The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, July 31, 2013

By Bethany Bradsher

Bethany Bradsher

Jeff Connors melds minds and bodies

Jeff Connors runs with players during an early morning workout.
Jeff Connors, East Carolina's assistant athletic director for strenth and conditioning, runs with players during an early morning workout.
File photo by Al Myatt. © All rights reserved.

By Bethany Bradsher
All Rights Reserved.

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Lazy and hazy don’t do the summer months justice when you’re a sportswriter covering collegiate athletics. Aside from a few academic and preseason awards, my usually lively inbox has taken a summer snooze where ECU is concerned.

Football, soccer and volleyball are still weeks away and the NCAA Track and Field finals feel like a distant memory. But thankfully, to save me from this state of ennui, I have made regular and educational visits to the summer nerve center of the Pirate Nation – the bright, beautiful weight room in the Murphy Center.

When I agreed to edit the book that strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors is writing about his life and his training philosophy, I couldn’t have dreamed of the education I would receive. After all, I exercise regularly and I can even identify a kettle bell. But in Connors’ world, I am riding a Big Wheel at a monster truck rally.

As we have worked through Connors’ chapters, I’ve learned about his childhood in Western Pennsylvania under the tutelage of the toughest coach he ever encountered, an ultra-intense man named Wild Billy who also happened to be his father. I marveled at stories from his days as a tenacious college football player in West Virginia and as cop in South Florida and have seen how the seeds of his profession emerged from that succession of experiences.

I have left those editing meetings every time energized by the purity of Connors’ vision for young athletes and impressed at the results he has gotten year after year from players who were long on heart but short on natural ability. I have flip-flopped between viewing strength coaching as a complicated science and as a nurturing environment not unlike parenting – and I’ve concluded that it’s both.

Above all, I have understood why so many Pirate fans rejoiced in January 2011 when Connors came back to the place he had come to consider home. During the 1990s Connors’ grueling offseason regimens and his creative pregame presentations – in which he was known to invite everyone from former players to Vietnam Vets to come and address the players – became stuff of legend, and he was one of the linchpins of a Steve Logan staff that became known for overachieving.

His departure for North Carolina in 2001 was widely lamented in the Pirate Nation, and after a decade in Chapel Hill few could have dreamed of a world that would have him wearing purple again. But his heart never really made the trip west, and when the opportunity arose it wasn’t a decision his mind had to get involved with at all.

With the football kickoff less than a month away, Connors and his staff are nearing the end of the period when the players operate exclusively in their domain. They have put a steady stream of young men through a precise series of exercises designed to optimize their strength, speed and fluidity, and they have insisted repeatedly that their athletes find what looks like their limit and bulldoze past it. Everything they do is football-specific, and the destination for every part of the summer journey is a hot September Saturday in Dowdy-Ficklen, or a do-or-die fourth quarter at Carter-Finley in November.

In some ways, the strength coach is a little bit like the long snapper – if things go smoothly on the field, you shouldn’t think about him at all. But from the hours I have spent talking to Connors and reading his words, I have come to understand that nothing about developing a well-conditioned football team is accidental. When things go right for the Pirates this fall – especially in the fourth quarter when that defensive back has already run forty snaps and he beats that receiver downfield – I will remember to give some credit to the architect of a training plan that makes one group of college students forget that summer has anything to do with relaxation.

Look for the book this fall, but be warned – Connors isn’t looking to produce an “easy read.” He wants you to work for it.

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07/31/2013 03:11 AM