Anthony Conner is a cornerback. So naturally, the gift of trash talk comes pretty easily.
The Louisville senior's matchup in the Oct. 21 meeting with Rutgers was the most daunting of the season. The assignment: trying to contain Mohamed Sanu. The two are friends and old nemeses, having played against each other several times in the Big East. It was early in the game, and Conner decided to let loose with a few choice words:
"Boy, I'm about to come smash you," Conner said.
Two plays later, Conner had his opportunity. He went to make a tackle on Sanu and hit him a little too high and at the wrong angle. Conner went down, and stayed down. Coach Charlie Strong, defensive coordinator Vance Bedford and support personnel rushed onto the field. Conner had blacked out, but when he woke up, he started focusing on the coaches and trainers in front of him. Strong and Bedford were the first two faces he saw.
"Are you OK? How do you feel?" they kept asking.
"I feel like I have a cramp in my neck," Conner replied.
He was in pain, but not an uncomfortable amount. He joked that they were taking too long to get him back into the game. They asked him to move his fingers and toes, and he did, alleviating his biggest concern. Conner was not paralyzed, so he thought he would be fine as he was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
But when he got there, Conner got devastating news -- he had broken his neck.
His football career was over.
Rather than fade from view, however, Conner became a much more important part of his Louisville team. The night before he got hurt, it was the normally reserved Conner who stood up during a team meeting and told his teammates it was time for them to quit being so selfish and start acting like a family. Louisville was 2-4 at the time, and Conner felt it was "now or never" to step up and say something to effect change.
That speech, coupled with his injury, essentially saved the season.
His teammates rallied around him, and each other. Louisville went on to beat Rutgers, and an emotional Strong said the Cardinals won it for Conner. The following week, Conner made a surprise visit to the locker room just before kickoff against Syracuse, to rousing cheers and even a few tears. He got a standing ovation from the crowd when he rode onto the field in a golf cart during a break in the first quarter.
"The emotion that was in the locker room was something out of a movie," Conner said during a recent phone interview. "I was just melting inside. It was something that you had to be there to experience. Everybody was coming up to me, so happy to see me that I was back and doing well. It even made me cry. And I'm tough, but everybody was in there crying. I just felt all the love and support from my brothers. We were a family."
It is not overstating it to say Conner has been an inspiration to Strong and the players, a man so intent on being there for his teammates that he never missed a game after his injury. He attended practice, too, and served as another coach, another set of eyes and ears for his young teammates to follow.
Watching Louisville finish the season on a 5-1 tear -- a run that began with the win over Rutgers -- has been bittersweet, of course. Conner would do anything to play just one more down. But he is most proud of seeing his teammates act on what he said -- they came together. Because of him.
"I feel amazed that they rallied around me because they know I'm passionate about the game and I care about them as much as they care about me," Conner said. "They have shown me so much love and support, and have made me feel a part of all the victories. We had a meeting about us becoming more of a family so that's a primary reason we came closer as a family. It made me feel great."
After the injury, Strong preached to his players: today, not tomorrow. Live for the moment.
"Anthony's been the poster child for that because he's a great football player and a great person," linebacker Dexter Heyman said. "To not see him finish that season the way he should have hurt us. To see him come back into that locker room before the Syracuse game, to see him walk was a tremendous rush. You could see the pride and emotion in his eyes. It really gives you a sense of purpose and a sense of being, and makes you feel this Louisville football team is more of a family now. That's what Anthony brought to the table."
Conner is studying justice administration and communications and is set to graduate this summer. He has done a little bit of motivational speaking, and may even go into coaching. But the best part of all is that he is walking and on his way to a full recovery. His bulky neck brace has been replaced with a soft one, which should allow him more mobility and better sleep at night.
He is with his teammates in Charlotte as they prepare to play NC State in the Belk Bowl on Tuesday. Conner may never make another tackle, but he takes comfort in staying positive, and knowing there is plenty for him to do.
"I said back in the day if I didn't make it in the NFL, I wasn't going to be one of these players that keeps trying to chase it. Just be a player who can find something else that I love to do. I'm just looking at it in a positive manner. A lot of people didn't get this opportunity, so I can't be sad that I didn't go as far as my dreams, I'm going to focus on a new dream."