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Napa High School Athletic Hall of Fame: Connor could tackle and not get tackled

Napa High School Athletic Hall of Fame: Connor could tackle and not get tackled

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Michael “Buddy” Connor had an amazing night of football at Memorial Stadium on Friday, Nov. 8, 2002.

He rushed for 105 yards on 19 carries and scored five touchdowns at tailback and led the defense at inside linebacker for Napa High School in its 42-7 win over Vacaville.

He rarely came off the field. He was even on the opening kickoff coverage unit.

“A lot of kids don’t want to go in on kickoff. He wanted to be out there,” said Jerry Dunlap, Napa’s former head coach. “He jumped at the chance and kind of set the tone that night. He shed two or three blockers and made the tackle.”

Connor’s stop on special teams that night was one of the key plays of that season, with Napa winning the Monticello Empire League Division I title and advancing to the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.

“We were not going to lose after that play,” said Dunlap, Athletic Director and Associate Dean at Napa Valley College. “We showed that highlight for years after to any kid that came in to prove that your best athletes need to be on the field.”

Connor, a 2003 graduate, was honored for his all-around play, as he was named as the MEL Division I Player of the Year, first-team offense and defense on the all-league team, and the Player of the Year on the All-Napa County team in 2002.

“Just a hell of a football player. Tough. Did everything we asked of him,” said Dunlap. “I know he probably enjoyed the defensive side of the ball a little bit better than the offensive. But he was pretty hard to stop on offense as well. Just kind of did everything for you. He was obviously a great runner, but could catch the ball and did a very nice job in our blocking scheme.”

Connor has another award coming his way. And it’s a big one.

He was elected to the 2020 Napa High Athletic Hall of Fame in voting by a selection committee. Connor and six others, including Mike Gibson and Ed Blanton, who each played major college football before going on to the NFL, are among the newest class of inductees.

Also in the Hall of Fame class are Ron Fisher, Jessi Emery Gibson, former coach Joe Richmond, and Ira C. Smith, the Sports Director at KVON-1440 AM for the last 45 years.

The seven-member class, and those selected later this year for the 2021 class, will each be honored during a dinner and induction ceremony on March 5, 2022 at Embassy Suites by Hilton Napa Valley.

Hall of Fame events were canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a nomination letter, Tom LeMasters, president of the Napa High Athletic Hall of Fame Foundation, wrote:

“It is my belief that Buddy’s performance as a Napa High football player, short of John Boyett, could not be any more accomplished.”

The Hall of Fame’s selection committee votes on the nominees after reviewing nominations and hearing presentations by nominators. A successful nominee needs 75 percent of the total points possible.

The Hall of Fame Foundation’s mission statement, according to napahighhof.org, is to honor the school and its department of athletics by recognizing the achievements of former athletes, coaches and others who have made significant contributions to the school’s athletic programs, while celebrating Napa High School scholar-athletes for their work in the classroom, community and in athletics.

Individuals may be nominated in one of three categories: athlete, coach and special.

To date, there are 154 members of the Hall of Fame, with membership dating back to 1912. The NHS Athletic HOF Foundation is a nonprofit organization.

The Hall of Fame was founded in 1997, with 36 inductees in the first class.

To be eligible as an athlete, according to the organization, an individual must have graduated from Napa High at least 15 years ago, participated in at least one interscholastic sport as an undergraduate, and lived an adult life that did not discredit the school or the community.

“It’s pretty special, especially considering that I was so caught off guard by it,” Connor, 35, said recently. “What it means is to me is that it’s nice to have some type of recognition.”

Commitment to football

Connor made a commitment to the Napa High football program, choosing to be a one-sport athlete and working year-round on his strength, speed and skills as a two-way player.

He played on the freshman team in 1999 as a fullback and linebacker. He played on the junior varsity team in 2000 at fullback-linebacker.

He was named second-team All-MEL and All-Napa County on defense as a junior in 2001.

He was selected as Napa’s team MVP and second-team All-Sac-Joaquin Section in 2002 after rushing for 996 yards on 132 carries and scoring 17 touchdowns in Napa’s triple-option base offense. He also led Napa on defense with tackles.

“I loved football. I loved my experience,” said Connor, a resident of Dixon.

“I was fortunate to play with a really good group of guys. I played with most of them throughout my whole high school career. I was pretty lucky. I was pretty fortunate to have that group.”

In its All-Napa County package on Dec. 28, 2002, the Napa Valley Register reported:

“Keyed Napa’s drive to the MEL title and appearance in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. Plays the game with passion, poise, heart and emotion. Impact player with excellent skills. One of the best players to perform for a city team in recent years.”

One of the questions that Connor has been asked a lot over the years is what position he would prefer: running back or linebacker.

“Everybody likes scoring touchdowns and the glory and all that, and why not? Linebacker is what I liked doing. Nothing is more fun on the football field than putting somebody on their back. I definitely took pride in making the opponents not want to come run in my direction,” he said.

Connor prided himself on playing the game with speed and instincts.

“It was my biggest strength,” he said. “I just beat the players to the hole. I’m getting to the hole at the same time as the running back was a lot of the time. Offensive linemen weren’t getting their hands on me necessarily. I could cover the field sideline to sideline. So that was probably my biggest strength, just my ability to cover ground and my instincts.”

Connor scored on runs of 5, 1, 9, 2 and 5 yards, respectively, in the game against Vacaville. With the win, Napa clinched a spot in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs.

“Buddy is very qualified to be going into the Hall of Fame with his success during his high school years at Napa High,” said Dunlap. “He was extremely talented when he played. He was a hell of an athlete.

“He was really good at everything we did. He could take a pitch on the option. We could move him down to fullback, if needed, as he was a power runner, but he had some speed. He had good agility.

“I just remember him being hard to hit because he could swivel and get low and pop back up. But then he could punish people, too. So you kind of had the best of both worlds with him. He was put together really well. He had good size to him for his height. His motor was always going. You didn’t want to take Buddy off the field.”

Connor said he enjoyed playing in the old Memorial Stadium, with its grass field and cement-style seating that put fans in very close proximity to the field. The historic stadium, with Quonset huts that served as locker rooms, was torn down and replaced by a beautiful 6,400-seat facility with a synthetic playing field, team rooms, press boxes, elevators, new scoreboard, concession areas, ticket booths and parking lot. The new stadium, located on Menlo Avenue, opened in October of 2010.

“It was nostalgic. It was electric in there,” said Connor. “The fans were on top of you, with very little separation between the sideline and the bleachers. The grass was plush. It was really something.”

He also played three years of Napa Saints youth football.

One year of college football

Connor left town and went to Butte College-Oroville, with the intent to try and play for the Roadrunners. He did not play any football and returned home after one semester.

He was contacted by Floyd Burnsed, the head coach at Solano Community College-Fairfield, and joined the Falcons. He played one season at Solano, in 2004, and was named first-team All-Bay Valley Conference after leading the league in tackles at inside linebacker.

“Floyd said, ‘Hey, come on and play.’ And so I ended up joining them and earning my starting spot, right as the season began,” said Connor. “It ended up working out. I made some really good friends on that team, some people that I still talk with regularly. It was a great group of guys at Solano. We had a good year."

Connor chose to go to work, in the construction field, after the one season at Solano. Today, he runs a business, MC Construction and Concrete of Napa.

“I wish I would have definitely stuck my nose to the grindstone with football a little bit more,” he said. “I could have definitely done whatever I needed to do to take the next step. But I’ve got a great life and I’m very happy.”

Returning to football

Connor returned to football, playing for the North Bay Rattlers, a semi-pro team in Santa Rosa, from 2012-2019. He joined some other former Napa High players, including Johnny Villegas, Jesse Martinez and Kevin Robledo, with the Rattlers.

Connor was a linebacker for the Rattlers, who play during the spring.

“I kind of got the itch to play football again and went out there. I’m glad I did. I had a fun few years,” he said. “I had some good years out there. It was fun to continue to get out there and do something I love.”

Connor was twice named as the Pacific Coast Football League MVP. He also was selected as Defensive Player of the Year.

The Rattlers went 14-0 and won league and national titles in 2012.

They were 12-1 and won the national title in 2014.

They were 13-1 and won the league title in 2015.

They were 10-2 and won the league title in 2019.

The six-team PCFL consists of Cal State Stampede, Capital City Fury, NorCal Lions, North State Grizzlies, San Jose Stars and North Bay Rattlers.

Nominations for 2021 class

Nominations for the Hall of Fame's 2021 class are due Nov. 10.

“Due to COVID-19 restrictions we were unable to complete our annual nomination/election cycle for 2020 until this year,” Tom LeMasters, president of the Napa High Athletic Hall of Fame Foundation, wrote in the letter to the newest inductees.

More information about the Hall of Fame is available by visiting its website, napahighhof.org.

Jimmy Garoppolo was held out of 49ers practice Wednesday.

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