Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 22, 2012

Local youth, professional football star share a beautiful friendship

By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

CARSWELL — Connor Lafferty can answer the proverbial question: “Who Dey? Who Dey? Who Dey gonna beat dem Bengals.” In his 9-year-old book, no one can beat the Bengals — especially their rookie offensive guard out of Wisconsin, Kevin Zeitler, No. 68. By chance, Lafferty met Zeitler on July 10, and became fast friends ... good friends.

“It’s a beautiful friendship between the two of them,” Clifford Rotenberry, Connor’s grandfather said.

“Welcome to the Jungle,” Lafferty said. “Who Dey? Who Dey? Who Dey? Who Dey?”

Lafferty, 9, was born June 30, 2003, in Roanoke, Va., and was diagnosed with spina bifida, a birth defect where the backbone and spinal column do not completely close at birth. Lafferty’s 9 years haven’t been easy. During a 5-year stretch, he and his grandparents — Clifford and Janice Rotenberry made 25 trips to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Lexington, Ky. During the past three years, Connor and his grandparents have traveled to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital 41 times — a 7-hour trip each way.

Connor hasn’t been making the trips to Cincinnati alone. When he started making the trips, his stuffed teddy bear, “Beary,” was his constant companion. One day when the family was eating at a Shoney’s restaurant, Connor caught a stuffed tiger in a claw machine near the register. “His name is Bengal,” he said — knowing that the real Cincinnati Bengal’s Bengal tiger already has the name, “Who Dey?”

When Conner travels to Cincinnati, the family stays at the Radisson Hotel across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in Covington, Ky. The hotel provides travel to and from the hospital, and according to his grandfather, does several things to make the visits comfortable. The Covington Radisson also serves people at the airport and members of the Bengals football team.

“They’ve been really nice to us,” Clifford Rotenberry said. “He’s been through 6 surgeries in Cincinnati for three summers in a row. Dr. (Junichi) Tamai, the assistant professor in the Cincinnati Childrens Hospital pediatric orthopedic department has really been good to Connor. If you ask him a question, he’ll stop and take time to explain it to you.

“The last surgery in July was tough, because they had to put pins into his right foot to straighten it out,” Rotenberry said. “The surgery was supposed to take three hours, but it went longer than that.”

“I was afraid of that one — the one that had all the pins and needles in it,” Connor said. “The surgery didn’t seem long to me. It felt like it took one minute.”

At about 9:10 a.m., Connor and his grandparents were in the lobby of the Covington Radisson, waiting to go back to the hospital when a man they would later come to know as Jim Braun got off the elevator.

“I saw he was wearing a Cincinnati Bengal’s shirt, and said: ‘I like your shirt.’” Janice Rotenberry said. “He stopped and asked me if we were football fans. I told him I liked football when I was younger, and that Clifford didn’t care for it, but Connor likes the Bengals.

“He asked if we could wait there a few minutes, and Connor could meet a real Bengal player,” Janice Rotenberry said. “We weren’t gong anywhere.”

She said that Jim Braun got back on the elevator and returned in a a few minutes with Kevin Zeitler, a 6’4”, 315 pound lineman from the University of Wisconsin, who was selected by the Bengals as the 27th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Zeitler was a solid pick, although not exceptionally fleet of foot with a 5:39 time in the 40-yard dash. However, he has started all 10 games for the Bengals, and the line has been opening up holes for star running back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and taking pressure off of second-year quarterback Andy Dalton.

“They just made a connection,” Clifford Rotenberry said of Connor and Zeitler. At the time, Zeitler was preparing for the team. Still, he gave Connor what pictures and items he had — just like friends would do. Zeitler signed autographs, and introduced Connor to his fiancé, Sarah Braun. “There was a connection,” Rotenberry said.

The experience was fun, and Clifford Rotenberry thought that would be the extent of it. However, on Aug. 20, he got a call from Jim Braun who said that Zeitler wanted to know where Connor was. Connor was in Cincinnati at the Radisson Hotel waiting for a follow-up treatment after surgery. “Jim said that he and Kevin would be right over,” Rotenberry said. “He said Kevin wanted to give Connor something.”

When Zeitler and his future father-in-law met Connor and his grandparents in the hotel lobby, Kevin came up and told Connor that he had made the starting team, and then gave Connor the size 15 football cleats he wore in the tryouts.

“His future father-in-law, asked Kevin if he was sure he wanted to do that,” Clifford Rotenberry said. “Kevin said it was absolutely what he wanted to do. He signed each shoe to his friend, Connor.”

Connor returned to McDowell County and went back to school in the fourth grade at Kimball Elementary School. His grandfather visits the school three times each day to assist his son, and his grandmother volunteers every day at the school — all day long. Connor doesn’t have any feelings from his waist down to his feet, and needs assistance with some of his natural functions.

“Connor’s classmates didn’t believe that he had a friend in the NFL,” Clifford Rotenberry said. “He does real well in school, but he can’t run and play like the other kids. He can run a little now that his right foot is flat, but not very far. If he runs as far as the bridge, he has to stop,” he said of a distance less than 30 yards from the house in Carswell Hollow.”

All that changed when Zeitler called to invite Connor and his family to come to Cincinnati and see the Bengals play the New York Giants on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. The family traveled to Cincinnati. Clifford Rotenberry had already paid for tickets in the handicapped section of the stadium, but Zeitler wrote them a check for the full amount.

“Just from only meeting him those two times, people here thought they wouldn’t do that, but I’m not one to judge anyone,” Clifford Rotenberry said. “I just put it into the Lord’s hands.”

Experiencing the game at Bengal’s Stadium was a special treat for the entire family. After the game, Zeitler brought Connor and his family to a place where they could meet the rest of the team. Connor met several players and got his picture taken with most of them.

Zeitler loaded Connor and his family up with Bengals jerseys, jackets, hats and other items. Clifford bought a football and several players signed autographs for Connor and his family.

When Connor returned to Kimball Elementary, his classmates believed that he knew an NFL player. “Even my enemies,” Connor said. “They really liked the picture of me with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, No. 18.”

Green, of course, scored the game-winning touchdown on Nov. 18, on a pass from Dalton. Connor and his grandmother watched the game together, and sent Zeitler a message on Facebook.

“Thanks for the support, Connor,” Zeitler replied, just like a couple of friends might do. Good friends ... a beautiful friendship.