Dan Conners isn’t a name that comes to mind immediately when talking about Oakland Raiders legends.
However, Conners was the first draft choice signed by Al Davis after he became coach and general of the Raiders in 1963. Davis moved him from defensive line to linebacker and Conners anchored the Oakland defense for 11 years.
Conners was selected by the Raiders in the second round of the American Football League Draft (No. 15 overall) out of Miami (Fla.), and also was chosen by the Chicago Bears in the fifth round (No. 70 overall) of the National Football League Draft.
“Chicago was not really interested in signing me and the Raiders were,” Conners told ESPN in 2013. “It wasn’t about the money.”
The 6-2, 230-pound Conners made 57 tackles and 38 assists in his senior year at Miami and was named first-team All-American, but made a smooth transition to middle linebacker for the Raiders.
Conners holds the Raiders franchise record for interceptions by a linebacker with 15, returning three for touchdowns, in addition to ranking second in fumble recoveries with 16, running back two for touchdowns even though he wasn’t known for having great speed.
Tackles were not kept as an official statistic in those days, but those who watched Conners play believe he certainly would have ranked among the league leaders in every season in that category.
During Conners’ 11 seasons, the Raiders won seven division titles and compiled a 105-38-11 regular-season record (a .718 winning percentage), and went 13-1 in 1967, when they beat the Houston Oilers, 40-7, in the AFL Championship Game before losing the Green Bay Packers, 33-14, in Super Bowl II.
Years later, a friend of Conners found a letter in a drawer from Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Packers.
“The letter talked about Super Bowl II and mentioned how a certain play Dan completed was ‘the finest linebacker play’ the letter writer had ever seen,” the friend said. “That letter was signed by Lombardi.”
Conners simply shrugged and said: “Oh, just leave it in the drawer.”
During his career, Conners played in some memorable Raiders games, including “The Heidi Game,” “The Sea of Hands Game,” and the famed “Immaculate Reception,” when running back Franco Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers caught a deflected pass and ran for the winning touchdown.
Conners had regrets about the last one.
“That was the only play I was off the field all game,” Conners told ESPN. “I want to say I could’ve stopped it because where he caught the ball, in the middle of the field, was where I would kind of hang out.”
The Raiders won seven division titles and played in six AFL or AFC Championship Games with Conners at middle linebacker on a defense known as the “Eleven Angry Men.”
Conners was a three-time AFL All-Star and was named to the AFL’s All-1960s team, in addition to mentoring young linebackers such as Phil Villapiano and Monte Johnson, who eventually took his spot at middle linebacker.
“Dan Conners helped me on the field (as a rookie),” Villapiano told Raider Maven. “He was in his eighth season. He would make a defensive call and then signal me where to go because there were times I had no clue.”
After retiring, Conners worked as an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers, and later was a scout for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Raiders.
His career with the Silver and Black covered 25 years.
“It was a nice way to stay involved with the game,” Conners said. “I dealt with a lot of (current) players and former players and get to stay on top of what’s going on in the game.
“I never envisioned playing professionally for 11 years. I was lucky to stay away from any major injuries and was always surrounded by good teams.”
Conners was named as one of six linebackers on the AFL’s All-Time Team (1960-69) along with Bobby Bell of the Kansas City Chiefs, Nick Buoniconti of the Miami Dolphins, George Webster of the Houston Oilers, Larry Grantham of the New York Jets and Mike Stratton of the Buffalo Bills.
In his last act for the Raiders, Conners lit the Al Davis Memorial Torch at the Oakland Coliseum before a game against the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 28, 2018, before he passed away the next spring at the age of 77.
Dan Conners was a Raider until the end.