In May of 2018 Mel Kiper ranked C.J. Conrad was the top draft eligible tight end in college football. Two years later Conrad hung up his cleats for good and returned to the University of Kentucky to pursue a career in coaching.
At some point in his coaching career, Conrad will likely tell his players, “control what you can control.” Sometimes football, and life, deals you a bad hand. In a short amount of time the beloved Wildcat received two that derailed his NFL career before it ever got started.
“I think I’m done playing football,” Conrad told a group of reporters on Zoom Wednesday afternoon.
The path that led Conrad quickly back to UK started at the 2018 NFL Combine. During the medical assessment portion of the process, doctors discovered what they believed was a dangerous heart condition and immediately sent him home to undergo further tests. In the short term, the bad news took away his potential job interview at the Combine and at UK Pro Day. In the long term, the discovery dramatically shrunk the field of potential suitors.
“I did get cleared later on but there was still about 80% of the league wasn’t comfortable with my situation. Where everybody else is dealing with 32 teams, I was dealing with only about six or seven teams that were interested in me,” he said.
Luckily, one team was willing to take a chance on C.J. Conrad. He was signed by the New York Giants as a free agent and spent most of the season on the practice squad. At the end of the year he inked a futures contract, putting him on the fast track to rejoin the team, then…
“We went through a pandemic. No one could report to the facilities. Then after the draft we (the Giants) went over our number — we’re only allowed to have 90 guys — and so they decided to part ways with me. The problem was that typically when that happens, you’re a free agent. You get a lot of opportunities to work out for other teams. Since things have happened, people aren’t allowing anyone in the building. It’s kind of tough for a guy like me to be a free agent and not have any workouts.”
It’s even more difficult for a guy who has a medical condition to crack the free agency market during a pandemic.
“It made things a lot tougher when I got released from the Giants because when you get released, then you have all 32 teams available to pick you up on waivers and I wasn’t quite dealing with all 32.”
Eventually, Conrad reached the end of his football playing path. He knew it was time to take a new one.
“I’m very content and happy with my career as a college football player and my short time in the NFL, especially with my body, going through four surgeries in college. I think I was a little checked out and ready to move on with my life. This was something I really wanted to pursue, especially at a program like the University of Kentucky where I really feel like Coach Stoops has done an amazing job. I really wanted to be a part of something special again and that’s why I’m here.”
Even though his story did not have the ending he initially expected, he is not bitter. Another great UK tight end, Jacob Tamme, once told me that “everyone gets a shot” at the NFL, no matter if they’re a first round draft pick or an undrafted free agent. Despite the unusual circumstances, Conrad still got his shot at the NFL.
“There were a lot of times when I wanted to give up on myself and just feel really sorry for myself, but at the end of the day I did get an opportunity,” said Conrad. “I’m blessed to get that opportunity because there was a second when I didn’t even think I would have a chance. Now did I get the best chance in the world? Maybe not, but I still got an opportunity and I’m extremely thankful for that.”