Like a Greater Pittston Jim Thorpe, John “Bozo” Connors excelled at every sport he tried and, like Thorpe, he was once a one-man track team, but a lot of local fans didn’t know just how great an athlete he was until they saw his obituary.
And the obit was only the tip of the iceberg of his athletic bio. Connors died last week at age 87, leaving behind a an athletic legacy and a family legacy, as well.
His story begins at St. John’s High School, where, with the Johnnie football team, he was often described as “a man among boys.” He made his legend as a running back, even though he never touched a football in a game until the next to last game of his junior season. He was a tackle then, and at 6-2 and 200 pounds, in most games he was one of the biggest players on the field.
On Nov. 15, 1947, the Johnnies were trailing Pittston Twp. 6-0 in the fourth quarter. St. John’s punted and Connors hit the return man so hard the ball came loose. St John’s recovered on the Pittston Twp. 25-yard line. As the Johnnies hadn’t moved the ball well for the first three and one-half quarters, Johnnies coach Ray Garleski moved Connors from tackle to fullback in the single wing formation. The center snapped the ball directly to Connors six consecutive times until Connors carried the ball into the end zone to tie the score.
A legend was launched.
Statistics don’t exist, but as a senior in 1948, Connors terrorized tacklers as a runner and ball carriers as a linebacker and St. John’s finished unbeaten, albeit with three ties. They tied unbeaten juggernaut West Pittston and Pittston.
Against Panther Valley Catholic in October, Connors passed for two touchdowns and ran for two in a 25-0 win, a typical performance.
He was selected to the Luzerne County All-Scholastic football team, the only all-star from a small private school on a team with eight players from Swoyersville, West Pittston and Pittston.
Connors was the Johnnie’s leading rusher, passer and the best punter in the conference. In the Coal Bowl, a post season East-West all-star game, he kicked a 85-yard punt and, according to the teammate who downed it, most of the distance was in the air.
He was inducted into the Luzerne County Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, and according to his bio for that induction: “Connors was a two-time King’s College basketball Invitational All-Tournament team selection in 1948-1949, MVP and All-Tourney team selection for the 1949 Pittston Chamber of Commerce Invitational Basketball Tournament, and two-time Catholic League All-Scholastic in basketball and baseball in 1948-1949. His 1948, St. John’s basketball team went undefeated, winning the Catholic League and Diocesan championships. They captured back-to-back titles in the King’s Invitation Basketball Tourney.”
In the Diocesan championship game in ’49, Connors scored 17 of St. John’s 41 points in a win over St. Rose, Carbondale.
Then there was his Jim Thorpe imitation. St. John’s did not have a track program, but Connors went to an invitational meet in Scranton and won gold in shot, discus and high jump in baseball shoes, never having competed in track and field.
He accepted a scholarship to William & Mary University. In a freshmen game versus Wake Forest (freshmen were not eligible to play with the varsity team in 1949) he rushed for 300 yards. As a sophomore, an ankle injury and freak head injury caused by a shard from a broken helmet ended his football career.
He came back to Pittston and as a 19-year-old made his mark as one of the top three pitchers in the high caliber Suburban Baseball League. Connors’ connection to the Suburban is extensive. His father, Mike Connors, played in the 1910s. He had brothers, uncles and cousins who played. At one time, six Connors boys played in the Suburban. Cousin Marty Connors, a Suburban star, pitched for St. Bonaventure University in the 1910s. Bozo played baseball until the Suburban disbanded and slow pitch took over. He wasn’t crazy about it, but he played slow pitch at a high level into his 40s.
At his wake, mourners talked about his sporting prowess, but it was noted he was also a sweet, kind, humble family man and gentleman, as one of his sons-in-law said, “Right to the end.” He and his late wife Mary (Murphy) were married 52 years and raised seven children, six daughters.
Though by his own admission he was not an academic, he was no Bozo. He got the name from a dog in the Browntown neighborhood where he grew up. Though he seemed to like the nickname, it really didn’t fit him — the dog was mean.
Connors’ obituary appears on page P8.