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Amy Donaldson: Newland found inspiration and inspires through being a coach

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 1:24 p.m. MDT

GREEN RIVER — Doctors told Valerie Newland how Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy would destroy her four-year-old son's body and eventually take his life.

"They sit you down, and give you all the worst," she said of her son, Conner Newland's diagnosis. "You fall apart. And then they say, 'Okay, now go home and live your life.'"

She laughs a little, and then adds, "So we did."

And life in the Newland household includes sports. Lots and lots of sports.

With two older brothers, Conner grew up at basketball and baseball games.

Like his brothers, he played Little League baseball, but as his disease progressed, it changed how he participated.

"They start little league when they're eight," said Valerie. "It was very, very noticeable then. He could hit the ball, but he ran slow, so he'd always get out. Sometimes kids would allow him to get there. Sometimes (his teammates) would carry him to first base."

At age 10, the disease robbed him of the ability to walk and move his arms freely. It did not, however, take away his desire to immerse himself in athletics. He became the manager of the baseball and basketball teams. He began to support the boys who had once carried him.

He relished his involvement, but he also nurtured a dream.

"I want to be a coach," he said of his life's goal.

Adds his mom, "He was waiting for Jerry Sloan to retire."

And while the Hall of Fame coach did step down this season, Conner wasn't available for the job because he'd already been offered another position.

Green River High School hired Tom Hughes to coach the boys basketball team last spring. Hughes thought he might be able to find a way to get Conner on the floor during a varsity game.

"I wanted to have him announced as a starter," Hughes said. "But then his mom said what he'd really like is to coach. I couldn't believe that I didn't see that."

So Hughes offered Conner a job — freshman team head coach.

"He's a great coach," Hughes said. "He is actually really knowledgeable. He does a lot of scouting (for varsity) and stats."

School District officials had concerns that allowing Coach Newland on the sideline during games would be risky.

"They were afraid he'd get hurt," she said. "He can't protect himself at all. But after the other coaches said they'd sit right by him and block anything, it was smooth sailing."

Conner took over the freshman program completely. His players said he's tough but very positive. Sophomore Spencer Marshall said there is nothing different or difficult about a coach in a wheelchair. Other coaches or players help him demonstrate the plays or drills he teaches.

"If he wants something done, we can try to do it," Marshall said. "And if we don't do it right, he just tells us, 'Don't give up. Keep trying.'"

Marshall said the most important lesson he's learned from Coach Newland is teamwork.

"You have other players on your team so work with them," he said. "Help other people, not just yourself."

Coach Newland said his greatest moment was coaching his first game.

"It felt cool because I've been dreaming of doing it forever and I finally got my chance," he said after helping Hughes and the other coaches during the 1A state tournament. "It's a big responsibility. It's harder than being a manager because you have to teach and draw up plays. A couple of times I was pacing before the games. This (motorized wheelchair) goes about 10 (mph), but I just go in circles."

He admits his mother is right about him coveting Jerry Sloan's job. His favorite player is forward Paul Millsap because "he's tough."

He still might like to coach the Jazz for a day.

"I'd start being harder on them," he said. "I'd tell them that just because they're getting paid so much, it doesn't matter. They have to actually play some defense."

The hire has been a huge asset for Hughes and the other coaches. Newland loves to break down games on film and offer his advice. He may speak softly, but he doesn't get overlooked.

Conner would love to be playing alongside his classmates, but he's grateful for the opportunity to immerse himself in sports in another way.

"I use that energy of thinking about playing to go towards coaching," he said. "It's been hard, but the kids get better and that's what I like."

Newland hopes to continue coaching in some capacity when he attends CEU next fall, as many of his classes will be on-line. Coaches, players and his mom say he is an inspiration, but not because he battles an insidious disease with a positive attitude.

"They don't use him as, 'Let's get motivated because of Conner; let's win this for Conner,'" said Valerie Newland. "They don't make it special because of the condition he's in. They don't have to do that because he's such a part of them. He just motivates them."

And the experience has changed Conner.

"I have learned that if you don't come serious, you can lose games," he said. "I've learned that if you dedicate yourself to something, you'll have a good outcome."

email: adonaldson@desnews.com

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