SPARTANBURG Dan Connor has temporarily stopped talking to friends at Penn State, where he played college football, and in Wallingford, Pa., where he grew up.
He's not a snob. A rookie middle linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, Connor is regular-guy unpretentious. But he's in the NFL now. Life is a practice field and a playbook.
“It's a lot of work, full time, no time off, and no rest time,” says Connor, who wears a gray Strath Haven (his high school) T-shirt.
Conversations often are with fellow middle linebackers Jon Beason and Adam Seward and strong side linebacker Na'il Diggs. They talk. He listens. He says the veterans are generous with their advice.
At 23, Beason might be the league's youngest veteran.
“I know, but he's definitely got leadership ability,” says Connor, 22. “If you didn't know it you'd think he'd been in the league nine, 10 years.”
When Connor puts on his special radio helmet, it is the voice of defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac he hears. Four months ago, the NFL declared that one defensive player could wear a radio helmet, thus enabling the defensive coordinator to relay a play. The quarterback gets one. It's only fair the defense does.
“I wish it was around when I was in college,” says Connor.
Although he won the Bednarik Award last season as college football's top defensive player, Connor comes humbly to the NFL. Projected as a first-round pick, he was available when the Panthers made their second pick in the third round. They weren't looking for a linebacker. But they were thrilled to grab Connor.
For the first time, at any level, he doesn't start.
“It's different,” Connor says. “But when you play at a level like this, especially with a linebacking corps as deep as we are, I can learn a lot as a backup watching Beason and Seward in the middle and Diggs. There's just so much talent here I'm trying to learn what I can.”
Beason says Connor learns quickly and improves daily. He says Connor is “instinctive and physical” and “really tries to do what the coaches ask.”
Doesn't every rookie?
“Yeah,” says Beason. “But some guys try to do it and he actually gets it done.”
Maybe that's because Connor played at Penn State. Penn State is as revered for linebackers as Spartanburg is for Waffle Houses (the Yellow Pages list 17).
Do you feel fortunate, Jon Beason, that the rookie played for Linebacker U as opposed to some lesser school not known for linebackers such as Miami?.
“Absolutely not, absolutely not,” says Beason, who happened to play at Miami. “It's not even close. I mean all you have to do is check the numbers.
“It's the Big Ten. They say a lot of things are good in the Big Ten, but the track record proves they come to the South they have problems.”
The Big Ten might. The Panthers doubt that Connor will.