By Charles Marvel, UD Athletics Media Relations Volunteer
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. After taking their sick toddler to the hospital, Nick Conte and Barrie Jacobs were ushered into a conference room with several doctors and a social worker. As the oncologist was about to speak, Jacobs asked if she could hold her hand.
The next words out of the doctor’s mouth would be life changing. She believed their son, Elijah, had Leukemia. After further pathology reports, the unthinkable became a reality. He had only a 20 percent chance to survive.
“I screamed, cried, and felt like running,” Jacobs recalls.
Her two-year-old son loved to climb up on the dining room table and fall backwards, knowing his father would always be there to support him. Now, Nick Conte would be supporting him in an entirely different way, in the form of endless hospital visits and helping his son fight for his life.
“When your child is faced with an illness that can take his life, it feels like someone hits you in the stomach with a baseball bat,” Conte says. “Both his Mom and I decided early on in his sickness that we would take this head on with a positive attitude and handle whatever our family was confronted with.”
If you ask most people what their earliest childhood memories are, they might tell you about a game-winning goal in their favorite sport or a trip to Disney World.
For Elijah Conte, now a standout senior defensive midfielder for the University of Delaware men’s lacrosse team, it was something drastically different.
“At first, I was confused but curious in the hospital,” he said of those days that happened over years ago. “But over the course of 48 months of chemotherapy, spinal taps, blood transfusions, and numerous long stays at the hospitals, I became very aware of what I was going through and the severity of my situation.”
Through the grueling four years of chemotherapy and aggressive treatments, Elijah’s love for sports never diminished. Before, during, and after his sickness, he had a passion for sports.
According to his father, sports always gave him hope, which is why he would toss a football around with him in the hospital room.
In Elijah’s eyes, the hardest thing to overcome was not being able to interact with his friends and his brother, Dylan.
“Because my immune system was failing, I was not allowed to be outside playing with my friends,” he said. “I would spend numerous weeks at a time in the hospital and when I was allowed to go home, I was typically confined to the house with my family.”
Although his experience as child was far from normal, Conte says it was critical in molding him into the person he is today. Above all, he learned to not take a single day for granted.
Ultimately, Elijah would beat childhood cancer, the toughest opponent he’s ever had to face. He would go on to defeat many more opponents as a three-sport star at Glen Ridge High School in northern New Jersey.
“My doctors said that I probably wouldn’t be able to play sports because my body had been through so much with the treatments,” he said.
To say he proved the doctors wrong would be an understatement. As a member of the lacrosse, football, and basketball teams, Elijah would become an All-American, All-State, and All-County selection, a three-year varsity starter, a captain, and a conference and state champion. He did this all while still being an honor student.
During his senior year of high school, a family friend reached out to Elijah to tell him about Will Drury (at left in photo), a young boy who was also battling cancer. After hearing Will’s story, Elijah immediately felt compelled to contact him and his family to see if he could make him a part of the high school football team at Glen Ridge. An instant friendship was born.
Drury’s family was blown away with the gracious gesture, but it was Conte who has benefitted the most from the relationship.
“Will has been an inspiration for me. He’s the best friend and younger brother I never had,” Conte said. “If you ask Will if he is lucky or unlucky, he will tell you that he is the luckiest kid in the world because he has a great family and great friends. If Will can consider himself lucky after all that he has gone through, I think it’s very important for people to really evaluate their situation the next time they consider themselves unlucky.”
After graduating from Glen Ridge, Conte moved on to the University of Delaware, where he has become a staple on the Blue Hens lacrosse team for head coach Bob Shillinglaw.
As a senior defensive midfielder, Conte has played in all 14 games this year, registering goals against Bucknell and Holy Cross, scooping up 12 groundballs and causing seven turnovers.
After playing in 45 career games for the Blue Hens, he will make his final collegiate appearance this Friday when Delaware travels to the University of Massachusetts for the season finale at 7 p.m.
Win or lose, it’s safe to say he has a different perspective on life than the other players on the field.
“As a child I was competing for my life and that has translated into how I compete on the field,” Conte says. “If I lose in a lacrosse game now I am always frustrated, but I understand it is just another lesson learned and that things can always be worse in life. I definitely think of all the others who were sick like I was and were not as fortunate as I was post-cancer. I definitely keep that in the front of my mind when I compete.”
For the two people who have been by Elijah’s side since the beginning, the life lessons their journey has provided them are invaluable.
“I never wanted him to forget about his cancer and the importance of giving back, a lesson he not only learned but has also incorporated into his everyday life,” says Jacobs. “We live a very positive, blessed life and I believe that what he endured so early on in life will only continue to make him successful in everything and anything he does.”
Elijah has certainly taken the idea of giving back to heart. He led his team and ranked No. 2 overall nationally in fundraising this past fall for the HEADStrong Foundation Lacrosse Mustache Madness event, raising nearly $4,500. HEADStrong is a resource for cancer patients and families, helping them by providing essential programs and services to improve quality of life. Conte has also been active in many team community service initiatives, including serving as a mentor to young students at nearby McVey Elementary School in Newark.
“It’s truly amazing,” his father Nick says. “Each and every time I see him walk onto the field I get all choked up and shed a couple of tears. To see him doing what he loves and knowing that things could have gone the other way brings me so much joy.”
According to Elijah, he wouldn’t change a thing in the rollercoaster he calls life.
“My journey to get to where I am today has had its speed bumps along the way, but it’s because of the adversity I have faced I am who I am today,” he says. “I hope that my story inspires many young kids who are going through what I went through and they are able to understand that anything is possible. I can honestly say that if I could go back I wouldn’t change a thing. My experiences as a child, in sports, and at UD have all prepared me for the obstacles life may throw at me.”