FLORHAM PARK–One of the things Jets coach Rex Ryan liked the most about John Conner coming out of college was how hard of a hitter he was. Conner was Ryan’s pick when they selected the University Kentucky fullback in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, after trading running back Leon Washington to Seattle.
It might be a good thing Ryan didn’t know about Conner’s first day on the football field. The then-six-year-old had told his father that he wanted to give football a shot. Having played semi-pro football himself, the older Conner, also named John, by then a heavy equipment operator, wasn’t going to object. However, that first day didn’t go exactly as planned.
“My first day out there in pads, I was like, I don’t think this is for me,” Conner said. “But my dad said, ‘I already bought the equipment so you’re going to stick it out.’”
Why, you may ask, did he not think the sport was for him? Conner, the man know as “The Terminator” for his hitting style, laughed as he answered, understanding the irony of what he was about to say, “I guess I didn’t like the contact at the time.”
Eventually he grew to love the sport, starting out as an offensive tackle and then moving around to various positions including tight end and linebacker, before settling into his role as a fullback. As a senior at Lakota West High School in West Chester, Ohio, just outside of Cincinnati, he rushed for 1100 yards and 14 touchdowns in his senior year, which helped lead his team to an appearance in the Ohio state championship game.
In spite of his high school success, only a few colleges recruited him and no one offered him a scholarship. However, the University of Kentucky, which was coming off NCAA probation, gave the fullback preferred walk-on status. They brought Conner in with the rest of the recruiting class, which meant he did not have to try out.
“Going by what the coaches told me, they said I had a really good chance of starting in a year or two,” he said. “But, in my mind, I was a little nervous. It was big-time college football; the SEC. But, once I got into the camp, got into the groove, I felt pretty good about it.”
His college career stalled briefly when he was injured in his freshman year and was red-shirted. From there, Conner improved steadily each year, making more and more of a contribution, earning numerous honors along the way.
Then came the Draft. “I felt like I had a good chance at being drafted, “he said, ” but with the kind of draft it was, it was nerve-wracking.”
He described how the day unfolded. “I had the phone in my hand, I had it on vibrate,” he said. “I was getting texts and calls from family members all day. Then I got one call from an area code I didn’t recognize.”
That call turned out to be Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum, although the whole thing was a blur for Conner.
“I didn’t know what to say,” he recalled. “I wasn’t even hearing what they were saying. I was in shock. It was a good shock moment.”
For the most part, Conner’s talents are self-taught. His father had some influence on his tackling style, and he counts himself fortunate to have had two other mentors, Alexis Bwenge at Kentucky and now Tony Richardson, but, for the most part, he simply goes on instinct.
Conner’s personality off the field belies the ferocious competitor he is on it. His day-to-day demeanor is quiet, but friendly and he is almost always smiling. It’s a dichotomy he hears about on a regular basis. “Yeah, I’m a different guy [on the field],” he said of those comments. “I get that all the time.
“It’s just natural,” he said of how he operates during a game. “That’s just how I play. I try to be the most physical person on the field.”
Even then, while his hits are crushing, his words are few. Although others certainly talk at him, and he occasionally responds, he doesn’t say too much. “I don’t talk a lot of smack on the field,” he said. “I speak with my pads.”