Rob Oller: Christian Eriksen's near tragedy triggers memories of Connor Senn's death during Ohio State match

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State soccer player Connor Senn, of Granville, suffered a fatal cardiac event during a game in 2001.

Like many soccer fans, Kerry Thompson watched on live TV as Danish soccer star Christian Eriksen collapsed and lay motionless last week during Denmark’s European Championship match against Finland.

Unlike most fans, Thompson had watched a similar scene play out 20 years earlier, when as an Ohio State senior soccer player he witnessed freshman teammate Connor Senn drop to the turf only yards away during a match at the University of Akron. 

Senn never moved. Tragically, the 18-year-old from Granville suffered a fatal cardiac event, an autopsy revealing he died from a congenital heart defect that restricted blood flow to the heart.

“Sept. 26, 2001,” Thompson said, marking the date of Senn’s death. “I think about that day. It’s overwhelmingly sad, with moments of feeling overwhelmingly powerless. I didn’t know CPR when I was 20 years old.”

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The sight of Eriksen’s teammates shielding him in a circle as medical personnel worked to restart his heart triggered a strong burst of emotion in Thompson, a 42-year-old Columbus financial advisor who graduated from Dublin Coffman. 

“For a second I didn’t know what was going on,” he said of confusion during the Euro match. “But within about 10 seconds, I knew.”

Denmark players make a wall around teammate Christian Eriksen being assisted by medics during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match on June 12.

Sitting on the Ohio State team bus nearly 20 years ago, Thompson didn’t know. The Buckeyes had watched Senn’s father, Lance, rush to his son’s side and begin administering CPR. But unlike with Eriksen, who was resuscitated with a defibrillator, no such device was available. Connor never regained consciousness.

After waiting about 45 minutes on the bus, Ohio State’s players were told their teammate had died.

“I feel so heartbroken for Lance and Connor,” Thompson said. “I have three kids, ages 11, 8 and 5. Just the things Connor missed out on.”

Pause. Lump in throat.

“I think about that as I get older, the day-to-day experiences in life,” Thompson continued. “I think about his impact on teammates, how the Ohio State program honors him each year with (the Connor Senn Memorial Match) and how he still has a locker. I think about his legacy.”

Ah, yes, his legacy. It is no stretch to suggest that, at least indirectly, Senn’s death helped others live. It’s not a trade-off Lance Senn wanted, but the retired dentist, who played tennis at Ohio State, takes comfort knowing some good came from the tragedy. One positive was the push for improved safety equipment and training at sporting events. 

Connor Senn

“The only AEDs (automated external defibrillators) back then were in the lobbies of Las Vegas casinos,” Senn said. “They weren’t ubiquitous like they are now. If someone would have just shocked (Connor) within a minute or two, like they did Eriksen, that’s the lesson for first responders.”

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Doctors stress that minimizing cardiac trauma depends so much on timing, that every minute of treatment lost equals a 10% decrease in survival rate. Eriksen, 29, underwent surgery after his episode and on Friday was discharged from a hospital.

Lance Senn also pointed out how Connor’s genetic anomaly  — his left coronary artery attached to the right side of the aorta, instead of the normal left — is better detected and understood thanks to researchers studying cases like his son’s.

“Ohio State has changed the world in that regard,” Senn said. “Peter (Mohler) and his group discovered the gene by the unluck of some poor children who had to die. It was, ‘Geez, these kids all died from the same thing as Connor, and here’s the gene.' They found it.”

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Mohler, chief scientific officer at the Wexner Medical Center and interim vice president for research at Ohio State, emphasized that much research still needs to happen, and applauded the annual Senn Memorial Match for helping seed grants to fund new forms of genetic testing and imaging.

“We’ve learned by leaps and leaps since (2001),” Mohler said. “We have learned that when you see an athlete, whether a 17-year-old or a professional soccer player like last week, that similar to cancer the conditions that often are fatal do not fit into just one bucket but maybe 25 different buckets.”

Progress. But lessons learned from Connor Senn’s death also go beyond science. What happened on that soccer field in Akron speaks not just to matter surrounding the heart but to matters of the heart, like realizing that indestructible athletes are fragile humans.

“You're an athlete for a few hours a day,” Thompson said. “Whether you’re training or competing, it’s only 10% of your life. The greater perspective for me is the human element, which includes your teammates. Sport is one of the greatest connectors in society, and within human nature you see moments that bring people together.”

The world has rallied around Eriksen and his close call, just as Thompson and his teammates grew closer through tragedy.

“We always think we have an unlimited amount of days,” Thompson said. “We really don’t, so make sure each one counts. Let people you love know you love them. That’s my takeaway with Connor.”

A good takeaway, indeed.