Conrad Harron Seeks State Tennis Title After Near-Fatal Car Crash
LAKEVIEW — Chicago's best high school tennis player, Conrad Harron, can't remember the two weeks in which his life nearly ended.
The 2007 car crash left Harron, then 13, in a coma and on life support in a Florida hospital.
When he finally awoke, his first thought was not about the crash, but about the other tennis players around the country who might be passing him in the national rankings.
It was December 2007, when an SUV slammed into a rental car in which Harron was traveling with his father, Michael, on a trip to the Everglades.
Harron, ranked the No. 1 player in the country by the United States Tennis Association as a 12-year-old, shot headfirst into his dad's head, cracking Harron's left eye socket.
"The first time I saw him, I came to very briefly in the car," Michael Harron said, fighting back tears. "I remember looking over. I saw him unconscious and just blood running out of his mouth.
"The thought of burying a child is horrendous, and I don't think I ever thought he would die. He was given at best a 50-50 chance of surviving the injuries, but I always believed he would fight and he would succeed," Harron's dad said.
Harron, now 18 and a University of Chicago Laboratory Schools senior, has fought back from the brink to become one of the favorites to win an individual state tennis title this season.
"I always wonder if I'm going to be able to recall those two weeks, but I feel I appreciate everything more in my life," said Harron, of Lakeview. "Not just tennis, life in general."
Hoping to end lengthy drought
George Lott was the last Lab Schools boys tennis player to win a state title.
Before he celebrated championships at Wimbledon, and the French and U.S. Opens, Lott claimed state crowns at Lab Schools from 1922-24.
"Our school's history is quite important to the students and to the people who work there," said Gerold Hanck, of Hyde Park, who's in his 16th year as a coach in the boys tennis program. "George Lott is our most famous tennis graduate, so we make reference to him to remind kids of just how far it's possible to go."
Until this season, Harron had never played high school ball. His complete focus was on the ultra-tough USTA circuit, where he rose to the top. But his rankings plummeted into the 600s after the crash.
"After his accident, we really discouraged him from pursuing tennis," his father said. "What he had done was so empowering at such a young age. I wanted it to remain a positive experience."
His son would have none of it.
Tennis had been his life, all-consuming since he fell in love with the sport as a 7-year-old. A Lab School student since fourth grade, the school would restructure his class schedule so he could leave early — in order to make a multihour commute to and from the west or north suburbs for tennis practice.
Weekends meant trips around the country to USTA tournaments. Harron's bedroom contains a map pinned with spots he's been for tennis tourneys all over the United States, including that unfortunate journey to South Florida.
So, dropping from 105 to 82 pounds — mostly muscle weight — and realizing he was no longer going to be able to beat the very best of youth competition wasn't going to prevent Harron from a return.
"It was very impressive that he was focused on getting back to that high level of performance," said Tom Wangelin, the tennis director at Chicago's East Bank Club, where Harron has practiced for most of the last two years. "A lot of guys very easily could have used [the accident] as an excuse."
Playing prep ball for the first time
Wangelin encouraged Harron, whom he dubbed "unquestionably the best tennis player in the city of Chicago," to play tennis for Lab School this season.
Hanck and Lab Schools Athletic Director David Ribbens had tried to get Harron to switch from USTA to prep ball for several years, with the latter going as far as sending him a postcard with Lott's picture and historical championship information, with the lighthearted phrase "Are you willing to do that, too?"
Harron said he wanted to be part of a team before competing later this year for Williams College, one of the top Division III programs in the country.
"And I felt I owed it to the school," Harron said. "I feel a sense of gratitude for the school accommodating my schedule around tennis."
Harron said tennis has absorbed his life so thoroughly that he doesn't have a best friend.
But Harron, the clear-cut No. 1 singles player, feels like he's bonded with his new teammates. And they are certainly happy to have an elite player joining the mix.
"It's good for us to see that kind of player on a daily basis," said senior captain and No. 2 singles player Lucas Buchheim-Jurisson, 17, of Hyde Park. "I had been trying to get him to play with us for a couple of years. Our team is laid-back but also kind of competitive, and he's fit right in."
Harron said his only high school goal remaining is finishing first at state. Before his senior season, he emailed Hanck with a simple message: "Coach Hanck, I'd like to be part of the Lab team, and my goal is to win state senior year."
"If you look at the rankings now, Conrad would be a top 2 or 3 seed in the state tournament," said Connor Roth, of Lincoln Park, one of Harron's practice partners at the East Bank Club, who played for the University of Illinois. "He's capable of grinding out matches. ... And he never gives up."
That's been a common theme for Harron, who was once No. 1 and hopes to attain the spot again at state.
His brush with death simply has made him appreciate life.
"What's interesting about my accident is it's been a major motivating force for me," he said. "I'm fortunate to still be alive."