Quick Work at Midlakes Homecoming Saves Referee

mike connell photo
  • Veteran football official is back at work thanks to first responders attending Midlakes Homecoming.

    NOV. 22, 2021 — It was the biggest game of the season. The stands were full of fans and an overflow crowd stood along a fence behind the home team’s sideline. The football boosters worked concessions as three food trucks served pre-game meals at the Ollie Cook Memorial Field.

    Students, coming off a parade on Midlakes campus, eagerly awaited the first Homecoming in two years, featuring an upstart Midlakes squad that had already doubled its win total from a year earlier up against a tough Hornell team.

    On the field, Midlakes cheerleaders held an enormous banner their Screaming Eagles prepared to run through on the way to a sprint to the 50-yard line.

    But something went terribly wrong. The dash was delayed. Mike Connell, a 63-year-old Geneva resident and one of the referees assigned to work the game, collapsed on Midlakes’ sideline just before the opening coin toss.

    Tim VanDamme, a Midlakes assistant coach, saw Connell go down as he was about to check the game balls. VanDamme called out to Alexandra Schreck, a team athletic trainer from Thompson Health just a few feet away when Connell collapsed.

    "All of a sudden, he got that look on his face," said Jamie McCarrick, a volunteer coach at Midlakes who checked with Schreck for any response by Connell. "You could see the life leave his face."

    Schreck began CPR. McCarrick counted out compressions while checking for signs of breathing.

    alexandra schreck 

    "It is probably the scariest thing I have ever done in my entire career,” said Schreck. "You know that you can do it but the fear of, 'I hope that I do right by this person’ is there, even though your training kicks in."

    About 50 yards away, Ontario County Sheriff Deputy Bob Holland and off-duty Sergeant, Dana Egburtson, who is also a Midlakes parent, received a call for help.

    Egburtson ran as several off-duty first responders from the Phelps Fire Department and the Phelps Ambulance service and other agencies made their way onto the field to help. Some jumping over a fence circling the football field.

    Holland drove his patrol vehicle, which had an automated external defibrillator (AED), to the scene. Egburtson took the AED and used it on Connell. 

    Connell began to faintly breathe on his own.

    Aaron Newton, an off-duty EMT at the game, stabilized Connell’s head as Dr. Ismail Mehr, an assistant coach with Hornell and chairman of anesthesiology at St. James Hospital in Hornell, assisted Connell's own breathing with the help of a breathing bag.

    About this time, Midlakes cheerleaders brough their large Homecoming banner over to shield spectators from seeing the work of first responders and to protect Connell's privacy.

    Holland called dispatch and advised for airlift support. 

    He also had the area shut down to traffic and worked to keep spectators in the stands as much as possible to allow emergency crews, that included Phelps and Finger Lakes ambulance services and Mercy Flight Inc., to do their work.

    "That trainer made a huge difference, if not the main difference in the situation," Mehr said. "The sooner you start compressions, the better the outcome. She recognized that and started compressions. The AED, getting that on in a timely manner, shocking him, and bringing him back where his heart is now beating — that’s what got his heart back, revived him."

    Later, the cheerleaders led a large circle with several members of the football team in a moment of hope and prayer for the fallen official.

    "They all showed so much maturity and compassion that night, it was amazing," Schreck said of the students. "It was really heartwarming to see how in a time of need all of these kids could come together and be so adult about things."

    Connell woke up early the next morning in the intensive care unit at Strong Memorial Hospital, not knowing why he was in the hospital. Unaware of his helicopter ride to the hospital the night before. 

    "It was just like a door shut," said Connell, a probation officer who has refereed high school football for about 18 years, in addition to girls' basketball and softball. "I remember seeing some light and then just darkness, like someone shut the door. Boom. The next morning, I woke up. I looked out. I had this beautiful view of Rochester."

    A nurse told him that he went into a cardiac arrest. He remained in the hospital over the next seven days to undergo several tests. About a month later, he said, the reason why his heart stopped suddenly had remained elusive.

    "The doctors said, ‘Hey Mike, if you were any place else, you would have been in the obituaries'," Connell said. "They told me, 'We may never know why you just shut down (but) everything was right for you that night'."

    Someone sent him a photo of that night with the cheerleaders and football players holding hands. He went back to work about a month after the incident.

    "All those people that came to my aid, it's just overwhelming," Connell said. "I would like to at some point meet everybody who helped me out. I want to personally thank them. They saved a life that night, you know."

    Special Thanks to the Following:

    • Referee Mike Connell 
    • Coach Tim VanDamme 
    • Athletic Trainer Alexandra Schreck
    • Coach/Parent Jamie McCarrick 
    • Deputy Bob Holland
    • Sgt. Dan Egburston
    • Dr. Ismail Mehr
    • Phelps Fire Department
    • Phelps Ambulance
    • Finger Lakes Ambulance
    • Mercy Flight Inc.
    • All those who worked to provide a positive outcome.

    Jamie McCarrick

    "All of a sudden, he got that look on his face. You could see the life leave his face. He collapsed. I dropped to the ground with him. Alex did a great job. It was phenomenal how well she did.”

    — Jamie McCarrick, 
    Midlakes volunteer coach

    "It was the first time she had ever done CPR. She did exactly what she needed to do. She will never ever, ever forget it.”

    — Deputy Bob Holland, 
    Ontario County Sheriff’s Office

    alexander schreck

    "It is probably the scariest thing I have ever done in my entire career. You know that you can do it but the fear of, ‘I hope that I do right by this person’ is always there, even though your training kicks in and you don’t really think about it until after it’s over. That fear, ‘I hope to God that I did right by him, is always there’.”

    — Alexandra Schreck, 
    athletic trainer

    “When you load someone into a helicopter or drop someone off at the hospital … you have a sense of accomplishment. It is not every time it goes that way.”

    — Phil Frere, assistant director of
    operations at Phelps Ambulance

    tim vandamme

    "People started coming out of the woodwork. Off-duty crews. Doctors. Nurses. They gave him a chance. We checked in with each other. You don’t have that everywhere. I feel Midlakes is a family, a tight community.”

    — Tim VanDamme, 
    Assistant football coach

    2021 midlakes homecoming

    “It is a rare occurrence that somebody walks out of the hospital without some sort of neurological issue (after cardiac arrest). We had an all-star team — like a NASCAR pit crew —that responded. Who would have thought his career would save his life one day.”

    — Scott Glick, medical director of Finger Lakes & Phelps Ambulance, attending emergency
    room doctor at FF Thompson Hospital

    “It was a beautiful night for football. A nice crowd. Homecoming. Friday night lights. Short sleeve shirts. I felt great right up until …”

    — Mike Connell, 
    Geneva resident and football official

    ollie cook memorial field