Fast Break: Connelly on My Wish

Which SportsCenter My Wish segment affected host Chris Connelly so much he had to leave the room?

How does ESPN work with the Make-A-Wish foundation to select the children profiled?

And what connection to the My Wish project, making its sixth annual appearance on SportsCenter beginning next week, seems to have forecast the last three Super Bowl winning quarterbacks?

Connelly answers those questions and more in discussing the 2011 edition of the SportsCenter feature segment, which debuts on the 8 a.m. edition beginning this Sunday. The remaining three segments will air on the 6 p.m. SportsCenters over the course of the following three days, concluding Wednesday July 20.

The summer series has granted 35 wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions.

Each segment tells a child’s story and reveals an interaction with a favorite sports figure or team.

Participating athletes in these feature segments include soccer star Landon Donovan of the Los Angeles Galaxy, surfer Bethany Hamilton, Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos, and the Minnesota Twins.

FR: Were you involved from the outset with My Wish?

Connelly: I think I was brought into the mix once the project got a green light, that was back in 2006. First wish we ever did was in the Tampa area with a young man named Johnny Mazza, who had a lung ailment. He got to meet Jeff Gordon and sit behind the wheel of one of his cars.

FR: Can you take us through the process of how these four stories for My Wish 2011 were chosen? How does your team determine whom to profile?

Connelly: This year, the esteemed [Coordinating Producer} Valerie Gordon again did a terrific job, working closely with our friends at Make-A-Wish to develop and select wishes that our viewers will find compelling. Diversity is important: getting kids of differing ages and backgrounds, from different parts of the country, who like different sports and athletes. Along with wishes set in the worlds of football, baseball and basketball, Valerie has championed wishes set in new and exciting environments that our viewers have really responded to….such as last year’s wish with X Games star Travis Pastrana. This year, for example, we’ve got our first surfing wish, with the courageous and inspiring Bethany Hamilton, and a wonderfully warm soccer wish with Landon Donovan — I think they’re both going to touch a lot of people’s hearts. We’re also delighted to be able to show a wish with Ron Gardenhire and the Minnesota Twins, and a wish with QB Tim Tebow.

Oh…and while it’s always fun to come across an outgoing, verbal child, I always tell the families that anything we get from a child in an interview situation is a bonus. All we need is to hear from someone who loves that child.

FR: How important is having a good producer to your process of producing these profile?

Connelly: It’s vital! And the great thing is that along with being such talented storytellers and leaders on a shoot, our producers have shown time and again how sensitive they can be to a child’s needs. Especially with young children, sometimes wish day can get a little overwhelming — so many strange people, so much attention. Even while they’re capturing all the special moments, our producers understand that from time to time, a child may need a break in the schedule, a few minutes with a parent, just to process everything and get ready for the next thing. That understanding — even from young producers who haven’t spent that much time around kids yet — makes a big difference for everyone, including, finally, the viewer.

FR: I’ve read that you consider choosing one of these profiles akin to choosing your favorite child. Do you still feel that way, or is there one My Wish profile that you can admit is your favorite?

Connelly: The moment in 2006 when eight-year-old Katie Morris’ best friend — who had moved away from their hometown, whom she hadn’t seen in so long – surprises her by coming out from behind the centerfield wall at Safeco Field during Katie’s wish .. I can’t imagine anyone forgetting that. Katie died two years later….to my knowledge, which may be incomplete, she is one of the two My Wish children who are no longer with us. But yes — all 35 of the children we’ve chronicled have been memorable, for their tenacity and their will and their bravery. And you cannot say enough about their families, and their power of their love and  resourcefulness in the lives of their kids.

FR: Have you had a chance to follow up with previous My Wish profiles, either formally as part of the series or informally on your own?

Connelly: I heard that Jeffrey Buzzell — who spent a couple of days with Dale Earnhardt Jr. last year — at last got a kidney transplant! That was great news to learn. I and the producers do hear from some families from time to time. Cole Johanson, who hung out with Chris Paul, wound up designing a sneaker with him!  Some of our children, like 2006’s Charlie Pena (who met the Philadelphia Eagles) or 2007’s Stephan Zepeda (who wanted to hang out with David Ortiz), must continue to battle their chronic illnesses.  And Jailen Cooper — who had brain surgery and gave us one of the best My Wish moments ever last year when he tackled Darren McFadden while the rest of the Raiders chanted his name — played football in the fall. Running back, just like Darren McFadden! Amazing.

FR: During a 2007 SportsNation chat on ESPN.com, you mentioned that you were so emotional during one interview with a family that you excused yourself to head into a bathroom. But you didn’t reveal which profile affected you that much. Do you recall which one and why?

Connelly: I do. In 2006, 10-year-old Daemon Hanna started to cry as he talked about the tumors in his neck. It was desperately sad and I felt responsible. I called Stephanie Druley, who was overseeing the wishes in those days, and she was kind enough to talk me off the ledge. Here’s the big thing: it’s not about me or the rest of us who do these stories…it’s not about our emotions at all.  Because as sad as these stories are to hear, we can only imagine how hard they must be to live with every day.  We have to make sure our own emotions don’t get in the way as we try to tell these families’ stories. P.S. Thank goodness Daemon had a really fun wish with Tracy McGrady!

FR: Has there been one My Wish request that you would consider the most unusual, either in terms of the request or the actual execution?

Connelly: I remember the part of Devon Muller’s wish when he got carried off the field on Drew Brees’ shoulders; I remember when Ben Rothlisberger handed off to Akeem Havens in his wheelchair and he scored a touchdown; I remember when Anna Schmidt, who’d had a heart transplant, asked Aaron Rodgers not to grow too much facial hair. Did I mention that all three of these guys won the Super Bowl the season after they took part in a My Wish? Just sayin’….maybe My Wish kids bring good luck!

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