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The Pennsylvania State University
Make it a Maxwell Football Club double for Dan Connor. In 2003, he won the Jim Henry Award as the top high school player in the area. Tonight he returns to accept the 13th annual Chuck Bednarik Award as the Collegiate Defensive Player of the Year.
“It was definitely a surprise being in the same category as great players like James Laurinaitis (Ohio State linebacker) and Glenn Dorsey ( LSU defensive tackle),” Connor said when he was informed of the honor. “I wasn’t really thinking about the odds, but it’s neat to win the same award as ‘Poz’ since we’ve always been in competition.”
“Poz” is Paul Posluszny, Connor’s former teammate at Penn State, who won the Bednarik Award in 2005 and ’06. Posluszny graduated to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills this season and Connor succeeded him as the Nittany Lions’ defensive leader. Connor had 136 tackles, six sacks and one interception as Penn State posted another winning season and rolled over Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl.
Connor, a native of Wallingford, Delaware County, was a four-year starter at Penn State and he broke Posluszny’s school record with 410 career tackles. The Nittany Lions have a proud tradition of producing great linebackers – indeed, the school is known as “Linebacker U.” – but the 6-3, 248-pound Connor ranks among the very best.
He is only the fifth Penn State linebacker to earn two-time All-American honors – Jack Ham, Shane Conlan, Greg Buttle and Posluszny were the others – and he is the third Nittany Lion to win the Bednarik Award. In addition to Posluszny, LaVar Arrington won the award in 1999.
“I don’t think Dan puts too much into (awards),” said Sean Lee, Connor’s Nittany Lion teammate. “It’s a great accomplishment, but Dan’s more about winning games.”
Connor agreed, saying: “My favorite accomplishment...is being able to help turn around a program that struggled for two or three years before I got there. For Penn State to have the success it has had the last few years has been an unbelievable experience.”
Connor was recruited by more than 50 Division One schools after earning first-team All-America honors as a linebacker and running back at Strath Haven High School. He chose to attend Penn State despite the fact that the Nittany Lions were coming off a 3-9 season, the worst in coach Joe Paterno’s 38-year career.
Connor recalled talking with Posluszny, who was then a freshman, about taking on the challenge of resurrecting the program and putting the happy back in Happy Valley.
“We talked about trying to change how Penn State was perceived,” Connor told Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They were in a little bit of a lull and we were excited about getting a chance to come in as young guys and try to make a difference.”
In 2005, with Connor and Posluszny leading the defense, the Nittany Lions roared back to life with an 11-1 record, climbing to No. 3 in the polls. They have been a winning program ever since.
“That means a lot to Dan as much as the record (for tackles),” said Mike Connor, Dan’s brother, a Penn State graduate assistant. “He came here when things were tough and he left (the program) a lot better than when he got here.”
Connor had another decision to make prior to the 2007 season. He could have left school one year early and entered the NFL draft, but he chose to return and finish what he started at State College. The coaches moved him from outside linebacker to inside to take Posluszny’s place, but he adapted quickly enough to earn first-team All Big 10 honors.
“I wanted to come back and be a captain, play middle linebacker and lead this team,” Connor said. “And I’m happy with my decision.”