EASTON – Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Connor McKemey survived stronger and determined to live life to the fullest.
Now he’s sharing the lessons he’s learned from an explosive fire that almost killed him when he was just 13 years old.
Now 27, McKemey addressed more than 200 Ss. Peter and Paul middle and high school students at an assembly on Friday, Oct. 14, in Easton.
His goal: To help others understand how to deal with adversity and thrive in spite of it. His core beliefs of motivation, attitude and courage form his “MAC Mentality” he’s been sharing with students across the country for the past 18 months.
He wears his “battle armor” every day, McKemey said. That armor is the network of physical scars, as well as the mental resilience he’s developed through multiple surgeries and intense physical therapy.
Four days before Christmas 2008 in Tega Cay, South Carolina, a windborne spark from the backyard fireplace McKemey tried to light ignited a nearby gas canister, which suddenly exploded. Neighbors ran to extinguish the flames that engulfed the teenager; he suffered burns over 90% of his body (75% of them third-degree burns) and was given a 1% chance of survival.
When he began recovering, the athlete who had played three sports in middle school was told he would never walk again.
After three months in a medically-induced coma, two years of painful rehabilitation, and more than 100 surgeries over a decade, McKemey survived – and thrived – becoming a Division I lacrosse player at High Point University in North Carolina, and eventually joining the coaching staff there.
That’s where he met Pat Tracy, Saints Peter & Paul’s athletic director since 2018, who introduced McKemey to the assembled students.
“He’s truly a great human being,” Tracy told the students. “I’ve known him as his coach, I’ve known him as a colleague and, most importantly, as a great friend of mine over the last (ten) years and he’s really made an impact on my life and made an impact on thousands of lives.”
Just before the COVID pandemic in 2020, Tracy hosted McKemey’s visit with his Ss. Peter and Paul lacrosse teams. Even then, he made a lasting impression.
“Probably the proudest moment I ever had as a coach was to watch him live out his dream of playing in a Division I lacrosse game and actually scoring a goal. To this day, I still get goosebumps thinking about it,” Tracy said.
McKemey, who calls High Point his home, describes his work as a motivational speaker his “passion.” He uses slides to illustrates his journey and MAC Mentality, and his over 6-foot frame and deep, resonant voice command attention.
“I wanted to see others succeed as much as I did,” McKemey said. “When I had the opportunity to step into this role to be a speaker and have this opportunity to stand up on stages in front of kids, it really has become like a dream come true.”
Addressing the issue of teen mental health, McKemey referred to his own journey to encourage students to stay the course by accepting and believing in themselves through roadblocks and adversity by using specific habits of mind and “finding your We” – a supportive community, he said.
“When you have your people … none of your problems, big or small, are going to be a burden to them,” he said. “They want to see you succeed in life. They want to see you enjoy life just as much as they have. And with almost 8 billion people on the planet, there’s no way anybody in this room — anybody on this planet — should truly feel alone.”
“That’s why we’re all here to be together and help each other out, be a part of this thing,” McKemey said. “It’s a shared experience in life. If we all start looking out for each other a little bit more, we all start to spend a little bit more time together and really, truly care for each other, it will make a difference.”
Middle and high school can be difficult “because people are hard, people are mean, people are judging as we’re growing up and we’re going through life,” he said. “I promise you, this is just a small, small amount of pain, but your friends, your brothers, your closest people in your life — they will be there for you. And they will always have your back and you will never be truly, truly alone.”
Besides his physical pain and limitations, McKemey said it was a long time before he could look in the mirror.
“I started owning who I was in high school,” he said. On the football team “my nickname was Johnny Flame. “Anywhere I go, I’m gonna be the hottest guy in the room. There’s no doubt about it.”
“All of us should feel that way, right? All of us should feel and have that confidence because there’s something in here that each and every single one of you guys have that makes you unique, that makes you special,” McKemey said. “Own that uniqueness and make it a part of who you are because that ends up being your superpower.”
Tracy said McKemey’s talk prompted a “tremendous reaction from our students.”
“When you talk to somebody that’s been through so much and finds the positive in things, I think a lot of kids really related to that,” Tracy said.
McKemey’s positive outlook continues to influence Tracy and his scholar athletes.
“Today’s a great day because I get to play today” Connor once told his parents, Tracy said.
“That’s just Connor. That’s just who he is,” Tracy said. “Now, it’s such a motto that we use it with our guys: Today is a day I get to play, so that’s a great day.”