Photo by Brian Smith

The rise

Brady Conner and the Bulldogs share a common story

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The Moffat County High School varsity football team returns eight starters from a year ago. The team is back row, from left, Bobby Kyle, Steven Wagner, Mike Pankey, Nate Chapman, Dario Georgiou, Justin Benedict, Wes Chapman, Mason Updike, Miguel Molina, Braeden Sullivan, Zach Raftopoulos, Brady Conner, C.J. Walt, Angelo “Hodge” Raftopoulos, Chet Harvey, Cody Adams, Casey Martin, Gage Spears and Drake Mullen. Middle row, from left: Koy Bohrer, Pat Thompson, Brent Juergens, Tyler Ripka, Levi Ogden, Connor Pogline, Jake Teeter, Mike Story, E.J. Hall, Andy Browning, Thomas McCoy, Jordan Luck, Adam Foster and Zach Newman. Front Row. from left, Ryder Seely, Dru Nielson, Josh Pritchard, Tyler Hildebrandt, Gavin Spears, Garrett Stewart, Jarret Walt, Michael Samuelson, Jesse Maneotis, Zach Beauchamp, Bubba Ivers, Kolten Wickham and Keenan Bradshaw.

MCHS varsity football 2010 remaining schedule (2009 records in parentheses):

Time Date Place Opponent

7 p.m. Sept. 3 Away Aspen (9-3 overall)

7 p.m. Sept. 17 Home John F. Kennedy (3-7 overall)

7 p.m. Sept. 24 Away Delta (9-3 overall, 2nd in WSL)

7 p.m. Oct. 1 Home Palisade (7-5 overall)

7 p.m. Oct. 8 Away Glenwood Springs (7-5 overall)

7 p.m. Oct. 15 Away Battle Mountain (2-8 overall)

7 p.m. Oct. 22 Home Rifle (4-6 overall)

7 p.m. Oct. 29 Away Eagle Valley (1-9 overall)

7 p.m. Nov. 5 Home Steamboat Springs (13-1 overall)

MCHS varsity football at a glance:

Seniors:

Cody Adams

Justin Benedict

Nate Chapman

Brady Conner

Chet Harvey

Casey Martin

Drake Mullen

Michael Pankey

Angelo Raftopoulos

Zach Raftopoulos

Gage Spears

Steven Wagner

CJ Walt

Coaches:

Kip Hafey

Lance Scranton

Ken Olinger

James Neton

Eric Hess

Ron Linsacum

By the numbers:

1: The MCHS football team has the No. 1 ranked scheduled in the state, regardless of class. The ranking reflects the strength of the schedule and the variety of opponents.

4: The offense and defense return four starters apiece, including five returning senior starters (defensive end Casey Martin, linebacker CJ Walt, tight end Brady Conner, guard Gage Spears and center Angelo Raftopoulos).

Six of 10: In the last decade, a team from the Western Slope League has made it to the state championship game six times. Three of those times, the team won the state title (Palisade in 2003, Rifle in 2004 and Glenwood Springs in 2008).

Brady Conner was a 15-year-old Moffat County High School sophomore.

As a tight end in the Bulldogs’ system, he was the first one out to block for running backs trying to turn the corner.

The game was Sept. 26, 2008 in Delta. It was the Panthers’ homecoming, and the Bulldogs were looking to move to 2-2 in the Western Slope League.

As usual, Conner was the man at the end of the line.

With every touchdown coming at a premium, the visiting Bulldogs set up for a sweep pass to the right.

Right where Conner would be the lead man out.

The ball was snapped. The play ran right. Conner ran right and into a pair of Delta defenders. He flattened the first man he came across, and things were looking good.

But, a falling Panther clipped his right knee.

The Bulldogs won, 12-10, but they lost No. 43 for the season.

‘A pop and a snap’

For Conner, football has always been more than a sport.

“My dream has always been to play college football,” he said. “When I hurt my knee, I was afraid everyone was going to say ‘He’s a hazard, he’s always hurt.’”

When it first happened, Conner said he didn’t expect to miss much, if any, time.

“A guy dove into me, and my knee just caved in,” he said. “I heard a pop and a snap, and I figured it just popped out of its socket. I tried to put pressure on it, but I couldn't. I had to be carried off the field.”

On the ride home from the game, every bump, every jolt from the road sent pains through Conner’s leg.

“The next morning, I stood up and it caved in again,” he said. “I knew something was torn for sure.”

The damage done was a completely torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament, Medial Cruciate Ligament and medial meniscus.

The resulting impact would be even more painful.

Rehab and the road back

Like any journey, Conner’s trip back to health started with small steps.

“The first time I could walk again, one of the first things I thought was ‘I may never run like I did before,’” he said. “Walking was hard enough. That definitely puts the doubt in your mind.”

But, as soon as he was able, he worked out the doubt, worked out the pain.

“It was rough,” he said. “I was on the rotating machine every day. Every week, it would go five degrees further and I could just feel (my knee) cracking on the inside. After the first month, I was able to do some stretches.”

From stretches, Conner moved on to riding the bike. Then more stretching.

“I used to be able to squat a lot of weight,” he said. “My lower body was where my strength came from. After rehab, though, I was about as strong as a sixth-grader.

“I didn’t know if I would ever be back at full strength.”

Last season

Conner was a 16-year-old Moffat County High School junior.

As a player coming off a five-game campaign the season before, he wasn’t sure where he fit into the Bulldogs’ system.

The game was Sept. 4, 2009 in Moffat County. Berthoud, the 2007 state champions, were in town to open the season.

For the first time in almost a year, Conner was the man at the end of the line.

With the game tied, 7-7, in the fourth quarter, Moffat County needed some momentum.

Right where Conner wanted to be.

The ball was snapped. Quarterback Matt Linsacum was dodging blitzing Spartans and managed to get the ball off.

Conner was alone in the end zone. Ball in hand, lead in place.

The Bulldogs won.

Watch Conner now and it’s almost impossible to tell he ever went under the knife.

He’s bigger than he was last year and he’s fast.

Not fast for someone his size fast. Not fast for someone coming off a surgery fast.

Fast as in one of the fastest players on the team fast. Fast as in wide receiver, not tight end, fast.

“I’m faster than I was before (the injury),” he said. “I can bench more, I can squat more.”

Following his junior campaign, in which he would lead the Bulldogs in receiving touchdowns with four and be named to the all-conference second team, Conner vowed to get even better.

Being healthy was a goal he knew he could achieve, but he set out to dominate.

“Every day, CJ (Walt) and I worked out at the high school,” he said. “Afterwards, we went to Holistic Health.”

Conner’s friendship with Walt was pivotal on his road back.

“He helped push me, especially when I felt like I was slipping,” Conner said. “I think a lot of the younger guys see us lifting on our own, putting in the extra work, then they push themselves.”

This year, Conner is one of 13 seniors hoping to improve on 2009’s 6-4 overall record.

In some ways, Conner said his story and the Bulldogs’ are tied together.

“We have a good group of guys ready to get Moffat County where it needs to be,” he said. “It was different when I was growing up. There were always high expectations.”

Just as Conner was coming back from his injury, Moffat County was coming back in the Western Slope League.

“Guys like Matt Linsacum set the tone,” he said. “Guys like that always wanted the best out of their players.”

After five years of not reaching the playoffs, the Bulldogs are hardened, Conner said.

Just like him.

“Without (the injury) happening, I couldn't see myself being where I am now,” he said. “I feel like I’m a potential college football player. I’ve been talking with a couple of D-II schools.

“But, if it didn’t happen, I don't know if I would have gotten into the gym. I had to want to get back and keep pushing myself.”

This season, Conner and his senior teammates are going to have to lead the Bulldogs if they want to make it to their final goal, head coach Kip Hafey said.

“Our goal has always been to make it to the playoffs and go on a run,” he said. “With guys like Brady and CJ, we have really good senior leadership, and in our league, anyone can win on any given week.”

Even with 13 seniors in the fold, the road back will be hard, Hafey said.

Teams like Steamboat Springs, Glenwood Springs, Palisade, Delta and Rifle are also prepping for a playoff run.

But, discount the Bulldogs at your own peril, Hafey warns.

“These kids are so focused on getting us back to where we need to be,” he said. “We should be in that mix, too.”

Game night

Conner is a 17-year-old Moffat County High School senior.

As a tight end in the Bulldogs’ system, he is fully expected to be a leader and example in the locker room.

The game was Friday, Aug. 27, and it was Conner’s last home opener.

As usual, he was the one who paced the Bulldogs.

Twice, he caught touchdown passes against visiting Evergreen.

On every snap, he was able to accelerate and dash. He was able to create the match-up problems coaches dream of — too big for defensive backs, too fast for linebackers.

Although Moffat County led throughout the game, the lead eventually slipped away and the Bulldogs opened the new season in 0-1 hole.

But, all was not lost.

Conner played, and played well, moving one step closer to his goal of playing beyond his high school years.

In that sense, he had already won.

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