Being a volunteer at a quarterback camp run by the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson on the campus of North Carolina State last June was supposed to be a special occasion for Connor Christiansen.
Instead, during one session the Elon quarterback received the awful news that his cousin in Indiana, his only cousin, was murdered.
Less than five months later the Elon campus community was rocked when one of Christiansen’s teammate, Demitri Allison, committed suicide.
Such horrible incidents taking place within a short span of time would test the resolve of the most hardened of individuals. For Christiansen there was certainly plenty of sorrow. It was also a time to grow.
“You see these things happen (in the news) and you don’t think that it can really happen to you,” he said, in referencing his cousin, Cody James Gay, who was widely known simply as Cody James.
“Then it’s the kid that has the locker right next to you. It’s shocking and it just blows your mind. It really taught us the meaning and value of life and how every day is not guaranteed.”
The shock of losing his cousin, somebody he was very close to, carried into fall camp. Christiansen put a lot of pressure on himself, feeling as though he had to perform superbly for his aunt, uncle and the rest of his family.
It was too much of a burden for such a young man and he felt that it led to what he characterized as a subpar performance in fall camp. It got to the point that he apologized to the team, though his Phoenix teammates were more than understanding all along.
Then during a conversation Christiansen’s uncle delivered a simple, yet profound message.
“My uncle was like, ‘We do not love you for being a football player. We love you for who you are,’” recalled the native of Fishers, Ind. “It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and then everything just clicked. I started getting more reps and eventually started. Football became fun again. It was like everything was OK in the world for two hours of practice or during a game.”
Daniel Thompson started the opener at Wake Forest before he was sidelined with a health scare. Coach Rich Skrosky turned to Christiansen, who would start the next four games and guide the Phoenix to a pair of wins. While Thompson returned to start Elon’s sixth game, it was clear Christiansen was feeling better about everything on and off the field.
Then came Wednesday, Nov. 11. It was a beautiful autumn day in Elon, N.C., as brisk morning temps gave way to a clear 68-degree afternoon. It was an afternoon, though, that turned dark with the news Allison took his life.
The Phoenix leaned on each other and dedicated the remaining two games of 2015 to Allison, who was a junior receiver, and will take the field this season playing in his honor. This is a team that will be there for one another, through thick and thin.
“Everybody has come closer and we are like one big family,” he said. “Since (Allison’s death) happened, and while it is obviously an awful situation, we have made the most of it. We play to honor Demitri’s life in what he did for the program and how he would want us to perform.”
While the team plays on in Allison’s memory Christiansen has a little ritual to honor his cousin. His aunt and uncle made T-shirts with the slogan, “His Name is Cody James,” with which to honor their only child. A shirt hangs in Christiansen’s locker and he will tap it before taking the field for practice.
“Life hit me at 100 miles per hour, that’s for sure,” said Christiansen, reflecting on last year. “You do not expect things like that to happen. Then your cousin and one of your teammates are gone. That is a lot to swallow.”
Christiansen, now a redshirt sophomore, has performed admirably in dealing with life’s tragedies. Skrosky, who as an assistant at Ball State first met Christiansen at a football camp when the latter was about to enter tenth grade, is not the least bit surprised at the maturity his player has displayed.
“You are always looking for that intangible trait in a kid, that ability to always be in a good place,” he said. “Connor had that when he was 15 years old and he continues to have it. He has a unique trait to interact and really be comfortable in so many environments. I am proud of him.”