James Conner of U of Pittsburgh

James Conner of U of Pittsburgh

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No organization has done more to promote the virtues of teamwork, help young people recognize their potential as leaders on and off the playing field, and preserve the integrity of the game of football than the Maxwell Football Club which was founded in Philadelphia and is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year.

Club president, ESPN analyst and former NFL standout Ron Jaworski, spurred the move to bring the Maxwell Football Club Annual Awards Gala from Philly to Atlantic City in 2004. Since then, the organization has broadened its profile on the national stage and heightened its ability to spotlight distinction in all facets of the game, according to MFC Executive Director Mark Wolpert.

The annual celebration includes 22 awards recognizing not only those who contribute on the field — from the grassroots level to the top professional players and coaches — but also off the gridiron through inspiration, motivation, broadcasting and humanitarian causes.

The Maxwell Awards return to Tropicana Atlantic City on Friday, March 10, in a three-part gala that starts 5 p.m. with a cocktail reception in the Grand Event Center. It is followed by a gourmet dinner prepared by the Trop’s top chefs at 6:30 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom, and culminates 8 p.m. with the National Awards Show in the Tropicana Showroom.

The evening’s premier prize is the Maxwell Award for the College Player of the Year. The 80th annual award will go to University of Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, an electrifying player who shattered many school and Atlantic Coast Conference records, including a game in which he combined for 610 total yards, and two others in which he passed for more than 400 yards for the 9-3 Cardinals.

Jackson beat out strong contenders such as Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Clemson’s Deshawn Watson for the Maxwell Award. Watson caught fire in the postseason, helping Clemson steamroll former College Football Playoff (CFP) champion Ohio State 31-0, before leading the Tigers to an epic 35-31 win over Alabama in the CFP championship. The latter snapped the Tide’s 26-game win streak and avenged their equally close loss to Alabama the year before in the CFP title game.

But Jackson clearly had the better numbers throughout the season, and will claim the first Maxwell Award in Louisville school history on Friday.

“Jackson’s definitely a talented kid,” Wolpert says. “Watson had amazing post season, and if he’d had a little bit better regular season, he might have been the man.”

Watson also finished second to Jackson in the Heisman Trophy balloting in December, which marked the first time a Louisville player ever won that award.

Alabama senior defensive lineman Jonathan Allen will be presented with the 22nd Chuck Bednarik Award for the Collegiate Defensive Player of the Year at this year’s Maxwells. Allen recorded 56 tackles and returned two fumble recoveries for touchdowns. He ranks second on Alabama’s career sacks list with 26.5, and fifth with 43 tackles for a loss.

The Tide will also take the top prize among college coaches — the George Munger Collegiate Coach of the Year Award — which will be presented to Alabama head coach Nick Saban. The Tide was 14-0 before Clemson dethroned them and ended their streak, thus denying Saban a sixth national championship that would have tied the record set by another legendary Alabama coach, Bear Bryant. It was nonetheless another sensational season for Saban, who holds the distinction of having won national championships with two different major college programs, having also guided Louisiana State University to the national title in 2003.

“To go wire-to-wire as the No. 1 ranked team in the country is almost impossible, and has been done only three times in the history of college football,” says Wolpert, whose son Ryan is a freshman at Alabama and a student member of football operations. “It was just an amazing accomplishment.”

Penn State earned two Maxwell Awards, which are determined by votes cast by Maxwell Club members, coaches and the media. Nittany Lions’ quarterback Trace McSorley was chosen as the club’s 16th annual Brian Westbrook Tri-State Player of the Year award winner, and Penn State head coach James Franklin won Tri-State Coach of the Year honors for guiding the Lions to an 11-3 record. Penn State’s season ended in what many would concur was the most thrilling Rose Bowl game in history, a 52-49 loss to the University of Southern California.

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Trace McSorley of Penn State

Trace McSorley of Penn State will be honored as the Brian Westbrook Tri-State Player of the Year.

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“The effort and determination by Penn State were key components in its run to the Big Ten championship,” Wolpert says. “That all starts at the top with Coach Franklin. He made believers out of everyone.”

Conner conquers tougher foe

University of Pittsburgh running back James Conner has all the tools to make it as a professional football player, and as of press time was showing scouts his skills at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.

But while his gridiron skills alone would have made him a strong consideration for any number of awards bestowed by the Maxwell Club’s annual awards gala, it was his courage in fighting and defeating Hodgkin’s lymphoma that earned him the Thomas Brookshier Spirit Award for leadership, dedication and inspiration. Conner will receive the award Friday at the 80th annual Maxwell Club Awards gala at the Tropicana.

Conner was the ACC Player of the Year for Pitt in 2014, but was diagnosed with the potentially fatal disease at the end of 2014. He wound up sitting out the 2015 college football season as he underwent treatment, enduring 12 rounds of chemotherapy before being deemed cancer-free in May 2016. Conner returned to the gridiron last fall and rushed for two touchdowns in his first game back, a Pittsburgh win over Villanova.

The 6-foot-2, 235-pound junior would finish the 2016 season with 1,060 rushing yards and 16 TDs to earn All-ACC honors. He declared himself eligible for the NFL draft at the end of this season — one in which Pitt’s 8-4 record included handing eventual national champion Clemson its only loss all year, 43-42.

“He’s got the makings of an NFL player, no question about it,” said Maxwell Football Club Executive Director Mark Wolpert. “But more than that, he’s just a really good kid. He’s got it all together.”

Other Maxwell Football Club award winners include Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons — who played high school football at Philadelphia’s Penn Charter — for the 58th Bert Bell Professional Player of the Year Award; the Oakland Raiders’ head coach Jack Del Rio for the 28th Greasy Neale Professional Coach of the Year Award; former NFL great Roger Staubach for the 14th annual Tropicana Legends Award; and former NFL player and former South Carolina, Florida and Duke head coach Steve Spurrier for the Francis Reds Bagnell Award for contributions to football.

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