If you've ever been to a Westfield State football game, you have probably noticed five-foot-two junior Connor Flanagan, amongst the sea of football players behind him.
Flanagan, a communications major, is the manager for the Westfield State Owls football team, and has been for his three seasons at Westfield State.
Football has always been a big part of the Flanagan family, with Connor's dad Mike starting three years at Holy Cross. But Connor had a significant barrier in his life that would prevent him from playing the sport past a young age.
"As a kid I played football, but ended up getting sick, so I couldn't play contact football anymore," said Flanagan. "When I was six years old I was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia…all the medications from that lead me to have a double-lung transplant my freshman year of high school," said Flanagan.
"I just love sports and I try to stay around it as much as I can," he said, which ultimately led him to test out his management skills for the first time his senior year at Tyngsboro High School.
"My senior year I actually managed our basketball team. I loved doing it, just being with the guys, helping them out, and watching them play," Flanagan said.
"When I came to Westfield, you know, just a regular student, all the kids on my floor happened to be football players," said Flanagan, and after getting to know Connor, some of players suggested he come manage the football team here at Westfield State.
"I knew he was coming here so I went up to Coach K's office when I was a sophomore and I asked him if Connor could be a part of the team and told him his story, and here we are today," said Westfield State senior cornerback and team captain Jack Buckley, who grew up one street away from Flanagan in Tyngsboro.
"I actually got a text from Jack Buckley, saying 'come to our practice today, you have a meeting with our head football coach at two o'clock'," Flanagan said.
After the meeting with Westfield State head coach Pete Kowalski, Flanagan hit the ground running as the Owls football manager. At first, he started with small responsibilities and tasks such as recording the game for film review later, but as time went on, Flanagan became an integral member of the Owls' staff.
"My biggest [duty] is to keep practice on time," said Flanagan. "I'm in charge of making sure every period is scheduled correctly, making sure no-one goes over and no-one goes under."
"He does everything - he runs the schedule, he's a big part of the team," said Buckley.
Flanagan also works with Kowalski and the linebackers.
"I think having him as part of the program is great, he's a great role model...he's very conscientious, he's always there, he's very serious," said Kowalski. "The things he's been through in his life…it puts everything in your life in perspective."
"Connor is the toughest human being on the face of the planet, and I can guarantee everyone on the football team would say that," said Buckley.
Kowalski missed the last three games of 2018 with leg injuries after being injured when play spilled off the field during a game and he was rolled up on.
"When I was injured last year and was unable to come to practice, he ran the practice for the linebackers during their individual period," Kowalski said. "He will tell them what he thinks of their performance and critiques them and does a great job."
"The kid studies film, he knows players' tendencies, and he gets on kids…and these guys are responding to it," added Buckley.
Flanagan maintains many strong friendships on the team, name checking what seems to be half the roster when asked who are some of his best friends on the team.
Flanagan and Coach K have also developed a unique bond.
"He's a great guy," said Flanagan of Kowalski. "He knows everything about his players…he knows this guy, that guy, who his high school coach was, who his grandfather is. It's fascinating to see how he retains all that…but you can tell he really cares about all the players on his team, and that's important."
"His worst day can't compare to any of our worst days," said Kowalski very emotionally of Flanagan's challenges. "And he's still positive…he's well balanced, enthusiastic, he's everything you'd want in your son."
Thankfully for Connor, the lung transplant was successful and he looks forward to a bright future. In fact, the day we talked to Connor was the six-year anniversary of the lung transplant. Looking back on his battle with cancer and various illnesses, Flanagan reflected on some major lessons learned from the experience.
"Life isn't easy and it's not fair," he said, "You have to be grateful for every opportunity that you're given and be able to look at the bright side of things. There are always going to be bad things that happen, but no matter how bad things get there is always someone who has it worse."
After a rocky start to the season, the Owls picked up their first win of the year, 26-7 over Fitchburg State. Flanagan and the Owls have been enjoying a bye week before returning to the field on Saturday, November 2 when they host Worcester State.
"Working with the football team has taught me what it means to be a part of something more than just yourself," said Flanagan. "Football is a team game just like life. I don't think one person can succeed at the game of life without the help from someone else…life is a team sport."