From extra credit to Jets beat reporter: How Connor Hughes made a career in sports journalism

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Extra credit.

It’s there to help students get a grade bumped up from a B+ to an A. For others, it gives them a chance to try and stay afloat, just barely pass the class and get the hell out.

For Connor Hughes, it turned out to be a game changer.

When he started college at Burlington County College as a communications major, it was a history class’ extra credit assignment that altered his career aspirations of wanting to be a sports play-by-play analyst.

“When I was there, I had a history professor that had divided us up that day into study groups based on our major,” Hughes said. “And, being a guy that wanted to do play-by-play, I was a communications major. He then went around the class and asked every one of us what we wanted to do. This is like the first, second day of class. So I told him, I was like ‘Yeah, man. I want to be a play-by-play guy,’ and he was like ‘Oh, you want to be a play-by-play guy? You better learn to write.’ I was like ‘What do you mean?’ and he said that there has never been a great broadcaster that doesn’t in some way, shape or form tied to writing or doesn’t have some experience in journalism.'”

Hughes was then given some an extra credit assignment that called for him to find a broadcaster that didn’t partake in both aspects of communications.

“He challenged me actually that day and was like ‘If you can find someone that has done it differently, I’ll give you 10 points extra credit,'” Hughes said. “So, I went home trying to find someone and I couldn’t. The next day, I signed up for an intro to journalism class and started writing for the radio station I happened to be working for at the time and I just fell in love with it. One thing kind of turned to another and doors started opening in the journalism field and now I’m kinda here.”

He never got the 10 points of extra credit.

Growing up in Tabernacle, NJ, Hughes had aspired to be in the sports field from a young age. Living in a household filled with New York Giants fans, the world of football has been instilled in his blood for what seems to be forever. Even his family seemed to take a twist on the common phrase of “go hard or go home” and make it “go hard AT home.”

“I remember when I was a kid we used to do these things called ‘Football Sundays,'” Hughes said. “My mom and dad had Direct TV so they’d get the NFL Sunday Ticket and we would have Football Sundays. My sisters would invite their friends over, I would invite my friends over and we might have like 20-something kids in the house. We would do wings and pizza, and my friends would bring chips and we’d have a massive party on Sundays. We’d start at like 12 o’clock and we’d watch the pregame show and then the 1 o’clock games, the 4 o’clock games and the night games and everyone would go home. I’m telling you, man, it was Football Sundays. We probably started it maybe when I was in eighth grade and we carried it all the way through my two years at Burlington County College.”

As sports influences flooded the halls of his house, going to school to pursue a career in communications was certainly not passed on by his parents.

“As far as journalism [influences], there wasn’t too much of that,” Hughes said. “My dad’s in sales, my mom is a special education teacher with a specialization in autism. So, there wasn’t any journalist in the family or anything like that.”

And, unfortunately for Hughes, his days as a high school athlete weren’t promising any NFL contracts in the future, so the love for the sport had to be tackled some other way.

“It was just something that I found as a way to, you know, once I realized I wasn’t going to go into the NFL,” Hughes said. “It was a way to kind of stick with the sport.”

So he started right off the bat in college, working at that radio station while at Burlington County College. As time went by, more doors of opportunity cracked open for Hughes, allowing him to eventually build up a solid resume to dig deeper into the career he wanted.

“My actual career was kind of funky because I started super early,” Hughes said. “When I was at Burlington County College, my second year we had a radio station and I worked at the radio station there as their student worker. So, it was like a 20-hour job, nine dollars an hour, something like that. When I was doing that, though, is around the same time I had that history professor suggested to me. When I was working there I had reached out to a couple of high school papers and said ‘Hey, my name is Connor, I don’t have much experience writing. All I’ve been doing has been writing for my college radio station’s website,’ because I was doing play-by-play there so I’d do play-by-play of a local high school game; and then I would write a little something up and put it on the radio station’s website. So, I reached out to a couple of newspapers and was like ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing. I’m already in intro to journalism, I’m pretty interested in this field. I was wondering if I could do an internship with you on the writing-side and try to get some experience there.'”

This is when Hughes caught his first break as a journalist.

“Wayne Richardson, who was the editor at the Burlington County Times, reached back out to me and said ‘Connor, I won’t give you an internship but I’ll bring you on as a freelancer,'” Hughes said. “What that meant was like ‘Go cover the local high school game and I’ll give you 50 bucks.’ So, I would do radio station stuff and then on Friday’s and Saturday’s I would cover high school football. I started doing that for a couple of months then he was like ‘You know what, I kind of like what you’re doing, why don’t you try writing some features?’ He’d give me 50 dollars for games and 75 to 100 for a feature on a kid.”

Equipped with some professional clips and pretty good professional connections, Hughes took his talents (circa 2010 LeBron James… kinda), to Monmouth University.

“I felt like I had decent enough connections, not perfect, but I thought I had networked pretty well in Philadelphia, but living in this area, New York is kind of around the corner as well,” Hughes said. “So, my thought process was I would go to Monmouth, do the same kind of things that I’m doing now and then I’ll be able to have, when time comes for a job, I would be able to have networks in Philadelphia and networks in New York. Then I can just find whatever job opens. If a job opens in Philly, I’ll go to Philly. If a job opens in New York, I’ll go to New York, it doesn’t really matter to me.”

From here, it was almost a case of muscle memory. Just like he had done to get the gig at the Burlington County Times, Hughes started writing to media outlets near him, hoping to get his foot in the door.

“I reached out to all these different newspapers just in the Monmouth area and was like ‘Hey my name is Connor I have all this experience writing for the Burlington County Times. Can I do anything for you guys, something similar?'” Hughes said. “And the Star Ledger actually got back to me through a mutual connection and were like ‘Hey, we’re actually looking for a high school staff writer part-time if you’re interested in it,’ and I was like ‘Hell yeah, I’m interested in it.’

But just like sports, school has an off-season as well. Come summer time, the high school beat was on a break, so Hughes turned to trying to go pro. Not on the physical field where he flourished in high school, but in the media.

“The crazy thing about it was that was my first year at Monmouth,” Hughes said. “My second year at Monmouth, in-between the summer of my first year and second year, the thing about that high school job was that we didn’t work in the summer because there were no high school sports. So, I was like I’m off for the summer, I have no school, I have no class, no job. Why don’t I use this as an opportunity to write about some pro stuff? I emailed like five or six local, basically like the fan websites like SB Nation and was like ‘Hey guys look, I’m still in college but there’s training camps starting up around here. Is there any chance I can write the Giants?’ And the goal was that I was going to stay with the Giants and if the Giants didn’t work; I was going to go to the Jets because those were closer to college. And if that didn’t work, I was going to go to Philly because that was closer to home.”

And just like many try to at an Atlantic City slot machine, Hughes hit the jackpot.

“Out of luck, all five reached back out to me with different offers like ‘Hey, yeah we’ll do this, we’ll do that,’ and the two that I ended up writing with were Big Blue Interactive, which is still around and SB Nation’s Giants site, Big Blue Review,” Hughes said. “The reason I decided to write for those guys is because they said that they would credential me. So I was like ‘Yeah, let’s go.’

With a Giants beat locked into place, Hughes then used LinkedIn to his advantage, sending 15 messages to editors around the world once a week simply asking for feedback on his work and tips on how to better his craft. His messages paid off when Jordan Raanan, then-Giants reporter at NJ.com, buzzed him back almost immediately.

“One of the people I sent it [a message] to, when I found out I was going to be writing some stuff about the Giants, was this guy Jordan Raanan who covered the Giants at the time for NJ.com,” Hughes said. “He immediately, I’m talking two minutes later, messaged back to me and says ‘Yo, here’s my email address, here’s my number. Give me a call.’ I introduced myself, and we talked on the phone for a bit and he was like ‘Yeah, look if you need anything just let me know.’ Next day, I was at the Giants’ event, whatever they were doing, and I met Jordan… no kidding, dude, that guy has been one of my biggest mentors since. Like, I still go and ask for him for help on television, I ask for help on everything. The guy was huge, and when I got my first pro full-time gig, Jordan was the one that went up to bat for me for my boss and was like ‘You need to hire Connor, you need to hire Connor.'”

The dominoes began to fall and the puzzle began to fill now that Hughes had not only picked up beats writing for Big Blue Interactive and Big Blue Review, but had also added a serious journalistic relationship to his resume with Raanan. And, while writing for the Giants, Hughes met a woman that was also working for the team who gave him a tip on a freelance position at the Journal Inquirer for one story a week on the Jets; all during his junior year at Monmouth.

He then took that position and worked there for about two months before About.com rang the doorbell looking for a blogger. The work for About.com and the Journal Inquirer then paved the path for Hughes to eventually work at the Star Ledger which finally brought him to where he is now, covering the Jets for The Athletic.

As much as it seems like this was a delightful process written in words for Hughes, it really wasn’t and isn’t anything like that. These opportunities weren’t handed to him or guaranteed in any way; something he says was a real challenge for him and is for those going to school to be journalists. It’s a career path that doesn’t always have a light shone at the end of its tunnel.

“I think it’s more just staying focused in the beginning portions of it all because in this field it can be upsetting and demoralizing at times because you’re waiting for a job,” Hughes said. “For me, when you’re going though college, working for these random places, this blog here, this blog there, there is no guarantee, you know what I mean? For example, if you’re going to school to be a teacher, you know that when you graduate you’re going to apply to three, four, five places and eventually you’re going to get hired with your teaching degree. If you’re going to school to be an architect, you’re eventually going to be picked up. You’re going to law school, you’ll eventually latch on with a firm. Like, it’s going to happen… in journalism, it’s a little bit different. I have my degree sitting in front of me on my desk. Just because I have that does not mean I’m getting hired. It does not promise you anything. It’s almost like it’s something you have to do to get hired, but then it’s like this whole other realm. So, when I was writing and doing this and doing that and busting my ass, and probably working a full time job for a below part time salary in college just hoping to yourself saying that ‘It’s all going to pay off someday, it’s all going to pay off someday,’ you’re going to have moments like ‘Yeah, but there’s no guarantee.'”

Hughes has proven not only to himself, but to me and all of his readers that the hustle is more than worth it. I mean, what sports journalist doesn’t want to take a step back and say that you get to cover sports for a living?

“You’re basically paid a full-time salary to write, talk and watch football, or baseball or basketball, whatever your kind of niche is,” Hughes said. “I remember thinking as a kid like, wow, that’s actually a job… and now that I have it, it’s still a pinch yourself thing. It’s still a job, though. There are things you hate, things you get annoyed about, things you’re angry about. But, to sit back and think about what I do for a living, it is like ‘Holy crap,’ you know what I mean? If you told eight year-old Connor or 10 year-old Connor this is what you’d be doing for a living, he’d be like ‘Holy crap I can’t believe that’s true.'”

As a student journalist who is in some way trying to follow in Hughes’ footsteps, a real issue that will arise will be that anxiety filled with the question of “will I make it?” This is something that, after speaking to Hughes, I will now forever welcome.

“The hardest part is just getting over that fear and continually busting your ass, and just waiting and waiting and waiting knowing that, you know what? The break is going to come and when the break comes, I’m going to be ready for it,” Hughes said.

For comments/questions about this story, email sports@thewhitonline.com or tweet @TheWhitOnline.

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