Play Like Connor Today and Beyond

May 4, 2007

by Emily Meyer

There are people in this world that posses an innate quality. Indescribable as it is, it attracts everyone around them and makes life seem a little less harsh. Connor Senn, a defender on the Ohio State men's soccer team in 2001, was that type of person. The gifted young man was not the kind of guy to flaunt his talents in the locker room or on the field. Instead, Senn showed up to practice every day prepared to work harder than the day before.

His magnetic personality, the gift he gave to his teammates, is the reason why nearly six years after Senn collapsed during the second half of Ohio State's match at the University of Akron on September 26, 2001 and later passed away that night, the men's soccer team still strives to 'Play Like Connor Today.'

The team's mantra does not simply pertain to the game of soccer but has more to do with the game of life. For Ohio State men's soccer head coach John Bluem, the motto is a challenge to his student-athletes to live their lives like Senn lived his. Although Senn was only with the team for the first eight regular-season games of the 2001 season, he had already found his niche on the team. Bluem knew his incoming freshman was going to bring great athleticism to the squad, but was surprised by the ease in which Senn made the transition to college life.

"Connor was a very unique kid," Bluem said. "He was the kind of a person that immediately became a leader through his personality and the way he conducted himself. He wasn't the guy to boast about his ability. Instead, he came in and went quietly about his job. Off the field, he immediately became of the focal point of the rookie group."

The walk-on defender from Granville, Ohio, was recruited by Ohio State with a promise of a spot on the team but not a scholarship. Yet, that did not stop Senn. Through hard work in preseason training, Senn, the son of former Buckeye tennis player Lance Senn, proved himself worthy of more than just a spot on the team. The rookie's uncompromising passion and perseverance helped him crack into the starting lineup for five of his eight games as a Buckeye. "He impressed all of us with his dedication and his ability to play the game," Bluem said. "We knew Connor was a good player but I didn't think he was going to step into the starting lineup. He was clearly talented and a good athlete but Connor really surprised me with his ability to make the adjustment from club soccer to Division I soccer."

Then in an instant, the spark to the OSU squad was altered. With the shock of Senn's passing, the young athletes looked to each other to overcome the loss of their teammate. The season was postponed until after the funeral service and the team meet each night for dinner. Heartbreaking messages were penned to their fallen teammate on a chair he laid claim to at the team's house near campus, a chair that now hangs in the men's soccer locker room. The untimely passing of the young Buckeye troubled both the Ohio State and Granville communities.

Senn family friend Dave Tumbas knew Senn before he could walk. In the wake of Senn's death, Tumbas played the dutiful neighbor and helped gather the freshman's belongings from his dorm. Only a year later, Tumbas would find himself a leading member of the Connor Senn Memorial Game Board of Directors.

"The kid was just amazing," Tumbas said. "I knew him for 18 years and he never had a bad day in his life. When we were collecting Connor's things, Lance and I noticed the students on his floor posted a sign in the dorm hallway that said 'Play Like Connor Today.' That's where the soccer team got its motto. Connor had been an inspiration from the first day he stepped on campus."

Each spring, Senn's legacy is honored at the Connor Senn Memorial Game which pits Ohio State vs. Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew. In its sixth year, the game has grown to include a widely successful silent auction. After attending the first annual memorial game in April 2002, Tumbas saw its potential to grow into a community event. Shortly after, he contacted Bluem and asked how he could help with the memorial game. At that point, it was just Bluem and the Ohio State soccer program running the show. In the following five years, Tumbas and the board of directors, including former Buckeye Jim Waters (1982-83) who serves as president of the OSU Soccer Alumni Club, have helped to increase the proceeds from the event each year, including a record $23,000 raised Wednesday at the sixth annual match.

During the game, Crew midfielder Danny O'Rourke wore a No. 22 jersey with "SENN" on the back in honor of his seven-year club soccer teammate and then donated the jersey to the silent auction. The 2007 memorial game was the most successful to date as a record 2,053 fans came out to support the event. With the additions of the funds generated Wednesday from corporate and patron contributions, ticket sales and the silent auction, the scholarship is now at the $100,000 mark needed for it to become fully endowed.

"The Buckeye family really kicks in with help for the silent auction," Tumbas said. "Both OSU coaches and former athletes now playing in the professional leagues donate a lot of autographed memorabilia."

For Bluem, the outpouring of support from the local community has been a silver-lining on a tragic situation. The Ohio State men's soccer team looks to keep Senn's memory alive within the program and continue to raise money to give another student-athlete the chance to learn how to live like Connor did.

As time continues, new generations of Buckeyes fill out the Ohio State roster. Although no one on the current OSU roll call knew Senn as a teammate, head coach John Bluem makes sure they know his story.

"We talk about it each year with the team," Bluem said. "I tell every recruit that ends up signing with Ohio State the story before they come here because it was a very good life lesson for all of us. At first, the guys didn't want to come back and play again in 2001 and it was a very difficult for them to do, but they finished out the season and made the NCAA tournament that year. We overcame a very difficult circumstance and that's a credit to the players."

Current Buckeye goalkeeper Casey Latchem looks forward to the event each spring because of the importance of Senn's legacy within the men's soccer program.

"During the game I took a look around and it was great to see the band and the big crowd and the auction going on," Latchem said. "It's just great to see how many people appreciate what this game is all about. We really look forward to this game. There are so many people involved so it just keeps getting bigger.

"We know that he was an unbelievable player, a hard worker and someone with a great attitude," Latchem added. "Every day we are reminded of that. His picture is in our locker room and this event is a great way to remember him. Like the sign in our locker room says, 'Play Like Connor Today.' That's what we are all about."

Through the community's support, Senn's character and leadership will forever remain a part of the Ohio State men's soccer program as it offers an aspiring student-athlete the chance to be a part of the Buckeye tradition. As Bluem continues to connect his incoming players to Senn's story, he reminds them of the challenge they face when they lace up their cleats and take the field to maintain the tradition and 'Play Like Connor Today.'