KENTWOOD – Six months ago, East Kentwood junior standout Brody Conlon couldn’t imagine sprinting down the soccer field and delivering a booming shot to the back of the net.
An unfortunate diagnosis had put his budding soccer career on pause.
In January, Conlon was told by doctors that he had ulcerative colitis. The disease prevented him from playing soccer or attending school for five months.
Conlon returned to the sport he loves this fall to help lead the Falcons to a successful season.
“If you told me six months ago that I was able to play 80 minutes, pretty much every game for a whole high school season, I honestly wouldn't believe you,” said Conlon, who recorded 11 goals and 22 assists.
“But high school soccer is so special and was definitely a great way to bring me back into the sport again after being out for such a long time.”
Last November Conlon, a nationally-ranked midfielder, was in Florida with his Midwest United Region II ODP team when he felt sick and his stomach was hurting during games.
He returned home to undergo testing, and after the diagnosis started on a drug protocol and heavy steroids.
Conlon basically was bedridden from January to May.
“I was definitely upset, and it was tough because I couldn't do things that I've always done like soccer and being at school every day. But I learned to cope with it pretty quick and embrace it, and I think I did pretty well getting out of it,” Conlon said. “I kept going through the day like it wasn’t affecting me as much as it was, and eventually I think my mind overcame it.
“The key was staying positive. Negativity builds up so you have to stay positive, even in the tougher moments. That’s when you have to pull through. There were days where I would start to feel better and then I would crash and burn again so it was tough because it was like a mind game, but eventually I got used to it.”
Ulcerative colitis is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease in which abnormal reactions of the immune system cause inflammation and ulcers on the inner lining of the large intestine. It can develop at any age, but the disease is more likely to develop in people between the ages of 15 and 30.
Conlon is the son of former East Kentwood coach and current Byron Center girls soccer coach John Conlon, who won 376 games guiding the Falcons from 2000-21.
“The whole last year has been a bit of a whirlwind,” John Conlon said. “Brody had been telling me for five months that he had a "disease" and it just wasn't diagnosed yet. When we were told by doctors that he had ulcerative colitis, it was a real shock to the system because we truly didn't know much about the disease.
“We were told it was in the same autoimmune class as Crohn's. To be honest, my wife Kelly and I had to read everything we could on it because we were unfamiliar. What stood out right away is that every patient responds differently to the protocols and drug protocols for the disease. He tends to have a pretty severe case.”
The experience took a toll on the family.
“What was hard for me was to see my son struggling physically, and as a parent I could only offer the advice that was given to us by physicians,” John Conlon continued. “In July, we started to see some improvement from the drug Rinvoq. We spoke with Luke Ruff (Brody’s MLS coach) who was amazing and fully agreed that high school would be a good bridge to get Brody back to where he needs to be.”
Brody Conlon showed little effect this fall as he shined while catapulting the Falcons to a 12-5-1 record.
East Kentwood’s season ended with a disappointing 2-0 loss to Byron Center in District play.
“I was definitely happy with how I played, battling two things at once with the pressure of having a good season then also the stomach stuff, but I think I did pretty well with that,” Brody Conlon said. “We had a great season, and soccer can be brutal. You have to be at your best every game, and the state tournament is where you have to be the best at.
“It was tough because no one likes losing, but I was able to play with the guys I’ve known forever so in the end the positives outweigh the negatives in this situation.”
Falcons assistant coach Carl Warfield, who began with the program under John Conlon and has continued the last two seasons with current head coach Giuseppe Barone, said they would pull Brody from games to give him breaks, but "I can count on one hand the number of times this season he asked for one during a game, and even then he wanted right back in to keep supporting the team.
"The days after games could be really tough on him," Warfield continued. "The pain would sometimes keep him from coming to school the day after a game. Brody really has been a study in courage and determination that anyone could draw inspiration from. He has maintained his grades and shown constant leadership all season while dealing with his disease."
Conlon also was dealing with the loss of a former East Kentwood standout who he idolized as a young kid.
Nermin Crnkic, who helped the Falcons win three Division 1 championships and played professionally, was found dead in his apartment in early July after a heart attack.
“That had a huge effect on me,” Conlon said. “I’ve grown up around Nermin, and he was my idol when I was growing up in soccer. It was definitely a huge blow to me, but it was motivation for me to play and play for him.
“I was number seven my freshman year, but after hearing the news I decided to take number 10 and play for Nermin this year.”
John Conlon is amazed by the way his son has handled his condition.
“Brody is as tough a young man as anyone I have been around,” he said. “He battles this disease every day and has handled it more maturely than I could have at the same age.
“I'm sure there are other athletes out there battling similar diseases or even more difficult situations. I think Brody's goal is to show the world that an obstacle will never stop him, and hopefully that inspires young players. It's the toughest thing I have ever dealt with as a parent, but Brody handles it with dignity and grace.”
Added Warfield: "I have coached a lot of players, but Brody’s determination to compete and not let his disease stop him from playing the game he loves so passionately is truly amazing. He has been an inspiration to every player on the team and (I) truly believe that his efforts and determination were a large part of our success this season."
Brody Conlon said the high school season “took a lot out of me,” but he’s expected to rejoin his club team at some point.
He remains optimistic about his future.
“It's one of those diseases that the doctor says I could have for the rest of my life, or it could just go away,” he said. “I’m just going to keep doing me and being me. Everyone has something that affects them, but you just have to keep pushing through it and better days will come. I’ve progressed a lot this year, and I believe I will keep improving.”
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS (Top) East Kentwood’s Brody Conlon (10) returned to the field this fall with his high school team. (Middle) Brody Conlon, far right, takes a photo with past East Kentwood star Nermin Crnkic, center, two summers ago. (Below) Conlon reached double-digit goals and assists this season. (Photos courtesy of the Conlon family.)
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