April 2016 edition of Lacrosse Magazine. Connor McKemey was named a volunteer assistant at High Point in August 2018. He previously served as the director of lacrosse operations for the program.


he face of High Point lacrosse is burned and disfigured.

"> Beneath the Scars: The Face of High Point Lacrosse | USA Lacrosse Magazine

Beneath the Scars: The Face of High Point Lacrosse

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 edition of Lacrosse Magazine. Connor McKemey was named a volunteer assistant at High Point in August 2018. He previously served as the director of lacrosse operations for the program.


he face of High Point lacrosse is burned and disfigured.

It took Connor McKemey a long time to love this version of himself. Pink and white blotches cover most of his face, reminders of the horrific backyard explosion in which he nearly died seven years ago. McKemey was 13 at the time. He first saw his reflection in the dark screen of his laptop while immobilized in a hospital bed at a burn center in Augusta, Ga. He immediately snapped it shut.

Now McKemey sees his scars as symbols of survival, rather than the wounds of a victim. He’s blunt, even funny when asked about the challenges he continues to face due to the accident that charred nearly 90 percent of his body.

“I can legitimately say that I have thin skin,” McKemey said.

That’s because his arms and legs are covered with synthetic skin that’s only four layers thick. Natural skin has seven layers.

On Dec. 21, 2008, a propane tank exploded as McKemey tried to light an outdoor fireplace at his home in Tega Cay, S.C. His mother, Karin, jumped out of a ground-floor window to put out the flames that engulfed her son. Their neighbor, a firefighter, rushed over to smother him in wet towels.

McKemey remembers only brief moments — the ball of fire, the seaming flames and the back of an ambulance — before waking up from a medically induced coma eight weeks later. At first, McKemey’s doctors wanted to keep him alive just long enough for his father, George, a U.S. Marine who was flying back from Iraq the day of the accident, to see him. They gave McKemey a 1-percent chance of survival.

Fifty-one days later, McKemey woke up. A week after that, he breathed without a ventilator. In May 2009, he moved to a rehab center closer to home. He learned to walk, tie his shoes and button his clothes. The following month, he walked across the stage at his eighth-grade graduation.

In July 2009, just seven months after the fire, McKemey played lacrosse again. Before he strapped on his equipment — he had to cut a hole in his left glove because he was missing portions of his fingers and his middle finger was fused perpendicular to his palm — he said something to his parents that now is emblazoned on a purple plaque in the High Point lacrosse locker room.

“Today is the best day,” McKemey said. “Today I play.”

“Today is the best day. Today I play.”


High Point coach Jon Torpey met McKemey after reading about him in the March 2011 edition of Lacrosse Magazine, the cover of which shows him hugging his mother, Karin. At age 32, Torpey was set to become one of the youngest head coaches in Division I. He had 28 recruits scheduled to visit campus when an administrator handed him a copy.

“Read this,” the administrator said. “Check out the last line.”

Torpey tucked the magazine away, then read the article later that night. Nine words would start a friendship extending well beyond player and coach.

Connor hopes to play lacrosse at High Point University.

McKemey admits today he said it in passing. He had driven through High Point’s campus once on his way home from surgery at the University of North Carolina. He liked what he saw, for sure. But what sophomore in high school — who doesn’t have early recruiters breathing down his neck — really knows where he wants to go to college?

“It just gave me something to shoot for,” McKemey said.

Torpey tracked down McKemey through High Point’s admissions department and a guidance counselor at Fort Mill (S.C.) High, then invited him to campus for a lacrosse clinic that summer. McKemey’s body does not regulate heat or cold very well. He bleeds easily. His feet, even with modified cleats, can only absorb so much pounding. The clinic came shortly after one of the more than 130 surgeries McKemey has had since the fire.

“His mom calls him a Labrador retriever. You roll a ball out, and he’s chasing it for eight hours,” Torpey said of McKemey, a three-time all-conference player at Fort Mill. “It was so hot out. He was literally passing out on the field.”

Torpey met with McKemey and his grandfather in the coach’s office afterward. McKemey was big — he actually grew two inches while hospitalized and eventually reached 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, about 100 pounds heavier than he was when he woke up from his coma — and he was skilled. But he wasn’t exactly Division I material.

Still, Torpey saw in McKemey the kind of person that could be a cornerstone of High Point lacrosse.

“When he first came into my office, you can’t help but not feel bad for the kid. He’s so scarred, and what he’s been through,” Torpey said. “But honest to God, over time, when he comes in here, I don’t even see the scars anymore. They’re not there. This guy is funny as hell, he wants to win as much as we do and he loves the sport. He’s one of us.”


McKemey arrived at High Point as a freshman in the fall of 2013. Torpey carved out a role for him as the team’s manager, filming practices and games and occasionally participating in pre-game walk-throughs on the scout team.

Since team managers come and go, McKemey decided to address the players in their first meeting to tell his story and let them know just how much the opportunity meant to him.

“There’s not one kid on the team that doesn’t feel like he’s a part of something,” McKemey said. “There’s no grade difference. There’s no age difference. There’s no difference where you grew up or where you played. As long as you’re wearing the High Point gear, you’re loved just the same.”

Before home games, High Point players tap the plaque on their way out of the locker room. McKemey felt honored to be a part of the Panthers in this way, but he also felt incomplete. He started playing for the club team.

“I was around it so much,” he said. “I just had to pick up a stick and play.”

One afternoon last spring, Torpey was watching film in his office when he looked out his window and saw McKemey playing. It got them both thinking about him suiting up for High Point’s varsity team in 2016.

McKemey, Torpey and assistants Pat Tracy, Ron Garling and Ryan Cassidy met in Torpey’s office to discuss what McKemey would need to do over the summer to join the team in the fall.

“I’ve already been through the hardest thing I’ll ever have to face,” he said. “I put in a tremendous amount of work just to start walking and playing again. I love that grind.”

One obstacle remained. McKemey found himself again addressing the High Point players, again seeking their acceptance. He pointed to the plaque.

“I’m not really living my best days if I’m not out here playing,” he said. “When I’m having my bad days, be there to pick me up. And when you’re having your bad days, you know I’m always there for you.”

His teammates roared in approval.


McKemey lost 50 pounds last summer to get back to his playing weight of 225. He trained so hard that he tore his labrum, battling the injury during the fall before deciding to get it fixed. What was one more surgery, anyway?

McKemey practices with the team on a limited basis Monday through Wednesday and then ramps up to full participation Thursday and Friday. Torpey tries to monitor his activity, especially in extreme weather and during physically taxing drills.

Torpey cringed at a practice when two defenders closed in on McKemey as he caught a high fading pass during a clearing drill — the kind of lob that normally gets you clobbered. But McKemey caught the ball and spun it to a teammate streaking down the field for a fast-break goal. He also scored two goals in a preseason scrimmage Jan. 16 against Catawba, after which he ran to the bench to hug Torpey.

“That article started a relationship that has grown into an unbreakable player-coach bond,” Torpey said in an email he sent to Lacrosse Magazine at 12:51 a.m. that night. “To say I love the young man would be an understatement.” 

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