Lionhearted

 

Danny Connell is a hockey player, with all the passion and toughness that designation implies. He’s been on the ice since he was four. “It’s the love of his life,” his mother says.

This past summer, Danny was getting ready for a big step forward: At 14 and a freshman-to-be, he was going out for his high school team. Of course, that meant a comprehensive physical, of that sort that would be a formality for most kids. But his parents knew this was anything but for Danny: There was a family history of heart issues on his father’s side, including an uncle who died of an enlarged heart in his early 30s. It was a risk they had to take seriously.

“They did an EKG and a stress test, and at first, everything looked fine,” Nicole Connell said. “But then they did an echocardiogram, and the story totally changed.”

The Connell family was together in the doctor’s office when they got the news: The echocardiogram revealed a genetic flaw in Danny’s heart. He’d never be able to play hockey again; the contact could be fatal. It was, Nicole says, “As if someone had just punched him in the stomach. It was an awful, awful moment.”

There would be no easy way to get through this, but even as the Connells tried to come to terms with the news, they stumbled across some perspective. It helped that theirs is a Penn State family. Nicole Baraldi Connell ’97 works in marketing communications at Penn State Abington, and she comes from a long line of Nittany Lion fans. Among them is her father, and when he heard the news of Danny’s diagnosis, he told Nicole about someone whose story might help.

“My dad asked if I knew about Nana,” she says. “He said, ‘You should reach out.’”

Nana Asiedu, of course, is the former high school All-American who arrived in State College this summer as part of a terrific Nittany Lions recruiting class, only to learn in June that he was living with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle. Like Danny Connell, Asiedu was told that continuing to play football with such a condition could prove deadly. Just as he was about to embark on his college football career, he had to give up the game he loved.

 

 

For Nicole, Asiedu’s story—of abruptly having his dream snatched away from him, of having to give up the thing that so defined his identity—hit incredibly close to home. She had reason to believe it would resonate with her son, whose own love of Penn State was blossoming. Coming up to campus for a hockey clinic last year, Danny got to skate at Pegula Arena and stay in East Halls. After that, Nicole laughs, “He was like, ‘Can we move here?’”

And then, a silver lining: Weekend hockey commitments had made it tough for the family to get up to Beaver Stadium from their home outside Philly, but now their schedule had opened up. The Connells came up for the Appalachian State and Kent State games last month, and Nicole says Danny and his younger sister, Meghan, were mesmerized, particularly watching the student section in action. “They both just fell in love with it,” she says.

It was around this time that Nicole decided to reach out to Asiedu on Twitter and share Danny’s story, in the hope that they could connect—“Just to shake Danny’s hand, tell him to keep your chin up.” Asiedu’s response was simple but, for Nicole, overwhelming.

 

 

Not long after, she heard from former Nittany Lion Adam Taliaferro, whose own life-changing football moment happened a few years before Danny was born.

“Now he’s learning Adam’s story,” Nicole says, “and we talk about how these guys are helping others now.”

Danny has the example, and soon he’ll have a chance to meet his inspiration. The Connells’ next trip to Happy Valley will come in the next few weeks—the team invited Danny to come to practice and meet Asiedu in person. As an alumna and longtime Penn State football fan, Nicole laughs, “I don’t know who’s more excited, him or me.”

Of the invitation, she says, “I was blown away. Just going through all this, a small thing like that has made such a difference. It’s just good to see him so happy.”

It all started with that simple reply from Nana. “I’m not surprised,” Nicole says. “He’s got an extra big heart.”

 

 

 

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