As far back as seventh grade, Ryan Connelly scolded his mother for baking cookies.
His brothers always gobbled them down, and Ryan, of course, would reluctantly take one as well. Only so much resistance can be expected when an aroma of fresh, warm oatmeal scotchies engulfs the kitchen.
Connelly’s angst centered around a single long-term goal, and sugar certainly wasn’t going to help him achieve it.
“He’d say, ‘Mom, you’re trying to disrupt my path to the NFL,’” said Christi Connelly, Ryan’s mother. “He would tell me starting in about seventh grade that if I didn’t have the right food in the house, that I was disrupting his path to the NFL. It became kind of a joke between us.”
Ryan Connelly ultimately faced far greater obstacles while navigating that path. He contemplated ending his football career entirely after high school before walking on at the University of Wisconsin and didn’t even make the Badgers’ initial 105-man fall camp roster as a freshman.
The inside linebacker played through a painful core injury throughout his senior season, which also affected his performance in pre-draft workouts, and learned of his mother’s lung cancer diagnosis in November.
The New York Giants selected him in the fifth round of the NFL Draft last month, however, affording him an opportunity to fulfill a dream he honed in on more than a decade ago.
“Not a lot of offers out of high school,” Connelly told MSG Networks after being drafted. “(UW was) able to help me and turn me into a player that was able to get drafted.
“Just my whole journey so far is pretty surreal to think about.”
A steady rise to stardom
Ryan and his mother were just outside Wisconsin Dells in July of 2014 when he received a devastating phone call from UW defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
The two were traveling home to Eden Prairie, Minn., after Ryan completed his first summer conditioning program with the Badgers, and Aranda informed him that he wouldn’t be part of UW’s 105-man roster when fall camp began in the coming weeks.
Connelly called it “the low point” of his career. He turned down a scholarship from Division II Minnesota-Duluth after describing the program’s stadium as being smaller than the one he played in at Eden Prairie High School. He wanted to compete at the highest level, but doing so now felt like an immense challenge when starting his first college season at the very bottom of the Badgers’ roster.
That didn’t stop Connelly from wanting to return to Madison as quickly as possible. He pleaded with his mother to allow him to travel back by the start of fall camp rather than staying in Minnesota for a couple extra weeks.
Christi gave in, and Ryan was there to fill in immediately after another player suffered an injury on the first day of camp.
“I think he somehow knew,” Christi said. “He wanted to be there. I think he said it took him 45 minutes once he got the call before he was at the stadium ready to go and never looked back.”
Part 1 of a series following former Badgers linebacker Ryan Connelly's path to the NFL Draft.
Part 2 of a three-part series following former UW linebacker Ryan Connelly's path to the NFL Draft.
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Connelly began working his way up from there. He played sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2015 before a breakout performance against fifth-ranked LSU at Lambeau Field the following year accelerated his rise to the top of UW’s depth chart.
With T.J. Edwards already out due to a left foot injury, Chris Orr tore his ACL on the first defensive snap against the Tigers. That thrust Connelly into an unexpected first-team role in the season-opener.
Connelly recorded seven tackles that day, including one of the game’s biggest plays when he slipped a screen and took down Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette in the open field on a key third down.
“He couldn’t have played it any better,” UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said at the time. “I told him that one’s going on the teach tape for a long time.”
It didn’t take long for the Badgers to realize they had found another gem in the program’s long line of successful walk-ons. Connelly started eight games that season, led the team in tackles as a junior and was named a Butkus Award semifinalist as a senior.
That final year may have proven more challenging than the first.
Connelly tore his ab off his pubic bone on both sides before the season began and played through the injury for 12 games despite the failures of various injections and other treatments.
He underwent surgery Dec. 11, and his recovery bled into his NFL Draft training. Even without optimal workout numbers, Connelly’s athleticism and quick-twitch reaction time still stood out on tape.
"Game speed is much different than 40-yard sprint speed,” said Anthony Hobgood, Connelly’s strength coach at EXOS in Pensacola, Fla. “And he’s very smart. You can get to where the ball’s going to be or get to your position or get to your assignment a lot quicker because you’re smart and you know where to be.”
Connelly’s parents also dropped a bombshell on him after his game against Rutgers last season.
Doctors found a golf ball-sized tumor on Christi’s lung, later to be diagnosed as Stage 3 cancer. She missed Ryan’s final game at Camp Randall Stadium while recovering from surgery to remove half of her lung.
“She took care of all us growing up with three boys running around, so you’ve got to be strong-willed to do that,” Ryan said. “My girlfriend took the news pretty hard, and she was trying to understand why I wasn’t as worried as her. I guess my only response was I just know she’s going to get through this, and I didn’t see it as that big of a deal, to be honest. I was just that confident.”
Christi’s radiation treatments were scheduled to end the week following the NFL Draft, an extra cause for celebration after Ryan’s fifth-round selection.
Ryan entered the final weekend of April with no guarantee he’d even be drafted at all, but he became the second UW player off the board when the Giants took him 143rd overall.
It capped off quite the ascension for a former high school quarterback who walked on with the Badgers less than five years earlier.
Connelly didn’t allow anything — not cookies or injuries or a lack of scholarship offers — to prevent him from finally accomplishing the goal he set out for himself many years ago.
“I’m sure it’ll hit me when it actually happens,” he said before the draft. “It’ll just be a dream come true for sure.”