When the Tennessee Titans selected a hardworking and honorable young man in QB Marcus Mariota last season you knew the organization was moving in the right direction. They went the same route again this draft by trading up to number eight to pick another hard working and honorable young man by selecting Jack Conklin the Spartan LT.
Spartan Nation caught up with Conklin for this exclusive interview about the draft and his journey to the NFL. I have known Jack for a long time and in the interest of full disclosure consider him my friend. That said his journey wasn’t that of a five star player who had all the tools. He has worked for everything he has gotten.
So when does Conklin looking back identify that his dream was to play in the NFL? “Oh yeah. I remember sitting in Sunday school. This is the earliest I remember wanting to play in the NFL. Our teacher asked us ‘What do you want to be when you grow up.’ I said that I wanted to be an NFL player. Ever since then I have been all about football. I remember all of the way back; the first year that you could play football was third grade in full pads. I was so excited. Ever since then it has been pushing myself to reach that ultimate dream of the NFL. One step at a time. It is crazy now to be fulfilling that dream. Hopefully pushing farther in by having a long career.”
For Conklin he made his career at MSU by a work ethic that will be talked about in the Duffy Daugherty Football Building 100 years from now. It was legendary. So did many NFL teams mention that to Conklin in the process?
He told me, “I would definitely say my work ethic. I really think the best thing for me at this point was coming in as a walk on. Having to have earned my way and have my parents behind me the whole way and learning the lessons they taught me as a kid. Whether it was extra work after a game, or just understanding what it means to really work hard. Coming in as a walk on I knew I had to do something extra every day. Not only to make myself better prepared, because I need to. To set myself up so when coaches (NFL) ask my coaches (MSU) about me they can say ‘hey that kid is a hard worker and is going to do something special’.”
We have all seen NFL dreams and the subsequent money and fame destroy some. All you had to do was watch the ESPN 30 for 30 special, “Broke” to realize that. So with one pick Conklin became an instant multi-millionaire. How has the pride of Plainwell, Michigan guarded against it?
“Luckily for me and the way that I have spent my time at Michigan State, and the way my parents have raised me is that I am not done proving to people what I want to be. For me the money is definitely part of it and the NFL is a business, but I am not going to be settled with just being a first round draft pick. I want to be known as a guy who is one of the best tackles in the league and part of a Super Bowl organization and trying to be the best that I can be.”
Conklin is a lot of things, but he isn’t a liar and he isn’t arrogant. Frankly I think a little more arrogance could have helped my young friends. That is why when he was on the NFL Network’s popular show, “Path to the Draft” and was asked about playing against JJ Watt, I was stunned as uniformed people called him arrogant. I have him the chance to set the record straight.
Watch those comments WHEN YOU CLICCK RIGHT HERE!
I asked if his comments were meant as respect of the man many think is the best player in the NFL. He was emphatic, telling me “Completely! It wasn’t an I think I am way better than JJ Watt or a cocky type of thing. I am not that kind of guy. I want to play against the best and if I can play against the best that is how I want to prove that is the way that I play and that is how I want to be known as a player. I want to be a guy that can stick it in there and play against the best. I see JJ Watt as a similar guy that took a path a lot like I did. Now he is the top player in the NFL. Those are the type of guys I want to play against and those are the type of guys that I will earn my name against.”
Lives change the moment that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell calls a young man’s name at the draft. It can be surreal; it can be exciting it can be terrifying. “For them (Tennessee) to put the faith in me, to put up that kind of investment, it is my next job to go in and to prove to those people that decided to pick me that they made the right choice. They are going to be very happy with how hard I work and what I am able to bring to their organization on and off the field.”
One area that NFL teams loved about Conklin was the more they looked and talked to current and former Spartans was the respect Conklin commanded in the locker room. So what did he do that NFL teams covet and his college team loved?
“A lot of teams asked me what I was like. ‘What were you like on your team?’ The way that I put it to them was that when I came in I was a walk on kid so it was my job to keep my mouth shut, my head down and work hard. As it progressed and I started playing and becoming a leader on this team, I more evolved into a vocal guy. Never losing that respect of leading through hard work and most important the thing that stands out the most meaning hard work. I think that I became a more molded leader and I give credit to learning that way to lead through work ethic from the older guys that were there on the offensive line when I got to Michigan State like Travis Jackson, Blake Treadwell and Fou Fonoti. Those guys would stay late after practice and teach me every little extra piece. That goes a long way. Especially when you are an offensive lineman. You need to be able to work with a group, even more than what is necessary. Those guys really built on that work ethic and taught me the way I needed to act, how I needed to be a leader and how I needed to fit in the locker room.”
So what place does Michigan State hold in Conklin’s life? Will he be back on bye weeks? Will he be around the program he loves? What do you think? Of course, “Michigan State gave me this chance and I will never forget that. I am going to be the kid that is always here. Always be around and be part of this program.”
Finally I had to ask Conklin about his head coach Mark Dantonio. The son of his high school coach, Conklin has held Dantonio in a state of reverence since the moment he first met him. Conklin reveres the Spartans head man and has looked up to him, driven by a fear of letting him down. It is that rare respect that really stands out about their relationship.
“I believe that Coach Dantonio is the greatest coach in college football right now. I think it all comes down to his character and how he runs his program. I can’t even find words to say how lucky I was to be part of this program. Coming from being a walk on kid that didn’t have a place, and coach D found me and gave me this chance. He really believed in me to develop me and to help me do just that. Coming from a background like I did with my dad being my head coach, I’ve never been a guy that has been the mind games or tricks from coaches. When coaches tell me what they want, what they expect from me and what they think I can do that is what I am going to go after. I am going to go after it and I am going to get it. That is the mentality that I have. It isn’t cocky; it is just the mentality that I have. This is what this person expects from me and that is what this person wants. In the way of Coach D, he gave me this chance and it was my job to run with it, not to let him down and prove to him that he made the right choice. That is just how I think about things.”
The Spartans didn’t lose a great player and leader. His legacy is solid. But the Titans got a great guy on and off the field and every parent can take joy if their kids look up to Conklin. Conklin is a great example that a good work ethic, fueled by character and integrity can take a person a long ways. Like all the way to their dream.