How Will Connerley Saved My Coaching Career

During the ten years I spent as an employee of the University of Florida football staff, football camp was a love-hate affair for those of us whose job it was to mentor hundreds of the younger kids for four days, which meant everything from teaching football fundamentals to the basics of life. Though we dreaded each new camp and having to deal with all the young ones, by the time camp ended the little guys were often a learning experience and almost therapeutic.

In the summer of 2004, I participated in the Florida football camp as a coach and counselor of sorts. We divided groups of 7-13 year olds into teams of about 10 or so. The teams went through drills and games and more drills and such. The camp takes place in the hot June sun and requires many long walks back to the dormitories where many of the kids stay for multiple nights.

I like kids a lot, but at football camp I had never been around so many kids for so long, so it was a learning experience to say the least. In the first two seasons before that 2004 experience, the teams I coached didn't exactly shoot up to the top of the charts. Yes, I was the golden goose, as in goose egg, as in O'fer … as in my teams didn't win a game for two full years in spite of a schedule that called for ten or more games. The odds of at least one win were good, but alas the best we could do was a tie in the first game each of those first two seasons. All the other games were losses.

When year three came around, I did everything in my power to avoid coaching a team. I didn't want to go through another year of losing but it was to no avail. The kids had heard, too, and they were doing all they could to avoid playing for Team Zero, but they couldn't hide, either. There would be year three of Team Zero. At our first meeting, my guys learned that I was really good at the pep talk thing. If I wasn't so good at execution, maybe it was the mental part of dealing with two years without a win.

In years one and two, Team Zero opened with a tie game that would be the high point of the camp season. Well, you can only guess where my mind went when year three started out with a first-game loss. Personally, I knew I could deal with the loss since it was just camp football. What hurt was seeing the disappointment on the little guys faces. We lost game two and my team began to come emotionally unglued. It was time for Coach Hollywood to make some changes.

I needed a leader and I needed my leader to play quarterback. Team Zero needed someone who could make things happen. There was one kid that I noticed. He was as big as any of them, but a little more quiet and reserved. Something about him made me believe that this was my leader and the one guy the rest of Team Zero would follow. I asked if he wanted a shot, he said "sure." The rest is history. Will Connerley became the leader of Team Zero and he took them --- and me --- to their first victory. Boy was the pressure off of me and what a lift it was to the kids on the team. Will Connerley made me look good but he made his teammates look good, too. We ended up winning three more games in 2004 and Will was a big part of that.

I'm no longer working for the Florida football staff. Instead I get to write about the Gators and I see things from a different perspective. When I saw Will Connerley at the Florida camp this year, I got to see how he's developed in the past year, and I have to admit, I felt a bit of pride, remembering back to last year when he rescued my coaching career!

After playing defensive end for his Mechanicsville (VA) Stonewall Jackson Middle School team last fall, Will is looking to throw the ball instead of pounce on the thrower. His coach in Virginia has asked him to move to quarterback so at Coach Urban Meyer's camp in Gainesville, he got a chance to be tutored by the Florida staff and it was a great experience for him.

Will Connerely as he drops back to throw the football

"I have been here for two years and it has been a great experience and I learned a lot of things," the 5-9, 150-pound seventh grader said. "The coaches are great, the staff is great and the high school coaches are great. I have made a lot of friends even though I am not even staying over night in the dorms."

He was a little leery about making the switch to quarterback, but this proud ex-coach understands just what he can do for a team.

"I played defensive end last year and did pretty well," he said. "I had between 4-6 tackles a game and was second on my team in tackles. Coach put me there because I am pretty quick and it is fun. I just like to beat the offense and the linemen I am facing. I try to terrorize the quarterback. I try and get the ball and stampede them. The coaches teach us that. I recovered a few fumbles."

Defensive end is now a thing of the past so he's learning a new position.

"It (the switch to quarterback) is going good, but I just have to get used to it," he said. "My middle school coach wants me to play it, and I am about the only one that can really play it."

He was given a lot o attention by the coaches on the Gator staff and the dozens of other coaches brought in to help with the camp. Will was flattered by some of the special attention he received out there.

"I don't really need all the attention but it helps," he said. "I learned the three and five-step drops and hitch and not to hop at the end of it. We learned to plant and stop and throw. Not to throw across your body but throw over top … don't have your hand sideways … to flick it like a baseball.

"Coach Meyer is going to have a good chance at Florida. He speaks his heart and knows a lot about the game. I like the way Coach (Dan) Mullen teaches. He helps a lot and deals with everybody out here at camp. Coach Ryan Day (UF Graduate Assistant) knows a lot too. He put in some extra time after one session to help me personally. He helped me with my footwork so I won't throw across my body. He taught me to turn in a way so I don't have to throw across my body."

Connerley participated with the big boys as he made the upper age cut for camp. One of the attendees for most of the camp was Jevan Snead, the big time quarterback out of Stephenville, Texas who is a Gator commitment. Will saw him up close quite a bit and came away impressed.

"I saw Jevan Snead throw all week … he can really throw it," he said.

Will is also an outstanding baseball player. He will participate in Coach Pat McMahon's baseball camp coming up next week. At this point in his young career, this catcher/outfielder may be better at baseball than football but he has plenty of time to develop in both sports.

"I like to play catcher and outfield … I can hit pretty good," he said. "Coach McMahon is very nice coach. He remembers me from previous camps."

There is very little doubt that Will Connerley has orange and blue blood in his veins. He's already planning to attend Florida even though high school graduation is more than five years away.

"I have been a Gator fan all my life," he said. "I just love SEC football."

Will Connerley is a fine athlete and I'm hoping that he continues to develop so that one day he can fulfill his dreams. He wants to run out of that tunnel in The Swamp and he would love to hit the ball over the McKethan Stadium fences someday. Only time will tell if he can make those dreams come true.

For me, I have the memory of how Will Connerley saved Team Zero and its coach from another year of losing to everyone. He will always be a winner in my book.

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