Commentary

Backflips and sacks: McConnell's career has seen it all

Colorado's Aaron McConnell set a league record with nine sacks. So how come cheerleading is all everyone keeps talking about with him?

Updated: June 27, 2008, 4:05 PM ET
By Mary Buckheit | Page 2

A combination of goodies makes for some of our all-time favorite phenomena. Whether you dig cookies and milk, peaches and cream, meat and potatoes, or coffee and cigarettes, it's all the same, really. Take one indulgence, add another and you've got yourself a blockbuster.

Few combos are bigger and draw more attention than football and cheerleaders. And few can talk about the virtues of both like Aaron McConnell can.

The hefty 6-foot-3, 300-pounder is a menacing AFL defensive lineman. He grew up in the Sooner State with corn pumping through his veins, hailing from Midwest City, Oklahoma. His tackling prowess can be described as tractor-like havoc on turf.

Aaron McConnell
Jonathan Shoup/Getty ImagesColorado's Aaron McConnell never forgets his cheerleading past.
Since coming to the Colorado Crush from Nashville in the '07 dispersal draft, McConnell managed to make quick work of the single-season sack record, notching nine sacks this year. That earned him a spot on the All-Arena 2008 squad. Plus, as McConnell smothered opposing quarterbacks, the Crush cruised to the playoffs and now visit Utah on Saturday in the wild-card playoffs (4 p.m. ET on ESPN).

But McConnell's past seems to breed success on the big stage. Consider that the first year he ever wrestled, he won the state championship in Oklahoma. Later on, he became the first athlete at his high school to nab all-state honors in three sports -- football, wrestling and track.

From there, McConnell actually signed with Oklahoma State to play football, but when things didn't work out for him in Stillwater, he decided to make a name for himself at little Pittsburg State University in Kansas.

"When I left Oklahoma State, my high school coach took me out to dinner, and he said he wanted me to look at Pittsburg State. I remember saying, 'No way! I am not moving to Pennsylvania; that's too far away from my parents!'" McConnell said. "He just laughed and told me it was just right up the road three hours in Kansas. I had no idea there was a Pittsburg -- no H -- in Kansas!"

The Pitt State Gorillas -- pride of Division II football and the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MAIAA) -- treated McConnell very kindly. In his tenure, he took home All-American and All-MAIAA honors in each of his four seasons. Plus, he even won a national title. A national championship!

So, it was no surprise when the Tennessee Titans signed McConnell to a free-agent contract out of college. McConnell was cut and never saw NFL grass, but he turned to turf and the Arena Football League, in which he earned 2005 AFL All-Rookie honors.

So what's the point, you say? What's the connection to sweet combos?

Well, remember that national championship McConnell won? That was actually with Pitt State's cheerleading team. McConnell did double duty all through college, starring on both the football team AND the cheer team.

"I'm telling you, those cheer practices were really tough. We'd practice sometimes three times a day, and I'd have to hold girls up that whole time," he said. "I always seemed to get the girls who liked to eat!"

For awhile, the question was what McConnell would do with wrestling when he got to college. He always knew he would play football, but with such success on the wrestling mat, he was tugged in that direction.

"Then I got to Pitt State and one of the football coaches told me they didn't have wrestling, but he said, 'We have cheerleading,'" McConnell said. "He was kidding, but I took him serious."

McConnell's muscles were a welcome addition to the squad, and no amount of ignominy could deter him from the "crap-load of girls" it introduced him to. Plus, the guy can do a backflip from his feet.

"I was about 285 at the time," he recalls. "I've done it a few times at practice when Kyle Moore-Brown and the guys razz me about my cheerleading days. I'll take off running and just do a backflip and say, 'Yeah, make fun of me now.'"

McConnell stopped and laughed.

"Of course, they still do."

It is with this childlike excitement and aw-shucks Midwestern charm that McConnell will win you over. And though he says he's about 20 pounds removed from his backflip days, I thought he might show me a few cheers. Turns out, he's smarter than your average defensive lineman.

"Umm. You know what? Conveniently, I don't remember any of those old cheers, especially because some of my teammates right now are in this office with me." As McConnell tells me this, the room around him erupts in laughter. "What do you know? I can't remember any of them. All I can remember is, 'Go 'Rillas.' That was our big thing."

And today, Aaron's big thing is that the Crush are in the playoffs. He is a big part of their success, and his past made him the player he is today.

"I know it's quite a story. It's something different, and I've taken a lot of crap for it along the way. But honestly, I'm proud of it. I loved living outside of the box. I love doing things that people said I couldn't do, or shouldn't do," McConnell said. "And now I'm here playing football. This was my love all along, but I feel lucky to have had the other stuff."

With that, I thanked him for the time, and, now late, McConnell is the last one in the room for the full-team meeting. Everyone is waiting and coach Mike Dailey glares at him as he walks in and closes the door. It's playoff time. This is serious stuff.

Suddenly, the whole team stood up and shouted, "GO 'RILLAS!" and started laughing and teasing him about doing an interview about cheerleading.

Some things never change.

Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.

Mary Buckheit started as ESPN.com's college intern in 2000. She signed on full-time as an editor in 2002 and became a Page 2 Columnist in 2006. She went west to cover life in California, the UFC, AVP, X Games and anything else she can dig up under the sun.

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