FOXBOROUGH — Offensive lineman Dan Connolly, who gained wide acclaim this season for the 71-yard kickoff return he had in New England’s 31-27 victory over Green Bay Dec. 19 at Gillette Stadium, spoke to reporters today in the Patriots locker room for the first time since then.
Connolly suffered a concussion after his return, but not during it, he said, and was unable to address his feat immediately after the game or in the weeks that followed.
“I’m healthy now, I’m back to practice, and I’m ready to move on,” said Connolly, who fully expected to be ready to play in Sunday’s playoff game against the Jets. He declined, however, to get into any specifics as to how he suffered his concussion.
The injury prevented him from basking in the postgame glory of his highly-unlikely kickoff return. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the longest kickoff return by an offensive lineman in NFL history and earned him AFC special teams player of the week honors.
“Friends and family have gotten a lot of emails and a lot of text messages,” Connolly said, when asked about the aftermath of his moment in the spotlight. “I guess my name, I’m noticed a little bit more, I get a little more fan mail now than ever before.”
Asked if the Jets were likely to kick away from him, Connolly said with a smile, “I don’t know if they’re too worried about me.”
Asked if he had any recollection of his return, Connolly replied, “Yeah, I remember what happened.
“I’m not going to say it’s common, but it’s something that I’ve been faced with — I think — three times this season and once last year. We haven’t worked on it regularly, but we have worked on it before. I just saw the ball, grabbed it, and I was planning to get what I could, and it ended up being a lot more than I thought.”
Asked if he expected to get tackled as soon as he fielded the kickoff, Connolly said, “Oh yeah, you can tell watching the film, I thought I was going to get tackled. The most I’ve ever gotten was 10 or 15 yards, so I expected to go down.”
What gave him the inclination to think he could go ahead and run to daylight?
“There was nobody hitting me,” he said. “I would’ve had to run into one of my own guys.”
Connolly said scoring a touchdown never really dawned on him, even after he rumbled across midfield and penetrated Packers territory.
“I just was trying to get as much as I could, and protect the ball, really,” he said.
After initially bear-hugging the ball and protecting it with both arms, Connolly stiff-armed a would-be tackler when he broke free for the corner, then cradled the ball with his other arm like a loaf of bread.
Asked if his ballhandling skills were learned or a God-given talent, Connolly said, “As a lineman, I never really practiced that, but it was just instinctual, really.”
When told his stiff-arm looked as though he had executed it before, Connolly deadpanned, “I never have. I don’t know where it came from.”
The best part of his return was the immediate reaction of his teammates.
“That was cool,” he said. “But probably even better was that it gave the team the energy and the spark we needed to get that game back in our favor.”
Connolly’s return, which bettered his previous best of 16 yards vs. Miami Nov. 8, 2009, set up a 2-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Aaron Hernandez that cut the Packers’ lead to 17-14 at halftime.
“I was excited just about the play happening,” Connolly said. “Honestly, the last thing on my mind was being upset that I didn’t score. I was completely honored to hold a record in the league like this and the special teams player of the week was just icing on the cake.
“It was a cool honor to receive and I’m proud to have received it.”