UWCHLAN — Not long after the turn of the century, it wasn’t rare to find little Connor Noble donning a football helmet around the house.
We’re not talking one of those plastic Hutch helmets with the Sean Landetta facemask. No, Noble built up those neck muscles trying on his dad’s helmets from his time with the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins.
“He grew up in a locker room,” said Brandon Noble, Connor’s father. “He was born when I was playing for the Cowboys. He wore a football helmet before he could crawl in it. He always had a helmet on. … The kid has been on a football field his whole life.”
It would seem obvious that the son of a former Penn State star and NFL defensive lineman would naturally take to football, but that’s not always the case. For Connor, though, there was no other option.
“Connor never for Christmas asked for toys or whatever,” said Brandon, who calls the defense at East. “It was, ‘could I get the college football video games and the helmets and the jerseys and the gloves?’ It’s always been about football.”
Fast forward and not much has changed for the younger Noble, now a senior at Downingtown East. Football is still his passion, and he’s very good at it.
Now it’s Brandon’s turn to be the admirer, watching a boy who did all he could to follow in dad’s footsteps turn into a young man who’s doing just that.
“When your dad played in the NFL for like 9 years it weighs on you and you have expectations, but I try not to think about it,” Connor said. “He never wanted me to be compared to him because he thought that was a lot of pressure. I never really thought of it that way because my first two years I was a tight end here so I just figured, since we run the ball a lot, I just tried to block as hard as I can.”
That’s the kind of mentality that would make pops proud. Brandon made a career off of out-working and out-preparing others. After a strong career at Penn State, Noble had to cut his teeth in NFL Europe with the Barcelona Dragons before finally getting his shot in Dallas.
“His big thing was toughness,” Connor said. “He always outworked everybody. He’d play through whatever he could. His career shouldn’t have lasted as long as it did but he was just mentally tough and stuck through it. I try to embody the same thing. Whether it’s injury or if you’re tired or recruiting, you just be mentally tough and physically tough through it all.”
Along with playing tight end, Connor is in his second season starting at outside linebacker, and he’s one-fourth of a linebacking corps — along with Spencer Uggla, Garrett Gripton and Stanley Bryant — that’s helped East lead the area in points allowed and is third against the run.
For as much natural talent as Connor has, East coach Mike Matta is more impressed by how cerebral he is.
“No one works harder than he does,” Matta said. “No one watches more film. No one is more prepared. He really knows football. He’ll come out during a game and ask you questions you’re not used to hearing from high school players. He’s way ahead. When people are playing checkers, he’s playing chess. He knows football and just understands it.”
After a a year of co-leading the defense with Matta, Brandon took on the full responsibility this year. While he said he and Connor butted heads back in the pee-wee days at Marsh Creek, the current father-son, coach-player dynamic has been smooth.
“I think they enjoy it,” Matta said. “There’s often times where if we’re beating somebody or trying to not show something, (Connor) will come up to me and say ‘can you tell my dad to let me play more or can you tell my dad to let me blitz?’ ‘Connor, we’re beating a team by 30 points, we’re not putting you back in.’ ‘Can you tell my dad to put me back in?’”
That thirst for the game is one of the reasons Connor has grown to enjoy his dad’s role.
“Actually, I really like it,” Connor said. “At first when coach Matta was gonna bring him on, he asked me about how I felt, and I wasn’t too sure about it all, but I really like it. Saturday and Sunday mornings he gives me the game plan and I feel like I’m one step ahead of everybody because I know what I’m doing and I know where to fit and I know the plays. And he’s always on me after the games, telling me what I did wrong, tell me what I did right and making sure I’m in line with everything.”
It’s Downingtown West week, and Connor admits he’d been thinking about this game prior to the Saturday morning breakdown. It’s the first time in a long time the Whippets have the edge with Division 1 recruits, but with both teams 6-0 and a rivalry as intense as it gets, rosters don’t win this game.
“I’ve always believed (Connor) is the best player in the area,” said Gripton, one Connor’s first friends after moving to the area a decade ago. “I’ve always had that high opinion. I’ve always known, when I was out there with him, he would make a play.”
Connor has garnered interest from the likes of Boston College, Villanova and others, but colleges aren’t totally sold yet.
“I know how hard it is to do what he’s trying to do,” Brandon said. “I know how hard he works. I know how hard it is sometimes to be the underdog. He didn’t grow into a 6-foot-4 tight end so he said ‘I’m gonna go play linebacker, too.’ He’s done all the little things we’ve asked him to do. …Watching him grow up and handle everything he’s grown into the last couple years, I’m really proud of him.”
Connor isn’t the first local to be raised and coached by an ex-NFLer. Among others, Anthony Young coached his sons Jordan, Avery and Aaron Young at Coatesville recently, and Kennett’s Lance Frazier has son, Kalen, on his squad, currently.
But in a community like Downingtown, that loves its football and values its legacies, the Noble family is writing its own chapter about a game that is one of the great connectors for fathers and sons.
The awe Connor grew up in, watching his father, has come full circle. Only now, the roles are reversed.
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