October 24, 2012
Connor Dietz spent his childhood in Columbus, Ohio, under the watchful eyes of his parents and coaches.
He was taught so many important lessons. Never whine. Embrace your faith. Teammates should be respected and loved as family. Wishing doesn’t lead to success; working relentlessly does.
The next lesson is not at the top of Connor’s list, but it’s close.
“Losing,” Air Force’s starting quarterback said, “is unacceptable.”
He was standing this week at Air Force’s practice field. The sun had just set, and a chill was in the air. A few minutes earlier, Dietz had been shaking hands with teammates, delivering high-volume encouragement, celebrating Saturday’s win over New Mexico, laughing all the way.
Now, he was serious.
“If you develop the mindset that losing is OK, then how are you ever going to compete and grow?” he asked.
This immense hatred of losing fuels him, and explains him. Air Force’s football team has delivered an entertaining season, partially because the Falcons are so unpredictable.
But the man running the offense has been steady. Dietz has not thrown an interception or been sacked. He’s known for his running, but he’s completed 61 percent of his passes. He operates an option attack that averages 352 rushing yards, second best in the nation.
Air Force has four wins, including two consecutive come-from-behind campaigns, largely because Dietz refuses to succumb.
Losing, remember, is unacceptable.
Of course, there’s a flip side. Yes, this hatred of losing often lifts Dietz, but it also sends him tumbling to the depths.
It’s a challenge to explain how important the Michigan game was for Dietz. He was back in the Midwest, playing in The Big House, surrounded by a throng of family and friends.
The Falcons, severe underdogs, powered to 417 yards of offense. They could have won the game. Maybe they should have won the game.
Dietz returned to the academy late Saturday after the 31-25 defeat. Weary after the rigors of the game and long flight, he retreated to his bed.
He couldn’t banish images of the game. He thought about the Falcons' final two drives, when they had a chance to take the lead. He thought about his nine incompletions. He thought about the major upset that barely eluded him.
He climbed out of bed to spend the rest of the night staring at ESPN highlights. He did not sleep one minute.
“It ate at me,” Dietz said. “I played that game over and over again.”
For Dietz, football is an ultra-serious pursuit. This approach is partially the result of Dietz growing up in Ohio, which ranks along with Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas as our union’s most football-obsessed states.
But the state’s fervor for the game is kicked up a notch at Columbus Hilliard Davidson High School. While at Davidson, Dietz played for coach Brian White, who takes a clinical, mathematical approach to the game.
White, still coaching at Davidson, believes in going for it on fourth down. He believes in the benefits of running the ball to drain the clock and exhaust the opponent.
He does not believe in passing. Davidson takes football back to its roots, to the olden days when passes did not fill the air. This season, Davidson ran 135 plays over two games, both wins, without a single pass.
“Well, we called one pass play, but the quarterback pulled it down and ran with it,” White said.
White arrived at Davidson with this unlikely vision. He wanted to win an Ohio state title.
Davidson came close when Dietz was a sophomore. He threw a pass to the end zone on the final play of the state semis, and his receiver and a defender both grabbed the ball. The defender came down with the ball, and Dietz trudged away in defeat.
For a few weeks, Dietz kept a newspaper clipping of the loss in his shoe before moving the tattered sports page to his locker. He looked at the headline every day, promising himself Davidson would rule the state.
He kept the promise. Davidson finished 15-0 while employing the same primal, run-first, run-second attack employed by Air Force. This title remains Dietz’s finest hour. His face lights up every time he returns to the days when he wore his state’s crown after muscling through an entire season without a loss.
Alas, winning every week is not how life always works. Dietz settled for a 7-3 record the next season at Davidson. He watched from the bench three seasons while Tim Jefferson ran the Air Force option.
And he’s been forced to endure defeat, including three this season.
The anguish following the loss to Navy Oct. 6 might have topped the loss at Michigan. Air Force led in the fourth quarter before collapsing and allowing Navy to survive into overtime. Dietz had the ball, and the game, in his hands on the final play. His pass was batted down.
He stood on the field in a stupor, staring straight ahead in disbelief. He did not move until academy superintendent Mike Gould offered a hug and encouragement.
But, maybe, this player who so despises losing can find a happy ending, even while wading through losses.
The week after the loss to Navy, the Falcons traveled to Wyoming. It was an ugly night in Laramie, with rain falling during the game and an obscene outburst by Cowboys coach Dave Christensen at the conclusion.
The Falcons fell behind by two touchdowns, but Dietz refused to surrender. He, as usual, roamed the sideline, commanding his teammates to believe in a dramatic comeback.
He made his words come true. He threw two touchdowns. He led the team in rushing with 92 yards. He willed Air Force into the lead.
On the game’s final drive, the Falcons faced a third and 10, needing a final first down to clinch the victory. Dietz threw a fastball to Ty MacArthur, who rose in a crowd, seized the pass and returned to earth with the win.
Dietz’s parents, Jim and Joyce, travel from Columbus to every game. The soaked couple rose, shouted with joy and slapped hands with Matt MacArthur, Ty’s father.
Minutes later, the quarterback who hates to lose walked off the field as victor.