Connop's wall call well deserved

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:02 AM ET

Rod Connop, in all his media interviews over the years, never told the story.

He never told it when he made the team, when he won his first Grey Cup, when he played his 250th game or when he retired.

He told it first at his Canadian FootballHall of Fame induction and again this week at the Eskimos annual dinner advancing tomorrow's Wall of Honour ceremonies as his name and number go up on the facade of Commonwealth Stadium.

"It was my first training camp. And I wasn't ready to play football for the Edmonton Eskimos. Thank goodness training camps were longer in those days. They went on for six or seven weeks and there were four exhibition games.

"I was not ready for the first game. The team went to B.C. and left me behind. The next game was against Saskatchewan and they played me just a little bit.

"The third game was against Calgary and it was a beautiful summer night in late June. There I was out on the field with Warren Moon at quarterback and Hector Pothier playing beside me at left tackle.

"Calgary ran a twist and sacked Warren. I'd made a mistake. I turned around and Warren was picking himself up off the ground. He'd been sacked.

"I'm walking off the field and Hector is telling me what I should have done when all of a sudden I hear a 'thunk.' Hank Ilesic's punt had just been blocked. Calgary recovered and scored a touchdown.

"Illesic came off the field screaming 'Somebody was missing.'

"Cal Murphy was the offensive line coach and he's yelling 'Who wasn't out there?'

"It was me, of course.

"I thought 'That's that. Career over. Legacy - a couple of plays in a pre-season game in front of Warren Moon and beside Hector Pothier.'

"At the end of the game, I wondered how it worked. Do they cut me now and take me straight to the airport?

"I went back to Concordia College where we had rooms thinking I'd at least be leaving with a few bucks. They paid eight dollars a day to a rookie in training camp. I'd been there three or four weeks. But when I got to my room, I discovered somebody had stolen all my money. Now I'm thinking I'm going to get cut and go home broke.

"I didn't sleep all night. I was convinced the grim reaper was going to pay me a visit.

"The next day before films I found a place by myself because I knew Hugh didn't like to embarrass players by cutting them in front of others. And sure enough he came up to me and asked if he could talk to me.

"He took me back to the old weight room and said 'I understand bad things happened to you last night.' I thought he was talking about the football game. But then he pulled out his wallet and started peeling off twenties.

"Then he looked at me and said 'I can replace the money but I can't replace you on punt teams if you're not there.' And he left me standing there.

"I couldn't believe it. 'I'm not cut!' ''

Connop ended his career as the Eskimos all-time leader in games played at 303 - 274 of them in the regular season - 23 playoff games and six Grey Cups, winning three of them. He played 210 consecutive games at one point, a rare accomplishment for an offensive lineman.

I remember talking to him prior to playing regular-season game No. 250 on a Labour Day in Calgary with No. 254 to break Dave Cutler's record for games played at the time.

"Some day when my career is over and I'm looking back, I know I'll feel really good about it. It doesn't mean that much to me right now. But when I'm retired and a little time has gone by, I'm sure I'm going to be proud. In the end, I want to be judged on the quality of the games, not the quantity.''

That happened when he was inducted to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame a couple of weeks ago. It will happen again tomorrow night when his name will go up on the Eskimos Wall of Honour at Commonwealth Stadium.

Connop says when he received the phone call from the commissioner in January, he was surprised.

"It's like I told you when I found out. I played offensive line and I thought I played it pretty well and I know I worked hard. But to get that phone call saying you're going into the Hall of Fame ...''

The phone call was a memory in more ways than one.

"I thought it was somebody playing a joke on me,'' he said.

"I did have a kind of strange conversation with the CFL commissioner,'' he said of Tom Wright.

"He phoned to tell me the honour of being elected to the Canadian FootballHall of Fame had been bestowed on me and I said 'Who is this? I'm trying to figure out the voice. Who is this?

"Finally he asked me how he was going to be able to convince me. I said 'send me an e-mail.' He e-mailed me a note saying 'Believe me now?' That's when I said 'wow.' This has happened.

"At my position you're just so happy somebody was watching, that somebody was paying attention. And, again, like I said at the time, it's not lost on me that I'm a Canadian. I'm pretty proud of that.''

Connop made mention of that at his Hall of Fame induction, too.

And he says he'll be thinking about that as they unveil his number tomorrow.

"I don't think there are many Canadians up there,'' he said. "They're mostly imports. The thing it says the most to me is that I got to have the Canadian dream.

"I was hooked on Canadian football when I was seven or eight years old. I won Grey Cups and I ended up in the Hall of Fame and on the Wall of Honour.

"I have a vivid memory of the 1970 Grey Cup game when my dad took me to a Kinsmen Grey Cup party. That's the day I got my football dream.''

Connop thanked a lot of people at his induction including Jay Tracey, his high school quarterback, and Danny McManus.

"It was neat having my first quarterback and my last quarterback there,'' he said.

"My entire Wilfrid Laurier offensive line was there.''

He thanked Frank Morris, the Eskimos offensive line legend and super scout.

"I'd only met Frank once before he drafted me and that's when he walked up to me at practice and asked me which one was Rod Connop.''

He thanked his college coaches and his first position coach, Cal Murphy. And he thanked Eskimos legend Jackie Parker.

"Jackie took me aside one day and told me what was expected of an Eskimo in the community.''

He also thanked coach RonLancaster for his longevity.

"I would have retired at least a couple years earlier if I hadn't had Ron Lancaster as coach. He'd gone through the same thing in his career. The last few years, it wasn't that I didn't still enjoy the game, it's that all the guys I'd played with were gone. Larry Wruck retired. Blake Dermott retired. I looked around the room and wondered how come I was still there.

"Some of the guys started calling me The Governor,'' he laughed as he sat there. "I took that as a sign of respect. But maybe it was like calling me The Old Guy.''

Connop's first year was the last year of the Eskimos five-in-a-row Grey Cup run.

"I started off as the young pup on a championship team. I left as a grizzled vet.''

Connop was the last survivor of the five-in-a-row Grey Cup team.

I was there the day he announced his retirement. All the lockers were empty save one.

While most Eskimos retirements of his stature involve a podium at some swank location, Connop chose to sit in his stall, where his helmet, uniform and jersey were in place, to deal with the day the same way he dealt with the media after a football game.

"I feel so blessed,'' said Connop that afternoon as his eyes became moist and he battled a lump in his throat.

"He was the perfect Eskimo,'' said Hugh Campbell. "He was what we were looking for. He was the best example of what we hope for in a player. He was the ideal Eskimo. He was truly an outstanding football player, family man and citizen. He lived in Edmonton, holding down a career job while being an Eskimo captain. He had the whole picture in his mind at all times.''

Connop, for the coach of the five-in-a-row Eskimos team, was a special player in another way. He was the last link to the glory gang.

"He's the last player I coached. The thread is broken,'' said Campbell that day.

The six-time CFL All-Star won three Grey Cups. His first was 1982, the last of the five-in-a-row.

"My first Grey Cup in my first season might be the top,'' said Connop of his highlights.

He thanked Eric Upton for taking him under his wing, thanked Pothier and current Hamilton coach Greg Marshall, his roomie as an Eskimo who "had a 14-minute career but inspired me beyond belief with the unbelievable amount of hard work for what he wanted so badly.''

And he finished with his old friend and roommate Blake Dermott.

"We were mates on and off the field for 13 of my 16 years as an Eskimo,'' he said.

Connop finished his induction dinner speech in Hamilton telling the crowd about the transition to being an ex-Eskimo.

"I retired in May of 1998. It was the Eskimos 50th anniversary and the mayor declared the day of the first game 'Green & Gold Day' in Edmonton. I was asked to be in a parade at half time.

"I'd only missed a handful of games as an Eskimo. Other than one when I was in the hospital, the others were all on the road. I'd never watched a game at Commonwealth Stadium. And I really didn't want to go. My wife and kids convinced me that I had to go.

"I walked into the stadium with the fans and somebody came up to me shouting '50-50'. I bought five tickets for the 50-50 for a dollar each. I won the 50-50."

It was $10,412.

"I thought that was the perfect way to end my career. But I was wrong. This is. To me the Wall of Honour is every bit as big as the Hall of Fame. My kids can go to games and see my name up there. This is my community. This is where I played my career.''


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