The biggest playmakers in college football become household names, like Andrew Luck, of Stanford Cardinal fame.
Conor McFadden, a back-up center now in his senior year, is far from achieving Luck's level of name recognition. He's usually on the sidelines. But his team and coaches describe his role as far from second string. They say he's their behind-the-scenes "secret weapon."
“My first role on the team was Andrew Luck’s water boy,” joked McFadden. “I made sure he was well-hydrated but that even got boring after a little while.”
Tired of serving as Luck's water boy, in 2011, McFadden picked up the white board on the sidelines and started drawing up his own plan of attack, observing and memorizing opponents’ plays and responses, writing them down and feeding that information to coaches.
McFadden’s teammates believe he has eidetic memory, more popularly known as photographic memory, though he hesitates to call it the same.
“I do have a good memory, I know. Some people say it’s photographic but I would never call it that,” McFadden said. “What I think it is is the ability to focus and look at information, and because I love my teammates and I’ve got such amazing people around me.”
Head coach David Shaw calls it “a ridiculous memory.”
“It’s hard to see things on the sidelines but when your center comes back and says, ‘Hey, I know where the Mike was, the Mike was in the back A gap,’ or, ‘Oh, I saw where the Sam was, the Sam came outside, he didn’t come inside. So you’re starting to get comments from him before we even hear it from the guys up in the box.”
McFadden said the focus is typically on the opponents’ defense.
“What they’re doing over twin plays, try to figure out what is this defensive coordinator is thinking, how is he going to react and then hopefully at some point in the second or third quarter, we can be thinking two steps ahead.”
McFadden distances himself from taking any bit of credit, but his memory would have a great impact in a game the Cardinal would win against the Washington Huskies later that season. In fact, the school set a record 446 yards rushing during that game. McFadden had come to realize that the Huskies’ safeties would fall back if Luck called an audible.
“He can express very quickly, ‘Hey, this is where this guy was, where that guy was, the blitz they ran, what call did you make because you should have made this call,’” added Shaw.
It was something McFadden continued through this season, another instrumental part in the upset victory the No. 10 ranked Cardinal beat the No. 5 ranked Oregon Ducks.
“We were able to talk it over on the sidelines, say, ‘Okay, they’re doing x so let’s respond with y,’” recalled McFadden. “And it was a chess game because then sometimes they would switch, we would switch back – it was just a great football game all around.”
It’s a talent Coach Shaw describes as “rare.” McFadden credits his mom with a lot of that. She banned video games in the household when he was a kid, limiting his free time to two choices: spend it with his five younger siblings or read.
“So I read a lot as a kid. I was consuming information on a daily basis – and a lot of info,” he said.
Still, McFadden believes his great memory wouldn’t have delivered the same results had he been on any other team.
“Being able to play with 107 people who are basically my brothers at this point and going to war with them every Saturday, it’s a really special experience,” he said.
As for what’s next for the senior, his public policy major may actually come in handy. His father, Mike McFadden, is running to replace U.S. Senator Al Franken in Minnesota in 2014. Now his mental skills may come into play, away from the gridiron and to his father’s campaign.
“I’ve been helping out a lot with that and that’s been a whole new experience!”