One of the Tri-County Area’s greatest football players passed away last weekend in California. St. Marys’ Dan Conners, a standout linebacker for the Oakland Raiders in the 1960s and 70s and played in Super Bowl II, died in San Luis Obispo. He was 78.
According to the Santa Monica Press, Conners was surrounded by relatives and friends when he died at French Hospital Medical Center last Sunday.
Born in Clearfield, Conners was raised in St. Marys and was a 1959 graduate. He led the Flying Dutchmen to undefeated seasons in 1957 and 1958 as a fullback and center while also earning varsity letters in wrestling and baseball.
That got the attention of the University of Miami (Fla.) where Conners began his college career as a center on the freshman team. He then moved to offensive tackle and then started to make a significant impact on the defensive side of the ball at tackle.
The eventual University of Miami Hall of Famer was 6-foot-2, 240 pounds by his senior year and broke the season record for tackles at that time with 57 tackles and 38 assists in 1962. In 1963, Conners was named an All-American defensive tackle.
In the spring of 1964, Conners was drafted twice — by the Chicago Bears in the fifth round (70th pick) in the NFL draft and by the Raiders in the second round (15th overall) of the AFL or American Football League draft.
Conners signed with the Raiders and started an 11-year career that continued through 1974. Conners moved to middle linebacker and helped anchor the defensive unit that helped lead the team to the playoffs seven of Conners’ 11 seasons, 13 games in all.
In 1967, Conners and the Raiders reached the Super Bowl after going 13-1 in the AFL and beating the Houston Oilers, 40-7, for the league title as Conners had a fumble recovery.
Against the powerful NFL champion Green Bay Packers in the second-ever Super Bowl, the Raiders lost 33-14.
The next year, the Raiders reached the AFL title game before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Jets, 27-23. During the regular season, Conners played in the infamous “Heidi Bowl” where the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final minute of a 43-32 win. However, NBC pre-empted the fantastic finish to go to its regular-scheduled feature film Heidi, causing predictable outrage.
The Raiders reached the AFL title game again in 1969 and lost to another eventual Super Bowl champion, this time hated rival Kansas City, 17-7. Conners recovered a fumble in the loss. Once again in 1970 now in the American Football Conference after the merger of the NFL and AFL, the Raiders lost again in the conference championship game to another eventual Super Bowl champion as the Raiders lost 17-7 to the Baltimore Colts.
Oakland missed the playoffs in 1971 and reached the postseason again in 1972, winning the AFC West with a 10-3-1 record. In the first round of the playoffs, the Raiders locked up with an emerging power and arch-rival in the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. In what was dubbed the Immaculate Reception game, it was Conners and the Raiders losing 13-7 on the final play of the game when Franco Harris grabbed a deflected pass out of the air and rambled into the end zone for the miracle finish. The Steelers wound up losing to the eventual unbeaten Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins the next week.
Back again in 1973, the Raiders won the AFC West, avenged the loss to the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs and lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Dolphins in the conference final, 27-10.
Conners’ final season of 1974 saw the Raiders win the AFC West once again with a 12-2 mark, the best record in the conference. After beating the defending champion Dolphins 27-10 in the first round, the Raiders lost at home to another eventual Super Bowl champion as the Steelers, down 10-3 going into the fourth quarter, outscored the Raiders 21-3 in the final quarter to win 24-13. The Steelers went on to win their first Super Bowl, beating the Vikings, 16-6.
According to Conners’ page on www.pro-football-reference.com, Conners appeared in 141 games with the Raiders, 110 of them as a starter. While tackles weren’t considered an official statistic until much later, Conners had 15 interceptions, returning three of them for touchdowns and he recovered 16 fumbles, returning two for scores.
Conners made several postseason All-Pro teams, mostly during a stretch from 1967 through 1969. He was a second-team all-AFL pick in 1967 by the Association Press, United Press International and The Sporting News. In 1968, he earned first-team All-AFL honors by UPI and Pro Football Weekly and second team by the AP. In 1969, he was a first-team All-AFL pick by The Sporting News and second team by the AP.
Conners was named as one of the six linebackers on the AFL Hall of Fame All-1960 Team, joining the likes of Bobby Bell, Nick Buoniconti, George Webster, Larry Grantham and Mike Stratton. The Chiefs’ Bell and the Dolphins’ Buoniconti are Pro Football Hall of Famers.
In Conners’ 11 seasons, the Raiders won seven division titles and compiled a 105-38-11 regulat-season record (.718 winning percentage). He was foundational piece of the Raiders’ defense over that period. Two years after he retired, the Raiders won their first Super Bowl title against the Vikings in 1976.
After his retirement, Conners remained in football as an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers and a scout for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before returning to the Raiders organization as a scout. He lived in the Oakland area and wound up serving over 25 years overall with the Raiders.
Dan is survived by his wife, Kathleen; son, Daniel (Shawna) Conners, Jr., of Hidden Valley Lake, Ca.; daughter, Laura (Eliseo) Ibarra of Kersey, Colorado; grandchildren, Kelsey Conners, Anthony Ibarra and Anna Ibarra.