Imagine needing an Excel spreadsheet in order to monitor the daily movements of your family.
It made life easier for Gail Connors of Powder Springs, Ga. while she coordinated the practices and games of her four boys who played both high school and college football—four different schools at three different collegiate levels.
- Ricky, now 25, played fullback at University of Northern Illinois, earning a scholarship at the Division I school in his last season. He earned dual degrees in political science and sociology in just three-and-a-half years and finished his playing career in 2014 as a graduate student.
- Scottie, 23, was a three-year starting center at Division III LaGrange in Georgia. His education was paid through grants, presidential awards and student loans, and he graduated in 2014 with a degree in exercise science.
- Joey, 21, is on scholarship at FBS school UCF, where he has earned playing time at defensive end as a redshirt sophomore. He has 9 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery through six games. He is majoring in health science, and has an eye on a future in coaching.
- Danny, 18, is a freshman offensive lineman at Division II West Georgia who was recruited as a preferred walk-on. He has an academic scholarship to the school, and is majoring in sports management and business.
“It has been amazing to watch her raise four awesome young men,” said husband Rick, who has traveled regularly for his job over their 26 years of marriage. “Gail has always been willing to put things on hold to ensure the family always came first. The boys could always count on her for support and love.”
“The four of us are very blessed to have our parents support us and want the best for us, so football definitely brings us closer as a family,” says Danny, the youngest.
Back when they were just a couple without children, Gail and Rick hadn’t really mapped a course for their future family.
“We are not big planners,” Gail laughs. “When the third one came I was convinced he was a girl. I was positive. When Joey came out I asked ‘Are you sure?’”
With a platoon of three boys, the Connors decided to try a final time for a girl.
“We said ‘we’ll have one more and see what happens,’” says Gail. “It was actually the only baby where we had an ultrasound. I had a sixth sense about it. We found out it was another boy.
When we told Ricky, he laid down and cried ‘Not another one!’”
Although she is outnumbered five to one, Gail doesn’t seem to mind.
“We also have two boy dogs,” she laughs. “I don’t know what I was thinking. But with boys you can’t take anything personally because they will say what they are thinking.”
Although Rick is a big sports fan, Gail was already sports-minded, majoring in physical education at Florida State and completing internships in the intramurals and sports information departments there.
She and Rick met at the school, and married in 1989, two years after graduation. Gail taught in a number of elementary schools as they moved around Florida and Georgia for Rick’s blossoming sales career.
Once they settled in the Atlanta area and the family began to multiply, Rick’s travels dictated that Gail leave the workforce to manage the family. When the older boys went to high school, Gail resumed working at a YMCA, and later in a nearby elementary school.
“I think it is great that Gail understands the game, but more important, how sports benefits our family and the boys,” says Rick. “It teaches many life lessons that are enabling the boys to be more successful in life: teamwork, commitment, sportsmanship, dedication & perseverance. It is one thing to understand the X’s and O’s, it is another to provide (the boys) with the opportunity to succeed on the field and in the classroom.”
Ricky began playing youth football in the North Georgia Youth Football League when he was 6, and the other three boys were signed up when they were 5.
“We had a crazy schedule,” Gail says. “But it worked for our family. They would get off the bus, have 20 minutes to chill, eat dinner, get their homework done and go to practice.
“There was very little fighting. Their grades were great because of the structure. It just worked for us.”
Most years it didn’t end with football season. The boys also played basketball and baseball in the youth leagues.
Things got predictably more complex when the older boys began playing football at Harrison High School. There were multiple seasons with a pair of Connors on the roster.
“When we would get home (from practice) our mom would always have a home cooked meal waiting for us there, and we would eat then hit the books,” said Danny. “Every Sunday she would make a trip to Costco in order to have all that food for us for the week as well.”
When Ricky, and then Scottie, began playing college football, things really became interesting.
“The biggest thing my mom did was support me and my brothers,” says Scottie, who coaches at Walton High School near Atlanta while pursuing his master’s degree. “My parents have traveled thousands of miles over the years to watch us play, and it meant a lot to us when we knew they were there supporting us.”
“It was obviously very meaningful to see my mom up in the stands whenever she was able to make it,” says Ricky about his college years.
“Two hundred dollars for flights doesn’t come easy in a house with four boys. (My parents) consistently put their needs before ours, working two to three jobs at a time whether mom was at Target or Dad umpiring.
I remember the first time she saw me get some playing time at the Division-1 collegiate level and it was definitely a memorable experience for both me and her.”
“We’re not real extravagant people,” says Gail. “We haven’t felt like we’ve missed out on anything in life. The boys didn’t have cars except for Ricky. He had a $500 car that didn’t work real well. But they had everything they needed. It’s been a struggle at times but it’s always worked out.”
During Ricky’s junior season at NIU in 2013, Gail flew to watch her oldest son play against Western Michigan on Tuesday night of Thanksgiving week. The Huskies completed a 12-0 regular season that evening, but there was little time for Gail to celebrate with her son.
On Thanksgiving, she flew to Daytona Beach, where Rick and Joey picked her up to join her brother’s family in Orlando for the holiday.
The next day, the Connors went to the UCF –USF game with Joey for an unofficial visit. “Joey was a high school senior, and we felt we both needed to be at the game for him,” explains Rick.
The Excel spreadsheet was introduced by Rick during the fall of 2014, when Danny played Friday night high school football games and Ricky, Scottie and Joey were playing college ball. The family logged more than 12,700 airline miles and another 4,600 on the highway. They watched games in eight different states across three time zones.
“In order to coordinate our schedule, the excel spread sheet was the only way I knew how to organize our fall,” says Rick.
“A lot of times Rick and I would split games,” says Gail. “We would both go to high school games on Friday night because Rick did the team filming. I usually ended up going to LaGrange games two hours away and Rick would try to get to Ricky’s games at NIU.
Ricky got the worst. We would only make it up for about four of his games each year. That was like the worst of the worst. That’s pretty much how we managed the season.”
The boys have learned lessons through sports, and in hindsight it’s easy in for Gail to appreciate the struggles.
“We always told the boys as long as they were trying their hardest and doing what they were told to do we were good with that,” says Gail.
“We never wanted to put much pressure on them. We told them that you control what you can control but you can’t control anyone else. Go out and be as good as you can be.”
Ricky took that lesson to heart and it helped him improve on the football field.
“My senior year of high school football and we were struggling a little bit the first few games,” remembers Ricky. “I was too focused on trying to do everyone’s job on the field and wasn’t worried about myself.
My Mom saw me before our North Cobb game and mentioned something to me along the lines of playing for myself and just having a good time.
I recorded like 15 or so tackles and had one of my best games and we ended up winning. After the game I saw her and you could tell her words resonated with me and she knew how I was thinking and feeling. It was a great moment.”
Ricky, who now works for a government agency in Milwaukee, was never a starter, playing under three head coaches and five assistant coaches at NIU. His hard work paid off when he won the school’s Mid American Conference Scholar Athlete Award as a senior.
“To be picked for academic performance for all sports at NIU, it was validation that his hard work was appreciated,” says Gail, whose sister Donna is an assistant athletic director at the school. “It was a special moment for me to attend the ceremony and see him receive the award.”
Her take-away from Scottie’s career at LaGrange?
“He missed one football game in four years for an injury,” Gail says. “He played through nicks and sprains and his dedication to be out there calling the sets and plays sticks out to me.”
Joey might be the most gifted of the boys—the second team defensive end at UCF is a contributor to a major college program.
“(In high school) he made some crazy good plays and he has been a joy to watch,” she says.
The Connors were able to celebrate a reunion of sorts when Joey and UCF played Michigan in Ann Arbor this year. Ricky drove over from Milwaukee and Gail, Rick and Scottie flew up for the game. Only Danny was missing, as West Georgia was playing Miles College in Alabama.
“I’m very fortunate to be able to be playing Division I football and would not be here if it wasn’t for my mom,” says Joey, who confesses that his Mom slipped him Skittles before high school games. “Things that were instilled with me growing up were just to go have fun and never give up on your dreams.”
Danny is taking a redshirt year at West Georgia, assuring Gail and Rick of four more years of cheering from the sidelines.
“He’s my smartie,” says Gail, referring to Danny’s academic prowess that earned him an academic scholarship to the Division II school.
“He called after the first month at West Georgia and said ‘I love playing on this team, Mom.’ To see them be so happy in what they choose to do makes you feel good.”
“I feel very fortunate for what she did for us growing up and what she continues to do,” says Danny. “When I was younger I did not really realize all that she did. Now that I’m playing in college, I realize majority of that credit goes to her and my dad for all the time and money spent on us to reach our goals.”
“We have been very blessed.,” says Gail. “I always say a prayer to keep them safe. Things happen, but I really feel fortunate.
“It’s been so fun to watch them grow up.”