October 21, 2011. The first quarter has left the University of Louisville in the lead 7-0 against Rutgers University. The second quarter begins with the familiar sounds of the roaring crowd and jingling cow bells. The referee blows his whistle and the clock begins to tick down as UofL punts the ball toward the Rutgers University receiving team.
The first two plays of the second quarter happen without flaw. Rutgers only gained two yards on their first play. Now it is second and eight and the cardinals are determined to keep the offense at bay. The quarterback yells the play, “set, set, hike!” He drops back and passes down the field to number 6, Mohamed Sanu. Sanu catches the ball and is flipped over by UofL’s number 35, Anthony Conner.
The lights in the stadium were bright but when Conner hit Sanu, everything went black. Immediately the bellows of the fans and the clamoring of the bells fell to a deafening silence. Conner was not moving. Coaches and trainers rushed to his side as both teams took to their knees.
“You better be hurt, Conner!” one coach jokes with Anthony. Everyone is trying to stay calm as they try to figure out how hurt their player is. Conner moves his fingers and toes- a miracle sign that he is not paralyzed. He is taken off the field in a stretcher to a round of applause from both UofL and Rutgers fans.
Conner did not believe his injury was as serious as it was when he woke up on the field. The first thought that went through his head was, “Whoa, this play is taking forever!” Because Conner could move his hands and feet, he came to the conclusion that he just had a cramp in his neck. UofL Athletics took the proper precautions, however, and took him to the hospital anyway. This proved to be a good move, because it turned out that Conner had broken his neck.
Five months and one broken neck later, Anthony Conner realizes that he is truly blessed to be alive and walking around. Coach Strong had always preached to his team that they must live for “today not tomorrow” and Conner understands the full meaning behind that now.
“Of course I was thinking ‘why me?‘“ Conner remembers. It did not take him long, however, to realize that he had to leave his situation in God’s hands and realize that he is luckier than most.
A year earlier than his own injury, Rutgers player Eric LeGrand suffered a broken neck and was paralyzed. When Conner got a phone call from him, he knew he couldn’t feel sorry for himself anymore.
“He was so positive and I could just hear the joy he still had, and this is a man who is paralyzed,” Conner said shaking his head. Conner decided then to look at his situation in a positive light and share his story with others.
Conner was planning on going to the next level after his experience at UofL, but he always kept it in the back of his mind that he needed an education in case something like this ever happened. With coaching offers from former UofL coach Steve Kragthorpe and Butte Community College and experience with motivational speaking, Conner’s “plan B” is turning out to be a good one.
“I’m a soft-spoken guy. [I]ts not how I am to speak loud but I want to tell my story and to help other people out,” Conner says about talking to high school football players around the country about his injury. He now preaches the importance of an education because he knows first hand what it is like to have everything ripped away from you in a single play. “I’m open to any opportunity that I can use my talents.”
It hasn’t been easy for Conner to watch his former teammates play in games and practice and know that he will never be able to get out there again, but he is proud of how far they came this past season. “It was bitter-sweet because I didn’t get to play in the Beef-O-Brady Bowl or the Belk Bowl, but I was happy to see my guys fighting and coming together like that,” Conner says with a smile.
This fall, the Cardinals will play seven games in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and five games away. Conner believes this team will be able to go all the way and be single Big East Champions (last season they were co-champs) and even have a chance to win the Orange Bowl. “We aren’t regressing. . . We have a lot of talent that has grown up,” Conner says.
October 11, 2011. A day that will be both devastating and motivating for Anthony Conner and the UofL cardinals. Although he won’t be on the field with the Cardinals physically, Conner will always be a motivating factor that will be with the UofL football team forever.