Somewhere in his apartment, Logan Stokes can find a pile of hockey gear: a puck, stick, helmet with a facemask, shoulder pads, shin guards and gloves.
They belong to his roommate, LSU fullback Connor Neighbors, one of the biggest Southern-born hockey fans — and former players — you’ll find.
“He loves hockey,” Stokes said.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be.
“It fits perfect for him, because he’s such an aggressive guy,” said Stokes, a senior tight end. “He loves the contact.”
When LSU (8-4) meets Notre Dame (7-5) in the Music City Bowl at 2 p.m. Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tennessee, Neighbors ends an improbable journey just 100 miles from where his contact-loving ways began: an ice rink in his hometown of Huntsville, Alabama.
How big into hockey was Neighbors? At 16, he gave serious thought to moving north and training for a possible professional career.
“We used to play before school … 5:30 in the morning,” he said. “It was a big deal.”
For more than a decade of childhood — as early as age 7 — he was a head-hunting enforcer on the ice. Sound familiar?
“I think that’s where he got all of his aggressiveness,” said Wes Neighbors, Connor’s dad. “Connor spent a lot of time in the penalty box.”
In the past two years, Neighbors has served as LSU’s bruising blocker, a guy who forcibly sweeps defenders off their feet to create gaping holes for a powerful running game.
He has developed the nickname “Bone Saw” for those cracking blocks, and teammates describe him using terms like “smash mouth.”
Neighbors evolved from a hockey player to a tackle-crazed high school linebacker, from a recruit who was too short that even Vanderbilt wouldn’t take him to a two-year starting fullback at LSU.
He’s now a Senior Bowl invitee who might get drafted this spring.
“There are a lot of teams that have him the No. 1 fullback on their board,” Wes Neighbors said. “The feedback we’re getting is anywhere from the fourth to the seventh (round).”
Neighbors is the fifth-ranked fullback in this year’s draft group, using CBSSports.com’s projections. Just three fullbacks were drafted last year.
He’ll have a chance to make a splash at the Senior Bowl, the annual all-star game held in Mobile, Alabama, reserved for college football’s best seniors.
Neighbors playing in the game is historic. He’s a third generation to play in the Senior Bowl; he joins Wes, a guard for Alabama; and his grandfather Billy, an All-America center for the Tide.
Senior Bowl officials are researching whether that has ever happened. A better question: Has a former walk-on ever been invited to the game?
Neighbors had 365 tackles in his high school career, but his stature — now 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds — hurt his college prospects. He only had scholarship offers from Western Kentucky and Arkansas State, his dad said.
Even Vanderbilt rebuffed him. Then-head coach Robbie Caldwell sent Neighbors a letter.
“He said he’s too short and bad shoulders, a bad combination,” Wes Neighbors said.
Florida State gave him a conditional scholarship: If two scholarship players didn’t show up, he could join. It didn’t happen.
Alabama invited Neighbors to its elite camp.
“Everybody there, they usually offered,” Wes Neighbors said. “They measured him, and that’s the last we really heard from them. I never heard from Coach (Nick) Saban, and neither did Connor.”
LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis pursued Neighbors, locking up a walk-on commit from him as soon as the kid walked into Tiger Stadium on his official visit.
He got goose bumps — literal ones that he showed his father.
“He said, ‘Dad, this is where I want to go,’ ” Wes said.
Years later, Connor began plowing through Southeastern Conference defenses, delivering hits that remind his father of his son’s hockey days.
Huntsville is a big hockey town. The north Alabama town is full of transplants from the midwest and northeast. Many are there working for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal.
Neighbors began playing hockey at a young age. His purpose was clear early: Take out the opponents.
Wes remembers, while sitting rinkside watching one game, having a stranger tell him about how that kid — the man said, pointing — was the most aggressive 7-year-old player he’d ever seen.
The kid was Connor.
Said Wes: “If there was a breakaway, he’d take them out.”
“He showed me some tape on him one time playing,” said Stokes, who’s from Florence, Alabama, about an hour west of Huntsville. “He’s a natural-born headhunter.”
Huntsville High had a club hockey team. The squad won the state championship one year, and Neighbors gave serious thought to moving up north with a group of hockey-playing friends that included Nic Dowd — a seventh-round pick in the 2009 NHL draft now playing in the Los Angeles Kings organization.
It has been five years since Neighbors has been on an ice rink playing the sport he loves. The fear of injury was too much. He sneaked in his last skating outing as a freshman in college, never telling his father.
Stokes has only seen Neighbors play street hockey on rollerblades. It’s more than enough, of course.
“You can tell he was a real hockey player,” he said.
You can tell by watching him, too — and that includes more than those crushing blocks. Neighbors runs — his arms flung wide and quickly pumping — like he skates.
“I run weird because I used to skate really fast,” Neighbors said with a smile. “You’ve got to throw your arms out.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.