Huntington youth has big return to football field thanks to Make-A-Wish, NFLer Jameis Winston

Conner West (left), of Huntington, stands with Jameis Winston, the starting quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the National Football League, on Dec. 28 last year in Tampa, FL. West got to meet Winston, his favorite athlete, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which granted West a wish after he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2016. West is now cancer-free.
Conner West (left), of Huntington, stands with Jameis Winston, the starting quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the National Football League, on Dec. 28 last year in Tampa, FL. West got to meet Winston, his favorite athlete, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which granted West a wish after he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2016. West is now cancer-free. Photo provided.

When Conner West, of Huntington, was fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia, one of the casualties was his senior season on the Huntington North High School varsity football team.

Ultimately, West beat leukemia. And, fittingly, with the fight behind him, he found his way onto a football field once more.

Only this field wasn’t Kriegbaum Field, the home of West’s Huntington North Vikings. Over a thousand miles away from Huntington, the venue was Raymond James Stadium, in Tampa, FL, the home of West’s favorite football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It was gameday. And after standing on the field, followed by the sidelines while the Bucs warmed up, West was greeted by his favorite player, quarterback Jameis Winston, before he jogged off the field.

The experience represented the fulfillment of West’s submission to the Make-A-Wish Foundation during his battle with leukemia. Make-A-Wish is a nonprofit organization that aims to make the dreams of young people who have life-threatening illnesses a reality.

For West, his wish was to meet Winston, whose career he’d followed for years. West says he was initially drawn to Winston because he believed the quarterback received too much flak from football fans and media members over his behavior off the field.

“When he was a freshman he was, like, the big thing,” says West of when Winston was a first-year player for Florida State University. “And then he had his off-the-field stuff.

“So, everybody is making him a villain. So, I was just like, ‘Well, I’ll like the villain. I’ll be the guy that likes him.’”

West says one of his favorite things about Winston is his confidence. He also appreciates the passer’s ability to motivate his teammates.

“He’s, like, a big hype guy, too, and I love that,” remarks West.

West says he filled out the Make-A-Wish paperwork in the months following his leukemia diagnosis in November 2016. Amidst chemotherapy sessions, it was something to look forward to.

West spent stretches of time at Riley Hospital for Children, in Indianapolis, during his leukemia battle. Of those stretches, the lengthiest one commenced late in the summer of 2017, when he underwent a bone marrow transplant. His bone marrow donor was his older brother, Jordan.

The procedure was a crucial one, as it saw West infused with healthy blood-forming cells to replace unhealthy ones that had been eradicated by chemotherapy.

The transplant occurred on Aug. 1. West spent the remainder of the month recovering. His recuperation continued into September and he returned home on Oct. 5 – a day before the penultimate game of the Huntington North football team’s regular season.

Following such a transplant, West and his mother, Lynda Wall, share that the most important checkups come six and 12 months out.
For West, both checkups gave him and his family reason to celebrate; he was cancer-free.

“He doesn’t have any physical restraint,” says Wall. “He can do anything that he could before.”

During this time, arrangements were being made to grant West’s wish to meet Winston. This past November, he got confirmation that it was going to happen, and dates for when the trip would occur.

On Dec. 27, West flew to Tampa, along with Wall, his stepfather Todd Wall and his brother Trevor. The following day, West and his family visited the Buccaneers’ practice facility. Upon arriving, they each received a bag filled with team merchandise.

“It filled a suitcase to bring it all home,” says Wall.

West and Co. were led on a tour of the facility. After eating, they exited the facility – and what would prove to be one of the highlights of the trip unfolded.

“Then we went out to the practice field and watched the last 15 to 20 minutes of practice and then that’s when I walked onto the practice field, toward the end zone,” says West. “That’s when they just started sending the players my way.”

One of those players was the Bucs’ star wide receiver, Mike Evans.

“Mike Evans comes up to me,” shares West. “He just takes his gloves off and asks me if I want his gloves. ‘Yeah!’ And said, ‘You want these cleats, too?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ So, then he took off his cleats and he signed both of his cleats for me.”

West had a Buccaneers football, which the players filled with autographs.

West was surrounded by players, exchanging pleasantries, when one player, clad in a familiar No. 3 jersey, approached him.

It was Winston.

The quarterback greeted West. The two then found an open spot on the field where West could toss a pass to Evans, with Winston giving him pointers.

From there, West, his family members and Winston headed into the facility, where they sat down and socialized.

Wall says she was impressed by how personable Winston was, remarking that he talked to the family “just like he’d known us.”

Overall, West says the encounter went just like he imagined it would. After following Winston and his career for so long, West says he had a good feel for what the athlete would be like.

“I knew sort of, like, his demeanor, you could say,” West observes. “It kind of lined up.”

“Most people, they don’t see everything,” he says of Winston. “They only see, like, the ‘Rah! Rah!’ or the bad stuff that comes out.”

On Sunday, West and his family attended the Buccaneers’ game against the Atlanta Falcons. In addition to spending time on the field and sidelines, West also got to venture into the Bucs’ locker room.

“Most people don’t get to do that,” says Wall. “That was pretty cool.”

Wall also thought it was cool that Winston took the time to greet her son after the Bucs finished warming up.

“He found Conner and gave him a hug before he went off the field,” she says. “That was cool to me. It wasn’t just Friday. He was very nice Sunday, too. And the other players, too.”

When the game started, West and Co. took in the action from one of the stadium’s luxury suites.

With leukemia now in the rearview mirror, West, 19, is getting on with his life. He’s a freshman at Huntington University, studying entrepreneurial small business. He also has a part-time job.

Ultimately, Wall is grateful for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and how it gave her son such an indelible experience following the most difficult period of his life.

“They just do amazing things to reward the kids for having to go through hell for a little while,” she says. “It’s pretty neat what that foundation does.”