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One day in the late summer of 1965, Richard Connors, a sheetrocker in Bridgeport, Conn., left work early and drove to nearby Fairfield University where the New York Giants were holding preseason workouts. Without the slightest hesitation, Connors leaped over the restraining ropes meant to separate spectators from players and approached Head Coach Allie Sherman, who was standing on the sidelines. Before Sherman could speak Connors said, " Mr. Sherman, my name is Dick Connors and it would be to your benefit to give me a tryout with the Giants." Connors continued, not skipping a beat. He explained he was 23 years old, a graduate of the University of Miami and in perfect physical condition. "I've been preserved from injuries for the past four years," he said. "I've gone to bed every night at 9 o'clock. I haven't touched a drop of liquor or eaten too much starchy food and I can beat anyone you've got on this club."
Sherman stared at Connors curiously. At 6'1" and 200 pounds, he did look to be in excellent physical condition. He was so thickly muscled he seemed about to burst from his gray T shirt and Bermuda shorts. But somehow Connors did not look like an athlete. His black hair was short enough on top, but for an athlete it was unusually long on the sides and combed into what had been known in the '50s as a D.A. Connors was an exceptionally handsome man. "Chiseled" is the word you can see the movie scriptwriter using to describe his features. His large, square-cut jaw gave more than a hint of stubbornness. Connors looked faintly like Victor Mature, only younger—but not so young as he claimed. The skin under his eyes was puffy and dark. His teeth looked too perfect. The more closely one examined his face the more one noticed that what once might have been an untouched prettiness had been replaced by a shattered handsomeness, as if the face, like those of horribly wounded soldiers, had been destroyed and then painstakingly rebuilt, the features the same as before only now not fitting quite so tightly, so naturally, but rather glued together with the cement of human experience.
Connors finished his speech. Sherman was silent for a moment. Then he told Connors to report to the team doctor for a physical examination.
"I was really high that day," says Connors, looking back. "Higher than I'd ever been in my life—and I'd been pretty high at times. My heart was beating so fast I was afraid to see the doctor. He might think I was on something."
After a few days of practice, it was apparent that Connors, a linebacker and offensive end, was as physically talented as any player Sherman had. It was also apparent that he had very little football playing experience. He made glaring mistakes. He blocked the wrong people. He beat his man with devastating fakes and then ran to the wrong spot. When he ran to the right spot he dropped easy passes. He caught one pass with his nose and was almost knocked unconscious. Still, by sheer determination and tenacity, Connors survived the Giants' first cut—something a few All-Americas did not. He was even accepted by the team's veteran players, who admired his enthusiasm. But shortly after the second cut, which Connors also survived, he noticed players began avoiding him. When he sat down at the training table, everyone else got up and left. Connors guessed what had happened. He said nothing and ate alone. He realized the pros must have discovered that he, Dick Connors, was the man known in the Bridgeport area as Richie Connors. Richie Connors was almost 30 years old. He had been preserved for the last 37 months, not at the University of Miami, but at Wethersfield State Penitentiary, where he had been sent by a judge as "an incurable drug addict, a thorn in the side of society who must be cut out and put away."
Richie Connors was born on Halloween in 1936 in Bridgeport, a large factory city where the outstanding cultural event each summer is a festival dedicated to the memory of P.T. ("There's a sucker born every minute") Barnum.
Connors' father, an electrician for a vaudeville theater, deserted his mother before he was born. Mrs. Connors supported herself by working as an usherette, and later she managed a theater that featured slapstick comedy and aging strippers. Frances Hurley Connors, a strikingly beautiful woman, enjoyed her work. She took pleasure in rising late and sitting for hours at her dressing table making up her face for a day that began near noon and ended at midnight. "My mother came from a Boston Irish family that had pampered her," says Connors. "She tended to think of herself in a theatrical way."
Connors inherited both his mother's good looks and her tremendous ego. He thought of himself as a star, though with no father and a working mother he was a star without an audience. Left in the care of grandparents and occasionally an aunt, he soon took to the city streets, where he built a reputation as an athlete—and a troublemaker. At 10 he appeared in Madison Square Garden leading an 85-pound basketball team to victory in a game played between the halves of a college doubleheader. The next year he branched out from picking off passes to picking apart parking meters with a screwdriver. One afternoon he stole a basketball from a downtown department store and made his escape dribbling between shoppers all the way up Bridgeport's Main Street. At 12 he was thrown out of a parochial school for defying a nun; at 13 his mother committed him to Junior Republic, a school for orphans and unruly boys in Litchfield, Conn. There he satisfied his thirst for attention by making up three years of grammar school in six months, thus gaining recognition as the school's prize pupil. Connors also continued to excel in sports, especially football, which he played for the first time on an organized level. At 15 he left Junior Republic with a fine recommendation and returned to Bridgeport to enter Bullard-Havens technical school. In his freshman year he became the school's most celebrated athlete. He led the basketball team to the state tournament, only to be suspended. In his exuberance at winning the last regular-season game by one point, Connors threw the ball into the air at the sound of the buzzer. The referee tagged him with a technical foul, which allowed the opposition to tie the game and eventually win it in overtime. The Bullard-Havens coach was so angry he vowed Richie Connors would not play varsity sports again at the school—and Connors did not. Denied that outlet, he was frustrated. He began skipping classes, and early in his sophomore year he quit school altogether.
Now what basketball and football he played was with the area's semipro teams. Competing against tough clubs like the Holyoke (Mass.) Knights and the Franklin (Pa.) Miners, against men eight and nine years older than himself, the 16-year-old Connors held his own. He was one of the best all-round athletes in the city, and yet he was virtually unknown, since Bridgeport newspapers did not cover semipro sports in the splashy way they did high school athletics. Only the few people truly knowledgeable about city sports knew Connors even existed.
That winter, after the end of the high school basketball season, a tournament was held at the North End Boys' Club. It was a meaningless event, really nothing but a showcase for a 6'5" all-state center from another part of the state. The center appeared for warmups looking splendidly aloof—blank-eyed, crew-cut, his sweat socks of the purest white and rising, as if starched, all the way to his muscled calves, where they terminated in three red rings (his school colors). His adversary for the center jump was Richie Connors. Connors was two years younger and five inches shorter. His sweat socks were wilted in a way that only has become fashionable since Pete Maravich. With his slicked-back D.A., he looked more like some wild Teen Angel.