You know the play. You have probably seen it quite a few times.
You remember that squib kick that bounced down the field a few times before being fielded by the guy in the No. 63 jersey. You remember him just giving it a go, from the 25 to the 30 to the — Oh my he has broken through!
You remember him rumbling down the sideline sending the sellout crowd in a frenzy. You remember him being taken down after 71 yards, and just short of the opposing goal line.
You don’t? Well, here’s a quick refresher:
"The right guard! THE RIGHT GUARD!"— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) April 26, 2020
10 years later, Dan Connolly's 71-yard kickoff return for the @Patriots is still so epic.
: #SNFEncore on NBCSN
⏰: Tonight at 8pm ET pic.twitter.com/JZAS2c3BYt
A great play, so let’s just look at it again. Two different angles this time, and legendary Patriots radio voices Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti on the call:
Throwback to one of the greatest kick returns of all time!#NEvsGB on @NFLonCBS on 10/2 at 4:25 PM pic.twitter.com/Pr7UYhCOq8— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 29, 2022
On that day in December 2010, New England Patriots guard Dan Connolly made history. Listed at 6-foot-4, 313 pounds, he was on the field to do what he does best: block. However, the ball bouncing his way led to a change of plans, and 71 yards later Connolly had delivered the longest kickoff return by an offensive lineman in NFL annals.
Strangely enough, he was no stranger to running back kicks. The former undrafted free agent, who was in his sixth year in the NFL and fourth in New England, entered the game with three kickoff returns on his résumé.
He registered one 16-yard runback the previous season, as well as two returns for a combined 19 yards just six weeks before this game against the Green Bay Packers. The Packers probably knew this, but they just didn’t care.
What damage could a lineman do with the ball in his hand, right?
So, up 17-7 with 2:17 left in the second quarter — in a game that saw their offense being led by backup Matt Flynn rather than Aaron Rodgers — Green Bay’s Mason Crosby went for the squib.
“It happened enough times that I knew what to do,” Connolly would later tell The Athletic. “Get the ball if I can. Put both hands on it. Get as far as I can, and as soon as I get some contact, go down. Don’t try to make a play out of it, basically.”
“I just remember how well he fielded the kick itself,” added Patriots special teams coach Scott O’Brien. “He was on the field with [Rob] Gronk[owski] and [Alge] Crumpler. Those were the guys who you really want to handle those kinds of kicks. That’s why they’re on the field. But he did a really good job. He did exactly what he was supposed to do. The only thing I’m thinking about is, now don’t lose it.”
“When a guy like that gets the ball, really, what’s the No. 1 thought that you have when he starts running? It’s: Please don’t fumble this ball. Don’t do something dumb. Go down,” said Connolly’s offensive line coach, Dante Scarnecchia.
Connolly didn’t do anything dumb, but rather take care of the ball in textbook fashion. Two hands, while eating away at the field one yard at a time. The Packers, meanwhile, really did not challenge him until he was deep in their territory.
Defensive back Charlie Peprah and Crosby himself both took bad angles, allowing Connolly to get around the edge and into the Green Bay side of the 50. Peprah eventually caught up with the lineman at 40, but was unable to take him down or jar the ball free before being blocked out of the way by New England safety Sergio Brown.
Connolly simply kept trucking along, sidestepped Crosby and was not brought down until the 4-yard line.
“It’s easy for me to say I just reacted, saw a hole and took it. But I’m an offensive lineman, and I have never done anything like that before,” he would later say.
“I’m going to be completely honest. Two things were in my mind. One, how winded I got. It was a cold night. I remember the feeling of how much my lungs were burning because it was cold air, and I was huffing and puffing. Two, do not fumble this damn ball because Bill [Belichick] is going to kill me if I do.”
Connolly was swarmed by his teammates after the play, with the crowd in a frenzy. He didn’t have any time to catch his breath, though: the Patriots’ starting right guard, he stayed on the field for the next three plays — including a Tom Brady touchdown pass that would bring New England within three points before the half.
The Patriots eventually ended up winning the game with a final score of 31-27. Dan Connolly played a big part in the victory, thanks to delivering a play for the ages.