This one means a lot to me–it was the very first story I ever wrote which wound up on the front page of the newspaper. I put a lot of time and effort into this and am very proud of it. It’s probably my favorite thing I’ve ever written.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Lacrosse goalie Conner Zwinggi has had to protect more than just the goal in his 22 years.
Dressed from head to toe in college athletic apparel, he might appear as an ordinary lacrosse player, but this sophomore’s unique past distinguishes him from the rest.
Before attending OU as a lacrosse player and construction science major, Zwinggi served in Iraq and was honored with the Purple Heart award.
“I just really wanted to do something different, adventurous,” Zwinggi said.
Life as a Marine
After graduating from Coppell High School in 2004, Zwinggi spent a semester at the University of Texas at Arlington prior to enlisting in the military.
Following boot camp, Zwinggi spent the next year and a half stationed in Hawaii. He spent three months in the Marine Corps Infantry in Haditha, Iraq, performing combat patrols and operations.
“We would drive around the city pretty much just waiting to get shot at,” Zwinggi said. “We were constantly aware of situations, and if anything did come up, we would react accordingly.”
With two sons in the military, Zwinggi’s father, Chris Zwinggi, said he has mixed emotions about his sons’ enlistments. Zwinggi’s older brother, Tyler Zwinggi, is on active duty in the Army and has served in Iraq twice.
“Obviously you’re very proud they chose to serve our country,” Chris Zwinggi said. “At the same time, given the circumstances, it’s somewhat nerve-racking knowing they can be sent over there at any time. But I’m extra proud.”
The Purple Heart
Chris Zwinggi often feared he would receive a phone call informing him of one of his sons’ death.
“You always expect that any phone call can be a phone call that you don’t ever want to get,” Chris Zwinggi said.
One Friday in September 2006, the Zwinggi house in Coppell, Texas, received a different phone call from Iraq, when Zwinggi informed his family he had been injured.
Insurgents had detonated two bombs on his base. The first sent him and five other Marines about six feet in the air. The second sent a large piece of metal through his left knee and underneath his kneecap before emerging out of the opposite side.
His friend wrapped the tourniquet, a rope with a stick on one end, around his leg.
“If he hadn’t, I would have bled [to death] in about 30 to 45 seconds,” Zwinggi said.
He spent the next month and a half hospitalized in Iraq, Germany and Washington D.C.
Initially, doctors predicted Zwinggi would need amputation, but Zwinggi underwent surgery. The surgery had been performed twice before, but had never been successful and resulted in amputation both times. His case was the surgery’s first success, Zwinggi said.
After a total of five surgeries, Zwinggi’s knee was reconstructed with synthetic ligaments.
Re-adjusting to civilian life after being released from the hospital took time for Zwinggi. Driving home from the airport, he was paranoid, Chris Zwinggi said. He reacted differently to sounds and looked suspiciously at his surroundings.
“Some wounds heal and I think Conner has healed a lot emotionally just as he has physically,” Chris Zwinggi said.
In October 2007, Zwinggi was awarded the Purple Heart.
“For me, it was just like being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it was a huge honor for me,” Zwinggi said.
The scar on his knee is eight inches long on the outside and six inches on the inside.
“It’s really a good bar story,” Zwinggi said.
Zwinggi came to OU in fall 2007, partially because he had heard OU had a lacrosse team. This is Zwinggi’s 10th year playing the sport, but in high school he didn’t presume he would play in college.
“I thought as soon as my high school days were over my playing days were over,” Zwinggi said.
On the field, Zwinggi is able to apply skills learned from the Marine Corps, including high endurance, teamwork and communication skills.
“Over there, good communication is not only essential, it’s lifesaving,” Zwinggi said. “It doesn’t translate over to lacrosse 100 percent, but it does help a great deal.”
A high tolerance for pain is another skill Zwinggi attained in Iraq, where his bullet-proof body armor weighed him down nearly 80 pounds.
Last season, Zwinggi broke both his thumbs, one at practice and one at a game, but taped them up and continued playing.
“The military teaches you teamwork, sacrifice and commitment,” Lacrosse head coach Max Dugan said. “He has a commitment to playing when he’s hurt.”
When first playing lacrosse at OU, Zwinggi landed on his previously injured knee causing it to roll the wrong way. After recovering for two weeks, he was back in the game again and hasn’t had any serious problems since.
“He comes out and attacks you,” freshman defender Ryan Beauchamp said. “He’s not afraid.”
Zwinggi knows as the goalie the team depends on him, Dugan said.
“He has learned really well he can focus on the task at hand, and as a goalie that’s very important,” Dugan said. “He’s the last defense before the ball goes into the net.”
Now, about two-and-one-half years since his injury, Zwinggi said he’s likely to be asked to return to Iraq and would go in a heartbeat.