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Ryan Connelly using his NFL Combine performance not just to up his draft stock

How the former walk-on turned NFL prospect is making a difference this weekend with inspiration from his mother.

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NCAA Football: New Mexico at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

This week starts an audition of a lifetime for former Wisconsin inside linebacker Ryan Connelly as he will partake in the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Interviews, meetings and testing all will encompass the former walk-on turned standout ‘backer this week.

Of course, Connelly will work to impress personnel—coaches and scouts and general managers and more—in hopes of landing a home at the professional level later this spring via NFL Draft.

The combine and one particular drill, however, will also give the former Badger the opportunity to raise money for the American Lung Association. His vertical jump performance will help earn those funds through his Pledge It fundraiser, “Ryan Connelly Raising Up for My Mom,”

For Connelly, this cause hits home. As noted on his Pledge It page, he found out prior to Wisconsin’s Nov. 3 matchup with Rutgers that his mother, Christi, underwent a chest MRI that came across a tumor. She now is undergoing treatment for lung cancer.

“It caught all of us off guard. She’s a very healthy women. She was a never smoker so lung cancer was kind of something you didn’t really expect. Kind of came out of nowhere,” Connelly told B5Q on its podcast on Sunday.

“One of the things was she needed surgery to remove part of her lung which had a tumor in it, and she wanted to kind of put it off because she wanted to still come to Senior Day but I thought that was just kind of, I’m ‘like, ‘That’s a little selfish. Just get the surgery done. You’ve seen enough of my games. You don’t need to come to Senior Day. It’s not like it’s going to upset me or anything. I think this is a bigger issue we need to tackle right now.’”

Despite the troubling news, Connelly knew the support surrounding his mother and the type of person she was, so it did not worry him “all too much.” Connelly noted the support of his roommates, whom he told the news to, but he also did not “want to make it about me at all.”

“I prefer to keep things pretty close to the chest and what not. At the end of the day I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re going through some stuff right now, but so is a lot of people,” Connelly said. “I just use as an example of my locker mate, one of my best friends, D’Cota [Dixon]. It’s hard to complain when you know his story. You know how he comes to practice and the locker room everyday with a smile on his face, so it’s just hard to complain when you have people like that around you. Like I said at the same time, just kind of understanding the whole situation and knowing the support my mom has around her, it’s not like I was a nervous wreck or anything. I knew that we’d be able to attack it in the right way.”

According to Connelly, the idea to use his vertical jump performance for charity came from his agent, who has done this type of work previously with previous players.

“I kind of feel like that just felt right in place with what I wanted to do, and I thought it was a good way of giving back and at the same time raising awareness while honoring my mom at the same time,” Connelly said. “So I think that it all kind of fell into place at the right time.”

Listen to B5Q’s recent chat with Connelly on Bucky’s 5th Podcast! Available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and pretty much everywhere where you listen to your favorite podcasts!

Preparing for the Combine, recovering from injury

Since early January, Connelly has trained at the EXOS facility near Pensacola, Fla. At first, he admitted he was not a full go as he was working back from a core injury that dated back to before the season started and that he played through. He believes he suffered it while he was running or squatting—the latter reason was also reported earlier this week by the Wisconsin State Journal’s Jason Galloway—and it was more of a “wear and tear” type injury than a “sudden injury.”

Upon examination on a trip to Philadelphia, he found out he had torn his abdominal muscles off of his pubic bone.

“It was something that I actually did during the summer, and I continually made it worse. We tried a couple of different remedies that just weren’t working,” Connelly said. “Got to the point where it was pretty obvious there at the end, I didn’t have the same burst and I couldn’t really hit top speed as well and so it just wasn’t really helping the team, in my opinion, so I just went ahead and got surgery.”

Despite the injury and missing what would have been his final collegiate game inside Yankee Stadium, he still recorded 89 tackles, 11 for loss, in 12 games—good for second on the team in both categories. He also tallied three sacks (tied for second with T.J. Edwards) and six quarterback hurries (third on team behind Zack Baun and Andrew Van Ginkel).

“It had honestly been getting pretty annoying just dealing with it all season, and knowing that the NFL was right around the corner, I needed to get ready for that as well,” Connelly said, who also noted that he was going to bed with ice packs on his abs. “I decided to go to Philadelphia and get it checked, and obviously, we found out it was torn there and so we ended up getting the surgery.”

His first month at EXOS was geared towards getting his legs back under him and learning how to run full speed once again. Since then, he has, in his words, “kind of been cleaning up some various things and making sure I’m crystal clear to go in the Combine.”

Training for the NFL Combine is different than what Wisconsin players are enduring currently for winter conditioning, or for that matter the work they perform during the summer. Athletic performance facilities like EXOS help prepare potential draft prospects for the drills associated with the event, and as Connelly described, more as track athletes and sprinters than football players.

The NFL hopefuls have to adapt to training in this different manner and buy into that preparation. Connelly has, and he glowed about the “all encompassing” amenities.

“They have everything you could possibly need from treatments to massages to really everything, and I’ve just been enjoying it all,” Connelly said. “Honestly I wish I could stay here longer because it’s gone by pretty fast.”

“It’s a pretty simple life when you wake up, and they give you food and then you workout, and they give you more food. Honestly, there’s no complaints here from me on my experience.”

According to Connelly, he still is around his playing weight between 235-240 pounds, though the diet plan has helped in one regard.

“I think the difference is I’m just a lot leaner than I have been just cause the food they’re giving you is real food that’s healthy and kind of tailor made to your body,” Connelly said, “and so just being able to eat on a regimented system for seven straight weeks every day, my body has been responding very well to that. So that’s, like I was talking about, that’s something I’m going to miss is them providing you with a perfect fuel source every day, and so I’d say my weight is pretty similar to what I played in but obviously a little more leaner.”

Picking the brains of those before him like former teammates Joe Schobert, Jack Cichy, Garrett Dooley and Leon Jacobs, Connelly worked to gain all the information he could about the on-going process.

Connelly told B5Q he would fly out on Wednesday of this week, but he will be seen on television with the other linebackers and defensive linemen on Sunday. Before that, however, a lot more happens behind the scenes.

“That’s the thing that kind of gets lost in everything is on TV, you only see the last day, which is all the testing and on the field work,” Connelly said. “There’s three whole days of interviews and medical and various psychological testing that goes on before that, that is rarely seen. I think that’s the biggest thing is just kind of understanding what’s going to go on once we’re down there, so that’s what kind of EXOS and my agent and everybody has been preparing me for is yeah, obviously the fourth day—Sunday when we test—is a big deal, too. That can help you or hurt you, but I mean the first three days when teams are getting to know you and kind of test your intelligence and what not, those are also important as well.”

Now on the doorstep of the NFL, the Wisconsin linebacker journeyed a familiar route productive walk-ons like Schobert and Cichy before him have, from typically unknown player to standout contributor. He played in 52 games, starting 26 of them, and recorded 251 total tackles, 30 of those for loss.

He admitted that every now and then thinks about how he ended up in this position.

“It’s just kind of crazy how everything unfolded in my college career,” Connelly said. “Just really I shouldn’t have played all too much, but injuries happened and opportunities arose, so I guess I’m just very blessed to be able to be training down here right now because it could have gone pretty differently.”

Connelly mentioned his mother she is doing very well and responding well to the treatment. As of last Sunday, she had one more round of chemotherapy and then approximately six weeks of radiation.

“Then hopefully after that, we’ll do some more tests and hopefully after that, she’ll be cancer-free.”

The NFL Draft takes place from April 25-27 this year, and with that very weekend, Connelly hopes there will be multiple reasons for celebrations those days.

“The cool thing will be that the Friday of the draft will be her last day of radiation, so hopefully we’ll be celebrating a couple of things that weekend.”