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Marrero native Connors, Team USA out for football gold

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Tommy ConnorsTommy Connors

If you scan the roster, you won’t find any 1st round draft choices or NFL All-Pros. Chances are, most of the names of the 45 players that represent United States at the World Cup for American-style football competition are not immediately recognizable.

Although they may not resemble the Bad News Bears, they are a mixture of players coming from various backgrounds who were selected for Team USA with an opportunity to come home with the gold for the 2nd time since 2007. 

The U.S. demonstrated some might with a 61-0 manhandling of Australia in their opening game of the round robin tournament at Tivoli Stadium in Innsbruck.

Da’Shawn Thomas, a native of Newport, Arkansas provided the USA with a ground attack, racing for 97 yards and 2 touchdowns on only 8 carries in the 1st half. Nate Kmic added 7 catches for 106 yards and a score. Cody Hawkins tossed for 204 (13 of 15) and a pair of TD’s. Ben McLaughlin connected with RB Taylor Malm (Northwestern Iowa) for a 64-yard scoring hookup.

The defense got in the act as well. Cornerback Diezeas Calbert returned a blocked punt 26 yards for the United States' first score. Daniel Catalano (6’4-265 DT from Northern Michigan) led a stingy American defense.

The U.S. roster is sprinkled with talent, some coming from the European Football League, others ply their trade north of the border in the Canadian Football League, a few call the Arena League home, but a majority comes from the college ranks.

Four of the U.S. players are either Louisiana natives or played collegiately in the state.

Safety Tommy Connors prepped at Archbishop Shaw, earning All-State and All-Metro for the Eagles. He went onto become a 4-time All-Conference performer at Southeastern Louisiana University where was tabbed an FCS All-American in 2009.

Connors departed from SLU with 355 career tackles (3rd in school history). The Marrero native finished 1st in school history in fumble recoveries (8) and 4th in tackles for loss (25 ½). He added 9 career interceptions. Branden Jordan (6’4-315), another former Shaw Eagle. Played his college football as a left tackle at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Center Cameron Zipp (6’1-278) starred at Southern Miss after completing his prep career for the Mandeville Skippers.

Although originally from Dierks, Arkansas, QB Ben McLaughlin (6’3-205) enjoyed a stellar career at Division III Louisiana College. The former Wildcat tossed for 3,770 yards in 2010 with 42 TD passes and 13 interceptions and completed 63.7 percent of his attempts. He rescheduled his wedding day that was set for July 8 in order to play for Team USA. 

The 8-nation competition is broken into 2 groups. Group A consists of United States, Australia, Germany and Mexico. Group B includes Austria, Canada, France and Japan.

This will be the 4th International Federation of American Football (IFAF) World Championship. Japan captured the gold in the 1999 and 2003 competitions. United States won it all in 2007, beating Japan 23-20 in double overtime.

The 8-team round-robin rotation will be staged in Austria at three stadiums; one in Graz, another at Innsbruck (where two Olympic Games were played) and the third location in Vienna. Each team plays the other three in their bracket. The winner of each bracket advances to the championship game. To come home with the gold, the U.S. would most likely have to win 4 games in only 8 days, a tough task. The games will have 12 minute quarters.

All of the other competing countries have been assembled for months. Germany won the EURO Bowl competition among all other countries. Each nation has their own Professional League; Whichever team wins within their league championship represents their nation in the EURO Bowl. 

The United States’ second game will be staged on Sunday, July 10 against Germany, a squad that may be a little cocky due to their recent title. The game is a sellout without a ticket to be had anywhere. The contest will take place at noon Central time. The Championship game set for July 17th, the bronze medal match up on July 15th. 

The head coach of the U.S. team is Mel Tjeerdsma, who coached at NW Missouri State for 17 seasons, capturing 3 NCAA Division II titles, finishing with a 183-43 (81 percent) record.

The defensive coordinator is Lou Tepper who served in the same role at LSU in the late 1990's under Gerry DiNardo. Tepper also served as head coach at Illinois. He has employed a 3-3-5 alignment for the Americans.

The United States has been at a slight disadvantage, having only been together for 2 weeks. The coaching staff has had just a small window of opportunity for game planning and defensive schemes. The team trained at Wabash College in Indiana before departing earlier this week for Europe. 

Even though the world recognizes that football is a sport that was conceived in the United States, other countries would like to show that the perceived “gap” is closing. They would like to prove that they can compete, as they did in basketball. The remaining 7 teams in the IFAF want to be party crashers. It makes no difference who is wearing the red, white and blue. It’s the United States. To take down the world’s football kingpin would be a major feather in their cap. It’s a take no prisoners mentality.  

Tommy Connors is treating this opportunity as a chance to make a statement for his nation. ”You’re representing your country,” he emphasized. “You want to leave no doubt that this is still America’s game.”

The responsibilities may change for this group that has been together for just a short time since they all know that they are playing for a cause. It has been very demanding on each player and coach. 

“We had 6 days of practice. Everyday was a two-a-day,” Connors added. “You showed up ready to play. We’ve got great camaraderie, we’ve exchanged phone numbers. There is no 1st or 2nd team. Everybody gets equal reps.” 

Even though there has been a shortage of practice time, the players on the U.S team have enjoyed top-notch treatment already. “They treat us like men. You have your responsibility, it's professional football. They treat us first class," said Connors. "The uniforms are awesome, the best helmets on the market. Everything is red, white and blue. All of the clothes that the players wear are supplied, the warm-ups, polo shirts, everything. The (U.S.) couldn’t treat us nicer. We understand what it represents putting on the uniform. USA even on the practice jersey. That’s special. No one is holding back fearing injury. Even special teams will be intense. We’re not going to just walk over teams.” 

Besides the aforementioned players from Louisiana, there is a collection of interesting players on the USA roster:

-RB Nate Kmic (5’9-195) from the University of Mount Union (Ohio). He is the only RB in NCAA history to exceed 8,000 career rushing yards (8,074). Kmic also holds the NCAA record for most touchdowns in one season (130). During his senior campaign (2008) he totaled 2,790 yards rushing and 44 scores to lead the Purple Raiders to a 15-0 record. He was part of 3 Division III National Championships. While at Mount Union, Kmic’s teams posted a 58-2 mark.

-CB Diezeas Calbert from NW Missouri State and LB Demetrius Eaton (6’2-250) from Northwestern. Both played on the 2007 gold medal team.

-QB Matt Bassuener (6’2-210) from Georgetown University. Completed 67.9 percent of tosses for career. In 2 seasons, he racked up 3,223 yards and 23 TDs, rushing for 620 yards and 4 more scores.

-QB Cody Hawkins (5’11-190) Colorado had 7,409 career passing yards with 70 touchdowns. 

Oveall, 21 players on team USA have either NFL experience or NFL Europe time.

The U.S team ages range from 29 years old to 22. Japan has the oldest player competing in 42 year-old Yasuo Wakisaka. He is not a kicker but a defensive tackle. Japan began International football in 1934. 

Connors and his teammates realize that the U.S, get their opponents' best shot every time they step between the white stripes. It’s important to represent the family, friends and fans back on the homeland with their ultimate effort. 

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent the USA. It’s a great experience. This has exceeded my expectations. This is only the 4th time this tournament is being played. It will keep growing. It will be great to look back in 30 years from now and know that I was a part of that,”  explained Connors.

 
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