Connor Hopper had never been to a rodeo before Friday night.
He’d never even thought of himself as a cowboy. However, he was accepted into the evergrowing and everlasting brotherhood at the Will Rogers Stampede PRCA Rodeo.
In front of a nearly sold-out crowd at Stampede Arena in Claremore, the Cowboys Who Care Foundation honored the 12-year-old with a new Resistol cowboy hat that was later signed by rodeo performers.
He will also receive a wearable customized hat at a later date.
Resistol is the official hat of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).
Hopper was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia on Oct. 15 of last year, and he’s been undergoing chemotherapy ever since.
According to the National Cancer Institute, childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many immature lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell).
He underwent a lumbar puncture and multiple rounds of Cytoxan and Ara-C infusions during the week leading up to the rodeo, so the event served as a nice getaway for the preteen.
“It’s pretty cool,” Hopper said. “You probably have to be really strong to do those tricks and hold on for that long.”
It was a surprise trip for Hopper, though only briefly, according to his mother, Courtney.
“He’s old enough to know whenever I’m trying to make arrangements,” Courtney said. “It’s kind of hard to keep secrets from him.”
The Hopper family got involved with Cowboys Who Care after Connor’s father, Dusty, heard about the foundation from a coworker.
Cowboys Who Care normally visits children in the hospital and provides them with cowboy or cowgirl hats and an assortment of other gifts.
However, the foundation decided to honor Connor during the rodeo because the family lives in Claremore.
“I thought that was pretty cool,” Connor said.
Of course, the circumstances surrounding the occasion were somber.
When the Claremont Elementary nurse sent Connor home with a low-grade fever last October, Courtney and Dusty thought nothing of it.
After performing the typical home remedies, the parents sent Connor to bed for some much-needed rest before going about their days normally.
That’s when things took a turn for the worst.
“We had a quite a traumatic wake-up experience, and that’s what led us to the emergency room,” Courtney said. “He went to school one day, and 12 hours later, he had cancer. It was a shock to all of us. It wasn’t what we expected.”
Courtney and Dusty soon found themselves immersed in treatment and drug terminology, learning what steps their son would have to take to regain his health and become cancer free once more.
To take care of Connor and his needs on a full-time basis, Courtney quit her job, and Dusty now manages two jobs.
It’s a small price to pay for Connor’s healing.
“It’s just what it takes,” Dusty said. “We gotta get the job done. As I told him, there’s no other option but to go forward.”
It has been a difficult process to say the least, but as the Hoppers approach the one-year mark of their new reality, their hope has only grown.
“At first, he was so sick, it was mind-numbing,” Courtney said. “We’re eight months in now, so I feel like we’re able to do things a little better. Some days are good, and some days are bad.”
Before the diagnosis, Connor played football and was an active member of the local boy scouts. Regardless of the activity, Connor always had something fun to do.
That has all come to a stop in recent months, though.
Between all the doctor visits and chemo treatments, Connor simply doesn’t have the energy to enjoy those luxuries.
“He can’t go camping anymore, and he can’t really do anything,” Dusty said. “It’s really cut down on all the activities. It’s starting to turn around a little bit, and he’s getting enough energy now where we can go for walks. We’re going to try to go camping in a controlled setting.”
Upon the completion of his current three-year treatment plan, Connor is expected to be able to play full-contact sports once again.
Just in time for high school ball.
“Realistically, we’re looking at ninth grade,” Dusty said. “But he already gets to go back to school next year, and he’s still going to be part of the team, so he’ll be around the football players.”
Connor now spends most of his free time building Star Wars and Harry Potter Lego sets.
However, Connor’s situation hasn’t taken his love for food and cooking.
In March 2018, five months before his diagnosis, Connor won the Future Chefs competition sponsored by Sodexo.
As reported by Progress editor Cydney Baron, he created a healthy Asian fusion snack dubbed “wontacos”, which is a combination of tacos and egg rolls.
Connor, who won a complete set of cookware and a chef coat for his efforts, said cooking is a passion of his, and though he can whip up meals for any occasion, he prefers to stick with a traditional breakfast dish.
“It’s just interesting, and I like to eat,” Connor said. “Scrambled eggs is probably my favorite to make.”
Some things never change, and though Connor has experienced the loss of a normal childhood, there’s been one area of his life that’s benefitted from the struggles.
His relationship with his sister MaryJane.
MaryJane, who is set to begin high school this fall, said she and Connor have become closer as of late.
“We used to argue a lot,” MaryJane said. “We hated each other’s guts; it was a love-hate situation. Now he talks me about stuff. Like how he feels about situations, and we calm each other down whenever one of us is upset.”
Although cowboys can use their strength to entertain a crowd through their rodeo skills, that isn’t the source of their hardiness.
The strength of a cowboy isn’t manifested by successfully wrestling a steer to the ground, nor by riding a bull for eight seconds.
No, that uncanny toughness comes from within.
Because the strength of a cowboy isn’t in the weight he can lift, but rather in the burdens he can carry.
Connor Hopper might be one of the newest members in the cowboy family, but through his fight with cancer, he has proven he is undoubtedly one of the strongest.
His willingness to battle the cancer and endure the pain is what being a cowboy is all about.
For more information and updates on Connor’s condition and life activities, visit the ‘Courage For Connor’ Facebook page.