Three months ago, C.J. Conrad did not get to participate in the NFL Draft Combine because of a heart problem discovered during a physical.
Three weeks of uncertainty followed before further examination showed it to be an enlarged pulmonary artery — an issue, but not career-threatening, as initially feared — and Conrad was given the green light to continue pursuing a pro dream.
He participated in the University of Kentucky’s Pro Day in late March and a second workout that the school held a few weeks before the draft in April, but Conrad went unselected; his agent said there was about a 50 percent chance he’d get picked, but a 100 percent chance he’d be signed as soon as the draft ended.
Spot-on: 15 minutes after the draft ended, Conrad had a free-agent agreement in place with the New York Giants, one of a handful of teams that put offers on the table as the draft’s final round wound down.
“People weren’t willing to risk a pick but were willing to give him an opportunity, and at that particular point that was all he had hope for,” Mike Conrad, C.J.’s father, told the Herald-Leader this week. “The whole situation is unfortunate but that’s in the past now. He’s 100 percent focused on doing what he needs to do. Do we wish it didn’t happen? Of course, but we all figure that’s all part of the story now.”
His story is far from being sent off to a publisher, but based on C.J.’s performance during the Giants’ June mini camp, it’s headed for a happy ending. He received first-team reps during OTAs and was raved about by multiple reporters covering the team.
“The Kentucky product is doing what every undrafted rookie wants to do this time of year — get noticed,” wrote Giants.com staffer Dan Salomone.
“If you’re looking for a classic ‘sleeper’ to win a roster spot, Conrad is it, barring injury,” wrote Inside Football’s Patricia Traina. “There’s too much not to like about this young man and what he’s brought to this team.”
That level of praise is nice, and it’s comparable to what C.J.’s hearing from the Giants, but he and his family realize there’s still a lot of work to be performed before final 53-man roster cuts are made on Aug. 31.
“He’s very happy where he’s at and he’s taken advantage of his opportunity so far. It’s all been very positive, but we also know that this is a long journey,” Mike said. “He made it through phase one of it, going up there and feeling kind of like you’re almost a walk-on all over again, needing to earn and prove yourself every day. ... I think what he feels best about right now, and the message he continues to relay back to me is, ‘Dad, I belong. I can do this.’”
“Incredible” is the word Mike used to described C.J.’s attitude while he waited to hear if he would ever be allowed to play football again back in March. “’No matter what happens, I’m a college graduate, things will work out the way they will and I’ll be successful no matter what happens,’” he would tell his parents.
“When you hear that from your kid, you take a step back and go, ‘Well, we must have done something good somewhere along the way,’” Mike said with a laugh.
UK was a source of comfort and stability during the March hysteria. C.J. was welcomed as an adviser during spring practice and the school’s medical staff helped the Conrads navigate their medical nightmare.
Mike told Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops and associate head coach Vince Marrow, UK’s tight ends coach, to give him a ring if there’s ever a parent who needs a first-hand account regarding their son’s care in the program.
“You get treated like that because you treated them the right way,” Mike said. “C.J.’s always done what he’s been told and asked to do and never has complained about anything, so when he needed them to step up for him, they did that without a doubt.”