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Denfeld senior: 'Football saved his life'

Tyler Conito was in the right place at the right time during Duluth Denfeld's final regular-season football game Wednesday when he caught a touchdown pass that had slipped through a teammate's hands in the end zone.

Conito runs
Duluth Denfeld's Tyler Conito (left) evades Duluth Central's Dan Erickson (center) and Alex Garnett (right) during a kickoff return Wednesday night at Public Schools Stadium in Duluth. Conito recovered from cancer found two years ago when he had X-rays taken of his ribs after being injured in a football game. He underwent 10½ months of chemotherapy before rehabilitation. [DEREK MONTGOMERY / NEWS TRIBUNE]

Tyler Conito was in the right place at the right time during Duluth Denfeld's final regular-season football game Wednesday when he caught a touchdown pass that had slipped through a teammate's hands in the end zone.

He was in the right place at the right time a little more than two years ago too, when as a 15-year-old sophomore he was brought into the emergency room at St. Mary's Medical Center for X-rays of broken ribs suffered during a football game and a cancerous tumor was found.

"In our eyes, football saved his life," said his father, Ken Conito.

Football also kept Conito going through 10½ exhausting months of chemotherapy and through strenuous rehabilitation and workouts.

"During cancer treatments, he stayed positive," his father said. "The most important thing was to get back out on the field with his teammates."

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Now a senior, Conito is preparing for perhaps his final game with his high school teammates. Sixth-seeded Denfeld (1-6) faces third-seeded Cloquet (5-3) at 8 p.m. today in the second game of a Section 7AAAA playoff doubleheader at Public Schools Stadium.

It was on that same field Sept. 29, 2006, that Conito, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound running back, was injured in a B-squad game against Duluth East. He was taken to St. Mary's that evening for X-rays.

"I could barely stand up or breathe," recalled Conito, who was told that X-rays confirmed he had broken ribs but also something much worse. "I was shocked; it was the last thing I was expecting. I just thought it was broken ribs or, worst-case [scenario], maybe internal bleeding."

Instead, tests showed Conito had large B-cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Doctors told Conito's parents that the tumor was growing rapidly and he needed to undergo chemotherapy immediately.

"Had it not been detected at that time and the treatments started at that time, Tyler wouldn't be with us," Ken Conito said.

After initial treatments at the University of Minnesota hospitals, Conito continued chemo at St. Mary's. Instead of getting down, he contented himself by playing Nintendo with teammates at the hospital.

"I didn't really believe it. Obviously, a friend having cancer is kind of surreal," senior running back Drake Willis said. "But he wasn't depressed at all. He thought positive all the time -- about everything."

Conito spent the rest of his sophomore year being home-schooled and tutored. He'll still need to make up sophomore English before he graduates in the spring.

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But he says the driving force to recover was returning to the gridiron.

"That was the first thing on my mind," he said. "All I thought about was playing football."

Nearly a year after treatments began, doctors performed a biopsy and found that a liquid sac had formed and attached itself to one of Conito's lungs. Fearing another cancerous tumor, they removed that section of lung. Further testing showed the sac was benign and Conito has been cancer-free since.

He participated in seven-on-seven drills in the summer of 2007 and played on the varsity last year. Still, he says he became winded because he was out of shape and wasn't physically fit until midway through the season. That didn't matter to his fellow Hunters, however.

"Yes it's important to me that he's playing football again ... but he's alive," Denfeld coach Frank Huie said. "I've lost both my parents to cancer, but he's alive. That's enough for me right there. He's surviving cancer, what a gift."

Both of Ken Conito's parents died of cancer, as did a sister, so Tyler knows he's lucky. He says he'll remember that the rest of his life.

"You have to live everything to the fullest," he said. "If you don't, you never know what's going to happen."

And while he'd like to continue his high school football career at least one more game, Conito's already posted the biggest victory of his life.

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"He's a fighter and never quits; he's determined to win," Ken Conito said. "But no matter if they win or lose [tonight], it's a win for him."

* Cloquet moved the contest to PSS because its home, Bromberg Field, was declared unplayable. Duluth Central (5-3) hosts Hibbing (1-7) in the first game at PSS at 5:15 p.m. The winner meets either Cloquet or Denfeld in a semifinal at 7 p.m. Saturday at PSS. Duluth East (8-0), which received a bye in the quarterfinals as the top seed, plays the winner of the Hermantown-Grand Rapids game at 4 p.m. Saturday at PSS.

RICK WEEGMAN covers prep football for the News Tribune. He can be reached at (218) 723-5302, (800) 456-8181 or by e-mail at rweegman@duluthnews.com .

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