[The following is an example of the type of player interview I’d like to do throughout the season. I’ll post them here in summary form; info from them will form a large part of the book].
I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Connor Hollenbeck, the 2nd-team All-IFL receiver recently signed by the Iowa Barnstormers. We spoke about offseason training, mental focus, and the free agency process.
At six-foot-six and 230 pounds, Connor Hollenbeck is hard to miss, and the IFL’s quarterbacks don’t – in just two seasons, he’s racked up over 1,000 yards and 27 touchdowns, earning second-team All-IFL honors in 2018 despite being limited by a knee injury during the season’s second half. A native of Ontario Center, New York, he was one of the most highly sought-after free agents in the offseason.
The Free Agent
IFL players sign one-year contracts, and the free agency period for the 2019 season opened October 1st, 2018. At that point, the Cedar Rapids team was only a few weeks into its re-branding as the River Kings. They’d laid a firm foundation, hiring former IFL Executive of the Year Ryan Eucker as the general manager and re-hiring standout former head coach Mark Stoute, but the team’s situation as a whole was still very much in flux.
“It was an easy decision,” Hollenbeck says about his few short hours as a free agent. “I love Cedar Rapids, the community and the fans are great, but I’ve known Coach Wooten for years. We played against [the Barnstormers] a lot last season, so I feel I know the team and the system pretty well. I got the call as soon as free agency started, and I signed right then.”
IFL salaries are on a per-game basis, so the coaching staff and system are big parts of any team’s pitch to prospective free agents. “Coach Wooten has been the Coach of the Year for two years,” Hollenbeck says. “He’s got some great ideas on how to use me, and how I’ll fit into the scheme.”
Playing in an established system is something of a new experience for Hollenbeck. “Going back to college, I’ve never had the same offensive coordinator from season to season. Obviously the coach changed in between my seasons with the Titans. I’m always up for a challenge,” he says, “I’m always looking for ways to improve my knowledge of the game, and learning new systems helps a lot. But yeah, a little continuity’s going to be nice.”
Continuity has been in short supply in Hollenbeck’s football career. A record-setting quarterback in high school, he was once the top QB prospect in New York, while also lettering in basketball and track. “I went to a combine at Albany, the Division I school I was most interested in. They worked me out at quarterback, but they said ‘You’ve got the athleticism, you’d be a pretty good tight end or wide receiver.’”
He wanted to keep playing quarterback, though, so Hollenbeck signed with Division II Edinboro, a part of the Penn State system. But the depth chart was clogged. “I just wanted to get on the field,” Hollenbeck says. “I told my coach I’d do whatever it takes. So they switched me to wide receiver.”
And, at one point, punter. “They asked me if I kicked before,” Hollenbeck says with a laugh. “They told me I could get more scholarship money if I could punt, too, so I said ‘Hell yeah, I can kick!’ So I went out and started kicking the ball around. Next offseason, they had a competition; brought in a kicking coach and everything to look at us. I went out there and the coach says ‘There’s your guy, right there.’”
The position changes kept on coming. “They told me they wanted me to play tight end,” Hollenbeck says, “so I started bulking up. I got up to 240 in the offseason. Then the coach calls and says ‘We’re going to use you back at wide receiver this season,’ so I had to get back down to about 210. I was 190 as a quarterback,” he adds.
Now might be a good time to mention that Hollenbeck does some personal training for clients in the offseason. In addition to frankly brutal-sounding football workouts – up to two hours a day – he also works at a local fitness center, doing everything from facilities maintenance to personal training.
With all that experience, I asked, do you see coaching in your future? Strength coach, fitness coach, position coach… head coach?
“Definitely! Right now I’m 100% focused on making it to the League, but like I said, that means doing whatever it takes, getting any knowledge I can. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from a lot of great people; now it’s about making the most of it.”
Barnstormers’ fans are counting on it. Their season opens March 3, on the road in Quad Cities.