Thompson Warriors head football coach Mark Freeman was certain that junior outside linebacker Will Conner would contribute to the team this season. In fact, he was expecting a big contribution.
Freeman just didn’t expect that Conner, who last played football in the eighth grade, would do that until later in the year. “Middle of the season” was Freeman’s best guess.
Sometimes, it sure does feel good to be off by just a bit.
Conner wasted little time in contributing big things on the football field. In fact, he began by playing a big role in the season opener, helping out in a 21-20 victory over visiting Hapeville Charter.
How well did the 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior play? Good enough that UAB coaches not only noticed but they offered him a scholarship not long after the game. The offer came when Conner was a visitor for during the Blazers’ 38-7 victory over Alabama A&M at Legion Field.
So, for those keeping score at home, one varsity game, one scholarship offer.
“He’s such a good athlete and has a motor,” Freeman said. “He’s fast enough to make the plays he needs to make. He’s one of those great high school guys that you think about, who came out late, jumped right in and now he’s a big part of us being successful.”
Conner’s plan all along was to play football at Thompson High. The plan was curtailed during his eighth grade season at Thompson Middle School. He was forced to give up football because of concussions. It wasn’t easy for Conner to give up a sport that he loved.
“There was a lot of prayer and thought,” Conner said. “Sometimes I had thoughts that I would never come back.”
Conner, also a standout baseball player, put his energy and efforts into that sport. He played third base and outfield on the Warriors’ varsity team last spring. Conner said he was cleared to play football before the fall of 2016 but his parents told him to wait another season.
In the spring, he finally returned to the football field.
“When we got here, all the kids knew Will,” Freeman said. “Will was one of the better youth players around. This year, when he decided to come out and play, you could tell he was rusty. He got back into playing shape and got used to running through the hits and all that.”
Conner said he had no apprehension about playing football upon his return. It was an adjustment getting used to the speed and strength of varsity football. He admitted that scraping off the rust took some time but was prepared long before the Warriors kicked off the season.
His first game under the Friday Night lights was everything he had dreamed about.
“It was amazing, coming from a middle school game to a big crowd like that,” Conner said. “It was awesome.”
Now, coaches throughout the country, at all levels, preach that one play doesn’t determine how well a player plays. Moving on to the next play – good or bad – is imperative in a football game. However, one play in the Warriors season-opening win just might sum up what Conner is about as a football player.
On the play, Conner blitzed the quarterback and was about 15 yards deep in the backfield when the quarterback threw a pass. The receiver who caught the football was about 30 yards down the field.
“I know we work pursuit drills every day, but he was about 50 yards away,” Freeman said. “He blitzed, got knocked down and ran all the way past the 50 to make the tackle. When you see that, you know he’s a football player. It’s staying after a play. You talk about going to the whistle.”
Conner smiled a small smile and quickly shrugged his shoulders when asked about the play.
“I really didn’t think I’d catch him,” Conner said. “They just preach in practice to go to the ball without stopping. I just took off and he cut back right to me.”