Eleven. Five. Eight.
Those three numbers were the passcode for Connor Spears' first cell phone. Yet the simple string of numbers meant much more than just a way for a sixth grader to unlock his phone.
Those numbers stood for his idols – the USC football players he’d watch as a kid. Eleven stood for Heisman-winning quarterback Matt Leinart. Five represented superstar running back Reggie Bush and eight for wide receiver .
It was during this time period while growing up in San Diego, California that Spears first fell in love with football – watching USC dominate on Saturdays while starting to play the sport himself.
Fast-forward almost a decade later. Spears is preparing in the locker room at Levi’s Stadium. The redshirt sophomore tight end is dressed in the same cardinal and gold as his childhood idols, getting ready for the biggest game of his life so far – the PAC-12 Championship.
If that wasn’t enough, suddenly word gets out that the Reggie Bush has entered the locker room.
“I was shaking when I shook his hand,” Spears said as he recalled the meeting his childhood hero. “ I was so nervous… He was the reason why I started playing football.”
During pick-up football games while growing up, Spears would play the role of Bush while his friends would be the likes of LenDale White and other USC players. Little did a young Spears know, that one day it would come full circle - he would not only meet the man he pretended to be, but also play at the same university as him.
Yet the road for Spears to get to the University of Southern California was not a simple path.
“I’ve kind of been all over the place,” Spears said with a smile. “Different coasts and regions.”
Unbeknownst to many, Spears was actually born in Dublin, Ireland as his father was working overseas. When Spears was around eight months old, he and his family moved to Iowa. Spears then moved again two years later, this time to San Diego, where he would spend the majority of his childhood.
Yet right before Spears was going to enter high school, the Spears family packed their bags again and moved to South Dakota, right along the border of Iowa.
The transition to South Dakota was tough on Spears as he was entering a critical time in his life. High school in itself is tough, but starting in a place where you didn’t know anyone? Even tougher. But Spears was able to navigate through the move as his family is his support system. Family is something that is very important to Spears as he’s extremely close with them.
“Any big decision I make, I talk to my family,” explained Spears. “They’re my motivation, they’re why I strive to do well. They definitely mean a lot to me.”
During his sophomore year in high school, Spears set his mind on playing football at the collegiate level. He eventually committed to Columbia University - as it was the best option for both football and academics.
However, Spears soon found himself in another difficult transition, as he didn’t feel like Columbia was the right fit.
“I didn’t like going to college in the city,” said Spears. “I would go outside my dorm and be on Broadway. It was cool, but it’s not what I wanted for a college experience.”
After a couple months of being “miserable,” Spears talked to his dad over winter break about exploring other options. By the beginning of January, Spears had talked to coaches from USC, Stanford, Cal, Northwestern and Duke but had still not decided where and when he wanted to transfer.
Sitting in his first class of the spring semester at Columbia, Spears received a text from his dad, which said that Scott Thompson, the scouting director at USC, would let Spears transfer as a preferred walk-on in the current semester. The only catch? Spears would have to get to USC in two days.
“I left class early and packed up all my stuff,” said Spears. “I got on a plane a day later and my dad met me out in Los Angeles.”
In a matter of days, Spears went from business as usual at Columbia to moving into a dorm and enrolling in classes at USC. It was a whirlwind for the second-semester freshman and another major transition for Spears - which took a toll.
“I went from having a ton of people to talk to and having a lot of friends, to sitting in my dorm for eight hours a day, staring at the walls,” Spears said with a laugh. “It was tough but it was good because I didn’t have to transfer a whole year, just a semester.”
It was in this tough time, just like the previous times, that Spears leaned on his family for support. His love for his family is obvious as his face lights up just at their mention.
“I really relied on my family throughout that time,” Spears reflected. “That’s why I’m so family oriented now. You need to find consistency and they provide that.”
His adoration for his family is noticeable to others around him as well.
“He loves his family more than I’ve seen anyone love their family,” said Garrett Mohr, Spears’ best friend and roommate. “It’s the most important thing in the world to him… You literally can see his attitude change when he hears that his family is coming out to visit him.”
As his family guided him through his first months at USC, Spears eventually found his stride. He began to come into his own during the fall of 2015, and part of that was due to the fact that he was starting to find his place on the football team.
Coming in at 6-6, 245 pounds, Spears isn’t your typical walk-on. Physically, he fit the body type of a scholarship player and mentally he practiced as if he was one.
“I think it would’ve been easy for him to not go hard on every play considering he was the new guy who was redshirting and considering where he was on the depth chart,” said teammate David Mellstrom, “but you could see he was giving his all on every play.”
His hard work during his first year on the team paid off, as he was thrust into the spotlight during the spring of 2015.
USC was already thin at the tight end position during the fall 2014 season. At the start of spring, seniors Randall Telfer and Chris Wilson graduated and Bryce Dixon, the young tight end with promise, was not allowed to practice due to “student conduct issues.” That left USC with only two – yes, two - tight ends: one being Spears and the other, redshirt junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick.
While Cope-Fitzpatrick was a scholarship player, he had not practiced football for an entire year, as he had to sit out due to academic ineligibility. So suddenly at the start of spring football practice, Spears makes the leap from being a walk-on transfer that had a place towards the end of the depth chart, to the number one guy in the spotlight.
“We had a walk through on the first morning of spring ball,” said Spears. “I walked out and there was only [tight ends’] Coach Tuiasosopo and Cope-Fitzpatrick. I remembering asking coach where Bryce was and he turned to me and said, ‘He’s down for now, you’re taking the reps with the first team.’”
This was clearly a shock to Spears.
“I was a little sleepy that morning but that definitely woke me up,” said Spears with a smile. “I definitely had a little freak out moment in my head.”
It was through his reps with the starters that Spears earned the respect of the star players on the team. Being one of two players for a position group is a tough task and Spears rose to the occasion.
“He really stepped into the role well,” said Mellstrom. “He led by example and was always there. I can honestly tell you that he’s always the first one to practice and the last one to clock out which speaks volumes to his work ethic.”
His role expanded even more in the summer as Dixon was officially off the team and Cope-Fitzpatrick had troubles with academic ineligibility once again.
Thus, during player-run practices in the summer, Spears was officially the number one tight end on the team. Having never played a down in a game for USC, Spears was now the pseudo veteran who was in charge of leading and teaching the incoming group of tight ends.
“It was crazy because these guys had no idea what’s going on and now they’re looking up to me,” said Spears. “I really had to step into a leadership role… If you had told me that in three semesters I would have that role I would’ve told you that you were crazy.”
“It’s all about the team’s success. I’ve been preaching that from day one. I’m glad I was able to contribute in the spring and in the fall when they needed me and now I’m just settling into a different role.”
Spears taught and helped his fellow teammates throughout summer and into fall camp until they got the hang of it. As a result, it was towards the end of fall camp that Spears was met with tough competition. Graduate transfer Taylor McNamara and true freshman Tyler Petite were starting to come into their own and grabbing the attention of coaches.
“It put a lot of pressure on me,” explained Spears. “Even during the summer I worried about losing my position because I knew that USC wouldn’t really start a walk-on. I put so much pressure and stress on myself to do well that I think that I put myself out of the position.”
As the season opener loomed, Spears began getting reps with the second team and ultimately ended up playing behind McNamara in the first three games of the season. Although a second-string tight end, Spears saw quality playing time, as he played close to thirty downs in the third game of the season against Stanford.
Yet Spears was taken aback by the amount of playing time he received in the games following Stanford. He only played in the final drive of the next game against Arizona State University – which at that point was considered a blow out.
“As his friends, it was tough for us to see,” said Mohr. “We were all rooting for him – he’s a guy you want to root for – so it was hard for us to see. But I think we all took it harder than he did.”
Spears eventually only saw the field during PATs or to congratulate his fellow tight ends after they scored – a true testament of Spears’ character. At the end of the day, Spears’ truly only wants what’s best for the team, even if that means watching from the sidelines.
“It’s all about the team’s success,” said Spears. “I’ve been preaching that from day one. I’m glad I was able to contribute in the spring and in the fall when they needed me and now I’m just settling into a different role.”
Spears went from being the guy that everyone leaned on to third in the depth chart, something that isn’t easy, and yet he handled it with class.
“Whether he’s getting fifteen reps in a game or he’s getting one, the effort is always there,” said Mellstrom. “He’s not the kid who’s going to sit there and complain about it either. He toughs it out and does what he’s supposed to… What more can you ask from a walk-on?”
Despite what happened during this season, Spears aims to see the field more next season – especially now that Clay Helton has been named the head coach.
“Helton has a saying, ‘Tight ends are people too,’ so he’ll put a play in for the tight ends… He recognizes that the tight ends should probably get the ball more than they normally have,” said Spears.
Yet before Spears can focus on next season, he and his teammates must prepare to play in the Holiday Bowl on December 30th against the Wisconsin Badgers.
Just like the PAC-12 Championship, this upcoming bowl game will be another opportunity for Spears to come full circle.
“Playing in San Diego will be so much fun,” said Spears. “I started playing football there and now I’m playing college football there… It’s crazy.”
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Keely Eure is a broadcast journalism student at the Annenberg School at USC. You can follow her on Twitter at @keelyismyname.