No joke: Connor growing up Suspension for pranks was a 'wake-up call' for Lions linebacker. Suspension a 'wake-up call' for Connor

Posted: October 21, 2005

For Dan Connor, a football loss and foolish behavior intersected at a place called immaturity.

Penn State's sophomore linebacker believes his team's gut-churning loss at Michigan on Saturday and his earlier disciplinary troubles displayed a team and an individual that needed to grow up.

"There's definitely a parallel," said Parade magazine's 2003 linebacker of the year from Strath Haven High.

In fact, during an interview this week, it was virtually impossible to distinguish the answers Connor gave about his two lowest moments as a Nittany Lion.

"It was really a learning experience for me," he said of his off-the-field problems. "It made me stronger and a better player."

"It was a learning experience," he said of the 27-25 loss to Michigan. "It's going to make us better."

Frankly, Connor probably has more to prove than his teammates.

The drive that gave Michigan its last-second victory, after all, was facilitated by a suddenly hot Wolverines offense and an inspired home crowd of 111,247 as much as by any Penn State shortcoming.

Off the field, however, Connor created his own anguish.

According to sources at the university, Connor and at least two other players made more than a dozen prank calls to Joe Sarra, an elderly former Penn State football assistant who had retired after the 2004 season. Some of the calls came long after midnight.

When they came to light near the end of this year's preseason camp, Paterno, who reportedly was furious about the harassment of his longtime aide, quickly suspended Connor, along with juniors Jim Kanuch and Nolan McCready.

The university's Judicial Affairs Office ordered Connor to perform 20 hours of community service, and he received a 10-day deferred expulsion. Eventually, both the expulsion, which precluded any contact with the team, and the service requirement were reduced. He missed a week of practice and the season's first three games, returning in time for the Lions' Big Ten opener at Northwestern on Sept. 24.

When Connor's penalty was lessened not long after Paterno had told reporters he "was having a little bit of a problem with Judicial Affairs," speculation arose that the coach had intervened. Paterno has neither confirmed nor denied that, but suggested that misbehaving players frequently deserved a second chance.

"Every situation is a little bit different," Paterno explained earlier. "Every kid is a little bit different. The circumstances involved with it are different. . . . Some of you have never had the responsibility of dealing with people's lives and how your decision affects what's going to happen to them the rest of their lives. I've always tried to treat each situation as fairly as I know how to do it and take into consideration what the consequences are for my actions."

Cynics implied the old coach had been willing to let Connor off easily because he was thinking of his team's record. But Paterno's customized approach to punishment was also on display in the cases of two of Connor's teammates, E.Z. Smith and Paul Cronin.

Smith, a senior center, has remained on the team despite two underage drinking citations and an arrow-shooting incident at a campus apartment. Meanwhile, Cronin, a much-used senior defensive back, had to turn in his uniform after being cited for public drunkenness before the Ohio State game.

"Coach Paterno has helped me out a lot," said Connor, who has declined to speak directly about his situation. "But when this happened, he was angry. He was hard on me. That's what I expected, and that was the reason I came to Penn State, to have that kind of discipline. . . . One more thing and I'll be gone. It was kind of a wake-up call for me."

For Connor, that support from Paterno and his assistants validated his decision to turn down a slew of national offers and attend Penn State.

"The coaches, all throughout everything, have been great," he said. "No one really turned their back on me. They were there, helping me out, trying to prepare me for when I came back. . . . That's kind of the reason I came to Penn State. Because I knew if things went bad for me, some coach would be there to help me get through it."

Connor was not allowed on the sideline for the games he missed. He performed his community service and watched the contests on TV.

"Basically, I was just trying to do whatever I had to do to get the stuff that needed to be finished done," he said. ". . . You learn how to persevere in tough times. But you learn to always keep looking forward, to not give up."

He has regained his starting outside linebacker spot and resumed the play that made him a preseason all-American candidate. He has stepped warily back into the good graces of coaches and teammates. Now if he could just get the Michigan loss out of his head.

"We watched the film [Monday]," he said. "That's it. Now we just want to move on, step forward. It will help us later if we do. . . . I think we are going to mature from this game."

He didn't identify who the "we" were. But you can be sure he was including himself.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

Penn State

at Illinois

Tomorrow, Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.,

7 p.m.

* Records: Penn State, 6-1, 3-1. Illinois, 2-4, 0-3.

* TV/Radio: ESPN2; WFIL-AM (560).

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