No matter the opponent or kickoff time, they would all make the drive west from Lehman, Pa., to Penn State’s Beaver Stadium. Route 118 to Interstates 180 and 80 and 99 – a two-hour trip, give or take a few minutes, every game during Connor McGovern’s three-year college career.
“That was the routine,” said Connor’s father, Jim. “This is a crazy, small-town football area. People would have their RVs and take it to the road.”
The supporters had a name for their parking area at Penn State: McGovernville.
Five years later, McGovernville has a new home – the Buffalo Bills’ stadium in Orchard Park – after Connor signed a three-year contract last week to start at left guard.
Get used to seeing more vehicles with Pennsylvania tags around the lots on game day. The weekends of dashing to Philadelphia for a flight to Dallas are over. McGovern has spent the last three years with the Cowboys.
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“Prepare for a lot of McGovern people here,” Connor said.
“It’s amazing,” Jim said in a phone interview. “It’s not just our family and community that supports Connor, but all of eastern Pennsylvania.”
All of the people at Bills’ headquarters are counting on McGovern, their only expected starter acquired in free agency last week, to be a plug-and-perform player between left tackle Dion Dawkins and center Mitch Morse. They believe McGovern, who won’t turn 25 until November, is the ideal kind of free-agent addition – starting his second contract (so young enough to play the length of the deal) and with his best form in front of him.
McGovern was a four-star high school recruit, but a late riser. He was a three-year starter at Penn State, but wasn’t drafted until the third round. And he left Dallas as a starter, but not until his fourth year. Impressed by his 15-game body of work last year, the Bills prioritized McGovern when the negotiating window opened on March 13 to replace veteran Rodger Saffold.
Team McGovern expects him to pay back that confidence.
“Just to be pursued by the Bills and joining a contending team, he’ll go through a wall for the Bills,” said Jerry Gilsky, McGovern’s coach at Lake-Lehman High School. “He’s really earned this.”
Highlight tape produced offers
As the story is told, Lake-Lehman was late in a game against Hanover Area, faced a fourth down deep in their territory. Gilsky opted to go for it instead of punting and quarterback Josh Sayre followed his center, McGovern, to gain first-down yardage and close out the game.
Please tell us this story is true, Mr. McGovern, who was an assistant on Gilsky’s staff.
“It was fourth-and-5 from our own 12 and it was a one-score game,” Jim said with a laugh. “We didn’t want them to give the ball back to them and we ran a quarterback sneak for eight yards. We were a ‘Wing-T’ football team and that’s how we did things – we didn’t like to punt and every game, we passed less than five times and we won many games without completing a pass.”
“I was like, ‘We have a Division I kid that will get us the first down,” he said. “I took a gamble.”
Early in McGovern’s high school career – he was a four-year starter at center – the gamble would have been a surprise because of his smaller stature.
McGovern played as a freshman at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. He was between 5-10 and 5-11 by the end of the season. He was 6-2 as a sophomore. He was 6-4 as a junior. And he was a shade less than 6-5 as a senior.
The early target for McGovern and his family was to be good enough athletically and academically to play in the Ivy or Patriot leagues.
One video link changed the plans.
Toward the end of McGovern’s junior season, he and his family put together a highlight tape and emailed it to several college programs.
“Just to test the waters a little bit,” said Jim, who played football at Colgate and is the superintendent of the Lake-Lehman School District. “We truly didn’t know (if schools would be interested) because in this area, there hadn’t been a kid like Connor in a long time as a lineman.”
Two hours after sending the video, McGovern received a scholarship offer from North Carolina. Coaches from North Carolina and Penn State landed their helicopters next to the Lake-Lehman field to visit him. The target switched from FCS to Power 5.
“All of a sudden, we’re hearing from 10-15 schools in a flurry,” said Gilsky, whose high school football coach was Jim McGovern. “It was amazing how quickly it happened.”
Connor chose the home-state Nittany Lions and enrolled in January 2016 after graduating from high school a semester early.
Versatile college player
Around the time McGovern signed with Penn State, the Nittany Lions hired a new offensive coordinator (Joe Moorhead, who was the coach at Fordham) and offensive line coach (Matt Limegrover, who was the offensive coordinator at Minnesota). They weren’t involved in McGovern’s recruitment, but quickly determined he would have a chance to play as a true freshman in 2016. It was just a matter of where.
McGovern was a center by trade, but Penn State had fifth-year senior Brian Gaia. That meant seeing rotational time at right guard before starting for the first time in Game 5 against Minnesota. It was the start of a nine-game winning streak.
“It was a great testament to him (to play as a true freshman),” said Limegrover, now the co-offensive coordinator and line coach at Kent State. “He was such a willing pupil – the kid was just a sponge. He was the rare exception of a kid, who at 18-22 years old, who had the ability to lock in and learn and then take it from the classroom to the field. It was really impressive and that allowed him to survive that first year.”
Said Moorhead, now the coach at Akron: “His physical skills were always undeniable – big, strong, athletic – and he had a great football IQ, but I think the thing that was surprising was his calm demeanor as a young player being able to play in a very difficult conference and still be very poised.”
McGovern moved back to center in 2017 because Moorhead and Limegrover liked the depth at guard, but felt they didn’t have an answer to play center. He started all 13 games.
The Fiesta Bowl matchup against Washington and future first-round nose tackle Vita Vea, was a shining moment for McGovern. He sustained a knee injury in the second half of the regular season finale against Maryland and underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage damage. McGovern had three weeks to rehabilitate the injury and add some extra pounds to go against Vea.
In a 35-28 win, Penn State rushed for 203 yards (Saquon Barkley had 137 yards and two touchdowns). Via had six tackles, but none for lost yardage and no sacks.
“That was the point where I said, ‘This kid has a chance (at the NFL),’” Limegrover said.
But at what position? McGovern moved back to right guard in 2017 and started all 13 games (including one at center).
Agents started calling the McGovern family asking about Connor’s plan after the ’17 season. Around the same time, he would still occasionally ask Limegrover, “You really think I could play in the NFL? You think that’s something that is a viable option?”
Yes it was.
McGovern declared for the draft (he is five classes short of his degree) and was drafted by Dallas.
Best still ahead
McGovern’s NFL career was slow to get out of the blocks. He missed his entire rookie year (2019) because of a torn pectoral. His rehabilitation and learning was derailed by the coronavirus in 2020 that eliminated the offseason program and the preseason games. And throw in a coaching change from Jason Garrett to Mike McCarthy. McGovern started the final seven games of ’20 at right guard in place of an injured Zack Martin and four of his starts in ’21 were at left guard, the first time he had played that position.
“It was difficult for many reasons,” Jim McGovern said.
After the ’21 season, Jim said Connor did a “solid self-analysis and we tried to fill in the gaps (of his game) if he was going to continue to play left guard and it worked out really well.”
Connor won the left guard spot out of camp, but sustained a high ankle sprain only seven snaps into the opening game and missed two full games. But he ended up starting 17 regular season/playoff games and was called for only one penalty.
“Week after week, playing there consistently, I felt very comfortable,” McGovern said.
The Cowboys drafted Tyler Smith in last year’s first round and he is expected to play left guard because Tyron Smith is back at left tackle. The Bills didn’t waste any time swooping in last week.
The folks in Lehman started chatting about the Bills, Gilsky’s 7-year old son switched his Madden team from the Cowboys to the Bills and the Bills welcomed Connor to the facility on Thursday.
“Just a steady player,” General Manager Brandon Beane said. “He’s very smart, aware, understands the game and angles and I think he has a grittiness and a toughness. I think his best football is still ahead of him.”