Sept. 11, 2000

by Pete LaFleur

Today’s halftime festivities include a special ceremony honoring George Connor — who arguably enjoyed the most combined success on the college and professional level of any player in Notre Dame’s storied history.

The trophy ceremony honoring Connor has been more than 50 years in the making. He will be presented with an Outland Trophy in recognition of the award he received in 1946. The Outland Trophy recognizes the nation’s top interior lineman and ranks as college football’s third-oldest award, behind only the Heisman Trophy and the Maxwell Award (both of which honor the nation’s top overall player).

Connor was the first recipient of the Outland but permanent trophies were not presented to the winners until 1989. In fact, the Outland Trophy now is presented on ESPN’s annual College Football Awards show — thus increasing the visibility of the award.

Prior to 1989, the winner of the Outland was presented with a plaque and the original trophy — which then was passed on to the following year’s winner.

The Football Writers Association — which sponsors the voting and presentation of the Outland Trophy — recently decided to begin presenting Outland trophies to pre-1989 winners. The Downtown Rotary Club of Omaha and the Omaha Sports Committee also came on board with this project and began presenting the trophies to former winners at the annual Outland Award Dinner, which is held in Omaha.

Nebraska’s Larry Jacobson — the 1971 Outland winner — was presented with his trophy during last year’s Outland Award Dinner. Connor also was to receive his trophy at that event but was unable to attend, leading to a change of venue for today’s presentation.

“It’s wonderful to accept an award from over 50 years ago and to have the presentation made at Notre Dame Stadium with so many friends and family on hand,” said Connor, who donated his original Outland plague to Notre Dame for display in the Sports Heritage Hall.

“I truly value my Catholic education and the friendships I made during my time at Notre Dame. Not only among my teammates but among the entire student body, because back then we didn’t room athletes together in the dorms and I had many great roommates.”

Connor — who earned All-America honors at Holy Cross before transferring to Notre Dame — was the leader of a dominating group of Notre Dame offensive lineman in the late 1940s. In fact, the seven linemen on the 1947 team (including both ends) all earned All-America honors at some time in their careers and that group also produced two Outland winners (Connor and 1948 recipient Bill Fischer) and 1949 Heisman trophy winner Leon Hart (who played right end).

“We had good passers on that team but we only threw the ball 10-12 times a game,” said Connor, who tied Hart as the top vote-getters in a 1962 media poll that selected the top players in Notre Dame history. “As an offensive line, we just dominated yards and the clock. Teams were intimidated before the game even began”

Connor’s success continued on the professional level while playing for his hometown team, the Chicago Bears. A five-time all-NFL selection who excelled on both sides of the ball, Connor was considered one of pro football’s first linebackers who combined size and mobility while his iron-man endurance saw him on the field for nearly every play (including special teams).

Connor went on to earn induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — he is the only player ever presented for induction by legendary coach George Halas — and he is one of just seven Outland winners to enter the pro hall of fame, with the others including Notre Dame’s third recipient Ross Browner (’76), plus Jim Parker (Ohio State, ’56), Merlin Olsen (Utah State, ’61), Bobby Bell (Minnesota, ’82), Randy White (Maryland, ’74) and Lee Roy Selmon (Oklahoma, ’75).

His rise to becoming an imposing 6-3, 240-pound linebacker is all the more noteworthy because of how Connor’s life began — as a three-pound, premature baby. In fact, “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” even featured Connor’s transformation on one of its shows.

Other noteworthy winners of the Outland Trophy have included Alex Karras (Iowa, ’57), Ron Yary (USC, ’67) Bruce Smith (Virginia Tech, ’84), Chad Hennings (Air Force, ’87), Russell Maryland (Miami, ’90), Steve Entman (Washington, ’91) and Orlando Pace (Ohio State, ’96).

Next week’s Notre Dame opponent has produced more than twice as many Outland winners as any other school, with Nebraska’s eight Outland awards including two won by center Dave Rimington (’81, ’82). Rimington received a replica trophy in 1998 at the Outland Award dinner.

The Outland Award is named for its founder, Dr. John Outland, whose pet project involved providing recognition for the unheralded interior linemen in college football.

Dr. Outland led a unique life both on and off the playing fields. A football and baseball star at the University of Kansas in the late 1890s, Outland moved on to the University of Pennsylvania to complete his medical education. He then earned All-America honors at Penn as both a lineman and halfback and was voted the most popular man on campus.

Outland returned to the University of Kansas, where he founded the Kansas Relays while also coaching the Haskell Indians Institute football team and serving as the Kansas athletic director. One of the first private owners of an airplane, he flew to communities in nearby states when summoned for emergency surgical surgeries

Outland — whose many abilities included a wide-ranging singing voice and a love for the outdoors — did not live to see the presentation of the award named in his honor, as he died shortly before Connor was presented with the inaugural trophy.

Connor remains active in a Chicago-area corrugated box business that he began during his playing days with the Bears and he also works with Rev. John Smyth — a former Notre Dame All-America basketball player — in supporting the Maryville Orphanage in Chicago.

The modern-day Outland Trophies have been produced by sculptor Jim Ridler of Syracuse, N.Y. In addition to the presentations made by the Downtown Rotary Club of Omaha in recent years, the University of Texas also has formally recognized its three former winners — Scott Appleton (63), Tommy Nobis (65) and Brad Shearer (77) — in ceremonies similar to today’s presentation.

On hand today participating in the Notre Dame ceremonies are Tom Shatel of the Omaha World Herald, president of the FWAA, Bob Mancuso, representing the Downtown Rotary Club of Omaha and Jay Baum of the Omaha Sports Committee.