
“I walk alongside walls to prevent falling. I waddle to not slip. I take precautions to protect myself at every turn. I’m horrified of what would happen to me if I didn’t. I’m lucky to have only broken my legs (and an arm) a few times. I could have severely fractured my spine or, God forbid, my head. I have to find ways of appearing bulletproof. If other people believe that I’m indestructible, then I’ll start to buy into it too….I walk (or roll) around with a confidence that I can do whatever the hell I want to if I put my mind to it.”
It is that confidence and perseverance that makes Lenahan such an inspiration, friends say. “Connor has a persona about him. The minute he walks into our practices or games, we go right over to give him a high five,” says Clodagh Scannell (CGS’14), a guard on the women’s basketball team, who grew up in Ireland. “I don’t think I’ve started a game this year without speaking to Connor first. He is a sweetheart, and one of the most amazing people I’ve met since I moved to America freshman year.”
Despite his illness, Lenahan—who has strawberry blond hair and wears thick tortoiseshell glasses—is a typical college student. He lucked out on a single in Warren Towers and relies on a wheelchair to get to class and the gym. An animated talker, he spits out sports stats and makes friends easily. He eats in the dining hall, explores Boston, and has been known to stay out until 3 a.m. on a school night to see the Arctic Monkeys.
Growing up in Waverly, Pa., Lenahan wondered if he’d ever be able to live independently. A weeklong journalism camp junior year of high school made him realize that he could. When it came time to apply to college, he looked for schools that were not only handicapped-accessible, but also offered a big sports program. He set his sights on Syracuse and Penn State. His mother suggested he check out BU.
“At first I said, ‘No, I’m a Yankees fan. I can’t live in Boston,’ but I dropped the stubborn act once I realized it could be a cool place for me,” Lenahan says. “Within 20 minutes of visiting, I knew this was the place for me. I applied early decision and got in.”
Nine days before high school graduation, he tripped and broke his tibia and fibula for the second time. He spent the next 74 days in a cast, but refused to let the setback slow him down when he arrived at BU last fall. Early on, he met with Disability Services and introduced himself to staff at the Dean of Students office. During Orientation, he bonded with Kenneth Elmore (SED’87), the dean of students, over a love of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.
Shortly after arriving at BU, the never-shy Lenahan was heading back from the dining hall one night when he passed Maurice Watson Jr. (CGS’14), a guard on the men’s basketball team, and introduced himself. He’d been in the stands two years back when Watson’s team played Lenahan’s high school, and he remembered the game, and the guard. The Pennsylvania natives exchanged numbers and started eating lunch together. Watson invited him to stop by practice, and once there, Lenahan never left. Every afternoon, he sits off to the side during practice, working the buzzer or shouting words of encouragement.
Lenahan’s announcing career started during his high school sophomore year, when he told a senior, “I want your job.” He mastered the skill quickly. At BU, he soon started filling in at women’s basketball games and swim meets. He did such a good job that he was offered the full-time announcer position for women’s basketball, lacrosse, and swimming. His “dream job” is to become the announcer for men’s basketball.
Dan Mercurio (COM’10), director of marketing and strategic planning for athletics, says Lenahan has taken on more than the average student employee. “He’s done a fantastic job so far and gets better with every game,” Mercurio says. “We look forward to having him for three more years.”
Meanwhile, Lenahan’s health has shown signs of improvement. For the past eight years, he’s been undergoing drug treatments to try to make his body build up more bone density. He combines the drug regimen with physical therapy and light exercise at FitRec, like swimming.
Two weeks ago, he got some good news. The results from a test he took over winter break indicate that his bone density is higher than ever. “It will always be lower than what the median bone density is for the average person, but it’s not by much anymore,” he says. “The more and more they do this, the more that my osteogenesis imperfecta becomes a nonfactor. I don’t want to break anything ever again, but being a realist, if it happens, the quicker I’ll recover, the faster I’ll get back up, and the more I’ll be able to say, I’m unbreakable. This won’t be able to beat me.”