Duke QB Connette returns after vigil at ill mother's bedside

Dec. 27, 2013 @ 10:31 AM

With a paper to finish, a final exam to take and Texas A&M’s defense on his mind, Duke quarterback Brandon Connette had a full plate on Dec. 12.

One conversation with his father changed everything.

Brandon learned that his mother, Nancy Connette, was being prepped for emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor that was robbing her vision.

Getting home to California became the No.1 priority for Brandon Connette.

Nancy Connette survived brain surgery, but not without anxious moments that occurred while Brandon Connette was in the air traveling home. She lost more than half of the blood in her body while the tumor was being removed and suffered a stroke.

For the last two weeks, Brandon stood vigil near his mother’s bedside in intensive care along with his father, his six siblings and other family members.

“It’s a scary situation anytime a family member goes through something like this,” Brandon Connette said Thursday by phone from Atlanta. “It really ripped my heart out.”

On Christmas Day, Nancy Connette had improved enough to be moved out of intensive care to a regular room.

With that, Brandon Connette felt comfortable enough to travel to Atlanta, where on Thursday morning he practiced with Duke as the Blue Devils prepare for their Chick-fil-A Bowl game against Texas A&M on Tuesday (8 p.m., ESPN).

“This was a very emotional decision for him,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “He’s really been at his mother’s bedside for this entire time. I think it’s going to be good therapy for him. He was good at practice today.”

Two weeks earlier, in southern California, Nancy Connette and her husband, Allen, met with a doctor for what was supposed to be a consultation to set up an outpatient procedure.

She had been experiencing excessive thirst for months and, lately, experiencing vision problems. The initial diagnosis was a small tumor affecting the pituitary gland and the optic nerve.

But, on Dec. 12, a doctor told them Nancy had a larger brain tumor that needed to be addressed with open brain surgery as soon as possible. While an operating room was being arranged, Allen Connette started contacting family members.

Duke was in the midst of a break from practice for final exams, but it was clear Brandon Connette wouldn’t be in position to complete his coursework.

Duke officials postponed his academic work. Cutcliffe allowed him to miss practice for as long as he needed. A plane ticket home was arranged, in accordance with NCAA rules which allow the school to help with travel home under such hardship circumstances.

“I can’t speak enough about how much Duke University has helped me and my family at this time,” Brandon Connette said.

That help continued the entire time Connette was in California. He was constantly in contact with his teammates and coaches, who inquired about his mother, his own well-being and even talked football to give him mental break.

“Everyone was calling me on a consistent basis,” Connette said. “We’d talk football. Talk about practice. They kept me filled in. We have really felt Duke’s presence throughout this whole thing.”

That included an extra step from Anthony Boone, Duke’s starting quarterback. Without being asked, Boone gathered Connette’s stuff in Durham, packed it and made sure it made it to Atlanta Christmas night.

Back in California, Nancy Connette has steadily improved since those first few days after surgery. While still needing a feeding tube, she is able to talk again. Her memory has gaps but there is hope it will return. The stroke has left her partially paralyzed.

The surgeon told the family that 95 percent of the tumor was removed. But, on Thursday, pathology reports showed Nancy Connette is suffering from Stage 4 malignant cancer that had spread from another part of her body.

On Christmas Day, even though the family had been through so much stress that it hardly felt like Christmas, Brandon Connette said some presents were brought to his mom’s hospital room so his younger brothers could experience Christmas.

The rest of the family will celebrate Christmas later.

His biological family in California, as well as his college family at Duke, has already blessed him, Brandon Connette said, by helping him through a tough time.

“That’s when your faith is really tested,” Brandon Connette said. “I’m lucky to have a strong family. The strength of our family and our faith is what kept me grounded, helping me trust what was going on.”

Nancy Connette’s progress won’t allow her to be in Atlanta for the Chick-fil-Bowl. But Brandon Connette knows his mother will be keeping track.

“She will be awake enough to watch the game,” he said, “which will be amazing for me knowing that she is watching.”