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Article updated: 2/28/2013 6:53 AM

No limits: Teen refuses to "take my circumstances"

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Like most 13-year-old boys, Connor McHugh thinks his younger self is terribly embarrassing.

So when his mother, Patti, fires up a laptop to play an old home video of Connor as a kindergartner, the Wheaton boy does what you might expect: He bolts the room.


Connor McHugh

Age: 13
Hometown: Wheaton
School: St. Michael Parish School
Who inspires you? My mom, Patti McHugh, because she always teaches me to act the proper way.
What's on your iPod? My iPod broke, but I like Christian music.
What book are you reading? "The Habsburgs" by Andrew Wheatcroft.
The three words that best describe you? Clear-minded. Driven. Easygoing.

But Connor, born with no arms and underdeveloped legs, makes his pointed exit in a way all his own.

He wiggles and scooches backward, pushing himself with his feet until he's perched on an arm rest. Then he hops on his wheelchair and announces, "I'm leaving!" before turning his chair around and zipping off to next room, shutting the door behind him with a declarative thud.

Whatever expectations you might have walking in the door to meet Connor, the eighth-grader at St. Michael Parish School in Wheaton is apt to defy them all with his quick wit, sharp intelligence and a clear vision of life defined by all that he can -- versus what he can't -- do.

"I don't always hang down for the low, I don't just take my circumstances," he said. "I don't give up. I try and do as much as I possibly can."

Unable to stand or walk, Connor uses his feet like most people use their hands -- to write with a pen, tap on a keyboard, punch numbers on his cellphone, grab a book, or play video games with his PlayStation controller.

"It's really easy, I use my feet for anything. Everything that you guys use hands for, I use feet for," he said.

In January, Connor received the Inspirational Athlete award at the 2013 Comcast SportsNet Sports Awards for his work as a special teams coach for the St. Michael football team.

When asked how it feels to be an inspiration, he responds with a quizzical expression.

"I wouldn't say my job is inspiring. My job is coaching," he said. "The reason I got into it is because I love football -- that's really it."

Jim Hickey, head coach of the St. Michael team, said Connor is the most organized and energetic coach he's had on staff in 10 years.

"He was more prepared than any other coach for every practice, every game," Hickey said, adding that Connor's strategies led to several touchdowns this past season. The team placed second in its league's regular season.

Although Connor hasn't played football, he's studied the game in detail, even learning some strategy and tactics by playing football video games.

"As a coach of young kids at St. Michael's, I try to teach them several things," Hickey said. "One, to work hard. Two, to try to overcome all obstacles. Three, to never give up.

"In Connor McHugh, they see a boy who is their peer who exemplifies those attributes every day of his life."

Connor admits he can be tough on his football players.

"I yell when they're not doing what I want them to do," he said. "You should see me in football games -- there's no limit to my voice. I almost lost my voice after games."

He also serves as a peer partner for the Special Olympics basketball and track teams at Hubble Middle School in Warrenville -- though he doesn't yell nearly as much then. Instead, he jokes.

Connor gets all A's and B's in school, and especially loves history.

"In history, there's always more to learn about and you can always go deeper. A lot of people just know the basics, but you can always learn more about it," he said.

He hopes to combine his passions as an adult and become a history teacher and football coach.

"For college or pro, it doesn't matter, but I have to be good at what I want to do," said Connor, who hopes to continue coaching when he attends Wheaton Warrenville South High School next year.

Connor's father, Dan McHugh, works for PNC Bank, while his mother is a stay-at-home mom. The couple have three other children: Brandon, 19, Erin, 18, and Killeen, 16.

The family rebuilt their home in 2008 to fully accommodate Connor's wheelchair with a special bathroom, wider doors, and an elevator. Connor needs help with some daily tasks, but there's lots he can do on his own, like using his bathroom, outfitted with a ramp and a series of hooks.

"He's very opinionated, strong-willed and confident," Patti McHugh said. "I'm so grateful he was the fourth (child) because I wasn't so uptight. I couldn't coddle him, because I had to take care of the others."

Life with Connor has been a blessing, despite the early shock of learning that her baby would be born with no arms, she said.

"I think early on we decided to take everything day by day, and I think it's really how we've gotten through. And with a lot of prayer," she said. "There were fears, but I can't remember ever being overwhelmed by the fear that he would struggle."

Growing up, Connor was just one of the bunch, said sister Erin, who was first to put a pencil between Connor's toes when he was just a year old.

"Besides sometimes him asking us to get a glass of milk or put out some food, there's really not a huge difference for us," she said. "In our everyday life, we treat him just like any other little brother."

In fact, the siblings won't budge if Connor asks for something he can do on his own, Erin said.

"We're tough on him, I guess," she said.

Connor has a great sense of humor and is a fantastic example for his peers, said St. Michael Principal Marcia Opal.

The school has made some accommodations for him, like buying a speech-activated typing program and modifying a bathroom, Opal said. A fundraiser was held to install an elevator in 2006.

He used to have a school district-provided aide until a few years ago but doesn't need one any more. The only time he gets scolded is when he wheels way too fast through hallways.

"It's brought out a good side, I think, having Connor here," Opal said. "He's done even more for our kids (than they have for him) by showing compassion and how physical differences don't have to impact your life."

Charlie Hickey and Ian Discher, Connor's classmates and football players at St. Michael, say they respect him both as coach and friend.

"He definitely does a good job in being tough on us," Charlie said. "Even if we're friends, we take him seriously."

"He yells at us when we do bad, he teaches us what to do when we do something wrong. We just listen to him like the other coaches," Ian said.

Both said they admire him.

"Connor is so amazing because he makes do with everything. He never really needs much help, he's always got things under control," Charlie said.

"Ever since I've known Connor, his disability hasn't really stopped him from doing anything we do," Ian said. "He's remarkable."

Despite his positive attitude, Connor admits there are times when life gets tough. Like when he has to forgo the stairs and take the elevator at school for the umpteenth time. Or when little kids stare.

"They won't take their eyes off me," he said. "I don't like that too much, but it's OK."

Those are the kinds of things Connor said he'd love to discuss with Nick Vujicic, a 30-year-old Serbian-Australian evangelist and motivational speaker born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder that left him without limbs.

Connor met Vujicic in 2008, but he was just 8 at the time, so the conversation was simply fun and jokes, he said. Now, Connor really would love to talk with Vujicic about more serious stuff, like the everyday physical challenges they face.

Vujicic was married last year and recently had his first baby, which gives Connor hope he someday could do the same.

"I think that's amazing," Connor said. "It's hard to think that was possible when he was younger. It's really inspiring to me that it's possible."

• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to standouts@dailyherald.com or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.

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