Oct. 21, 2008
'Football saved his life'
By Rick Weegman
Tyler Conito was in the right place at the right
time during Duluth Denfeld’s final regular-season football
game Wednesday when he caught a touchdown pass that had slipped
through a teammate’s hands in the end zone.
He was in the right place at the right time a
little more than two years ago too, when as a 15-year-old sophomore
he was brought into the emergency room at St. Mary’s Medical
Center for X-rays of broken ribs suffered during a football game
and a cancerous tumor was found.
“In our eyes, football saved his life,”
said his father, Ken Conito.
Football also kept Conito going through 10½
exhausting months of chemotherapy and through strenuous rehabilitation
“During cancer treatments, he stayed positive,”
his father said. “The most important thing was to get back
out on the field with his teammates.”
Now a senior, Conito is preparing for perhaps
his final game with his high school teammates. Sixth-seeded Denfeld
(1-6) faces third-seeded Cloquet (5-3) at 8 p.m. today in the second
game of a Section 7AAAA playoff doubleheader at Public Schools Stadium.
It was on that same field Sept. 29, 2006, that
Conito, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound running back, was injured in a B-squad
game against Duluth East. He was taken to St. Mary’s that
evening for X-rays.
“I could barely stand up or breathe,”
recalled Conito, who was told that X-rays confirmed he had broken
ribs but also something much worse. “I was shocked; it was
the last thing I was expecting. I just thought it was broken ribs
or, worst-case [scenario], maybe internal bleeding.”
Instead, tests showed Conito had large B-cell
non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Doctors told Conito’s parents that
the tumor was growing rapidly and he needed to undergo chemotherapy
“Had it not been detected at that time and
the treatments started at that time, Tyler wouldn’t be with
us,” Ken Conito said.
After initial treatments at the University of
Minnesota hospitals, Conito continued chemo at St. Mary’s.
Instead of getting down, he contented himself by playing Nintendo
with teammates at the hospital.
“I didn’t really believe it. Obviously,
a friend having cancer is kind of surreal,” senior running
back Drake Willis said. “But he wasn’t depressed at
all. He thought positive all the time — about everything.”
Conito spent the rest of his sophomore year being
home-schooled and tutored. He’ll still need to make up sophomore
English before he graduates in the spring.
But he says the driving force to recover was returning
to the gridiron.
“That was the first thing on my mind,”
he said. “All I thought about was playing football.”
Nearly a year after treatments began, doctors
performed a biopsy and found that a liquid sac had formed and attached
itself to one of Conito’s lungs. Fearing another cancerous
tumor, they removed that section of lung. Further testing showed
the sac was benign and Conito has been cancer-free since.
He participated in seven-on-seven drills in the
summer of 2007 and played on the varsity last year. Still, he says
he became winded because he was out of shape and wasn’t physically
fit until midway through the season. That didn’t matter to
his fellow Hunters, however.
“Yes it’s important to me that he’s
playing football again … but he’s alive,” Denfeld
coach Frank Huie said. “I’ve lost both my parents to
cancer, but he’s alive. That’s enough for me right there.
He’s surviving cancer, what a gift.”
Both of Ken Conito’s parents died of cancer,
as did a sister, so Tyler knows he’s lucky. He says he’ll
remember that the rest of his life.
“You have to live everything to the fullest,”
he said. “If you don’t, you never know what’s
going to happen.”
And while he’d like to continue his high
school football career at least one more game, Conito’s already
posted the biggest victory of his life.
“He’s a fighter and never quits; he’s
determined to win,” Ken Conito said. “But no matter
if they win or lose [tonight], it’s a win for him.”