Dream of playing pro
By Robert Touchie
Published in the Daily Gleaner on Wednesday May 12, 2010
Appeared on page B1
At age 21, Fredericton's Justin Conn is looking to play football at the highest level there is in Canada.
The six-foot-three 230-pound linebacker who played his university ball with the Bishop's Gaiters of Lennoxville, Que., ended his final season with the Gaiters with some flare, garnering national acclaim with his selection as 'defensive player of the week in the CIS' during the final week of the 2009 season.
But truth be told, it was his being selected in the sixth round of the recent Canadian Football League draft by the defending Grey Cup champion Montreal Alouettes no less that makes this season already one to remember for the modest Conn.
"I was ecstatic to be selected, especially by Montreal,'' he said. "The proximity to Bishop's and home, their strong fan base and the fact they were always my favorite CFL team growing up, it's made it all that much more exciting.''
Conn, the youngest child of New Maryland's Stephen and Cathy Conn, adds, "It may sound cliché, but being selected in the CFL is a dream come true. I've been on a high since it I got the call from Mr.Popp."
Jim Popp is the vice-president and director of player personnel of the perennially contending team. He says he and his staff are impressed with what they've seen from Conn.
"What we saw in Justin was a tremendous athlete, I don't know many guys better than him athletically in this draft, to be honest," said Als' assistant general manager Marcel Desjardins. "He showed up at the Duane Forde's evaluation camp in tremendous shape and it only confirmed what we had seen when we watched him at Bishop's. He is blessed with just amazing raw athletic ability."
After having what Conn described as an up-and-down season at Bishops, Conn was passed over for the CFL evaluation camp in December. It didn't sit well with Conn and he resolved that if he ever got the chance to redeem the situation, he would.
Suffice to say, mission accomplished.
"I got word from the coaching staff at Bishop's when I returned from Christmas break that I had been invited to Mr. Forde's camp and I was determined to make the most of it,'' he said.
For 10 weeks, Conn would awake before sunrise and hit the pavement running, literally and figuratively. The regimen included daily trips to the Gaiters' weight room, plyometrics, sprinting, jumping, anything to become better, faster and stronger, he said.
He stringently monitored his diet, his sleep and his study habits. Banished were trips to social events, alcohol or junk food, and evenings being awake past 10 o'clock. He even blew off spring break with his friends preferring to stay alone at the school and continue his workouts.
"Look, I surprised even myself with what I put my social life, my body and my mind through for that 10 week period, but I was determined to prove myself," said Conn, who played his high school football at Fredericton High School and was named athlete of the year at the school in 2006. "The results are a testament to the effort and sacrifice I made to achieve my dream."
Conn proved to be a revelation at the Forde's national camp, running the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds, tossing 225 on the bench a solid 15 times, and had a 37.5 inch vertical. He was either first or in the top five in every measured category. That caught the attention of the scouts present.
But it was an evaluation camp and not a training camp and Conn is well aware being drafted is just the start.
"I haven't accomplished anything yet," said Conn, who maintained a 3.4 GPA at Bishop's. "From everything I've gathered, their (Alouettes) organization is very tight-knit, a family, and that's the type of environment I wanted to be in. They're the best because they all put the team first.''
Conn is taking nothing for granted.
"I realize I have to earn my place and it's not going to be easy," said Conn. "But one thing I learned from the lead up to the Forde camp is that if you're determined, willing to sacrifice and put your heart fully into something, your body can do whatever you set out for it. I just don't think anyone can expect to play a professional sport if you abuse your body, or let distractions into your routine."
"The reality is that first-year players need to make it on special teams and with a solid work-ethic," Desjardins said. "We only have the players four and a half hours each day and the rest is theirs to do with as they choose. The guys who want to work make progress and the ones who don't usually don't survive."
So what are Conn's chances of survival?
"Justin is very versatile. He can long snap, he can return kicks, play defensive end, linebacker, go into coverage,'' said Desjardins. "He can kick, so he has a multi-faceted set of skills he brings to the mix but for now, we want him to come in and compete to play special teams."
Desjardins says it all depends on what he does in camp. "But if his football performance matches his pure athletic ability, then he's on our roster. It's all speculation at this point and a lot depends on how the other players perform too."
The Als open training camp June 6 on the campus of Conn's alma mater, that being Bishop's University. The camp runs through to June 14. As a rookie, Conn will head to Lennoxville before the veterans, with his professional journey beginning the first week in June.