by Scott Kindberg
April 23, 1987
Part 1 of 3
Conlan's Success In Sports Was No Surprise
In Sharp's eyes, there was never any question.
"It doesn't surprise me," the Frewsburg Central football coach said of his former player.
"To me, he had everything you needed and he had the mental attitude. If he makes up his mind he wants to do something, you're not going to stop him."
Take for instance the Randolph game his senior year.
"He got tackled and was hit on the face mask. His face mask came up and hit his tooth," said Jon Treadway, Conlan's former teammate and best friend.
The incident left Conlan with a badly chipped front tooth (for which he now wears an upper plate), a painful injury that might have kept lesser players on the bench.
"Steve (Cass, a friend) and I were on the sidelines watching," said Kevin Conlan, Shane's older brother by one year. "And Shane came over and he turns around and says, 'How's it look?' We just started laughing."
Shane didn't think it was quite so funny, according to Treadway.
"He said, 'I don't really care if we win this game or not, somebody's going to pay.'" Treadway said.
Conlan has been collecting on that debt ever since.
Dan and Kay Conlan's son may finally be paid in full Tuesday when he is expected to be taken early in the first round of the National Football League draft.
Growing up in the Conlan house meant playing whatever sport was in season, many times at the expense of garage-door windows and Mrs. Conlan's flowers in the side yard.
With Kevin (24), Shane (23) and Mike (18) - a red-shirt freshman football player at Rutgers - the sports wars were frequent. The Conlan's oldest child is daughter Kelly (26).
"When they were little, I thought they hated each other," Mrs. Conlan said. "The fights..."
Steve Vanstrom, Frewsburg's junior high football coach and varsity assistant, termed the sibling rivalry "intense."
"If one would beat the other it usually ended up in a fight," he said. "I'd usually have to break it up."
The fun and games continued through junior high school, a time when Shane began to grow, sprouting past Kevin.
It was then that family and friends began to wonder how far Shane could go in the athletic world.
"It seemed like we were always the same height and speed and then in junior high school he shot up and got fast," said Kevin. "Real fast."
Kevin's scholastic career was cut short when he suffered a severe knee injury his freshman year. After a grueling rehabilitation, Kevin returned to punt his sophomore season and eventually was the punter at Edinboro University where he still holds the school record for the longest punt - an 82-yarder.
"Everybody thought Kevin would be really good," Treadway said. "They never said that much about Shane. He was good, too, but they always thought Kevin would do a lot better."
Shane was a three-sport star, earning letters in football, baseball and basketball, beginning in his freshman year.
"There's not a person who could do so many different things well in different sports," Frewsburg basketball coach Mike Mangano said. "I saw him go on a diving board. He was like a gazelle. Boom, boom, boom, flying through the air. He had no fear."
But it was in baseball - Conlan's first love - that he began to draw the most attention.
"It was always baseball," Mrs. Conlan said. "When he was a little kid he used to tell me he'd be a professional baseball player."
"He was the most outstanding athlete I ever saw," said Bill Cass, Conlan's Babe Ruth League coach for six years.
Cass remembered one game at Falconer when he batted Conlan - usually a third or fourth-place hitter - in the leadoff spot.
"I knew it was going to be a close game, so I had Shane bat leadoff," he said. "He got on in the first inning, stole second and stole third. We bunted him home and we won the game 1-0."
"I'm convinced he would have made the major leagues."
And it might have happened.
After a one-day tryout at Three Rivers Stadium in June of 1982, the Pittsburgh Pirates had Conlan, a catcher, labeled a "pure major-league prospect," according to former Frewsburg baseball coach Bill Hair.
"They had him at the top of the heap in the rating," Hair said. "They offered him between $20,000-$30,000 to sign at that point and that's a lot of money to dangle in front of a high school senior. But they said, 'You have to tell us you're not going to play football and we'll sign you tomorrow.'"
Ultimately, however, Conlan decided to take the scholarship at Penn State, at the very least to get his education. The decision wasn't easy.
"He was really torn," Mrs. Conlan said. "He loved baseball. I can remember that one baseball scout called me that night and wanted to know his decision. I said, "I feel so sorry for my poor kid. He's got such a big decision - take the big football scholarship or take the baseball offer."
"The scout said, 'Poor kid? Do you know how many kids in this world would like to have a problem like that?'"
It's a decision Shane has never regretted.
"He knows there are people riding the same bus in baseball's Double A," Dan Conlan said. "As far as playing professional sports, he made the right decision."
"The only time we talked very long about it, I told him I wanted him and his parents to make the decision, but I thought baseball would be a much more competitive situation than football," said Sharp, who knows first-hand, having earned a tryout with the Los Angeles Dodgers' organization after graduating high school. "I knew he could play football at the Division I level. I just had to convince him that he could play."
Ironically, it was on the basketball court, where he averaged about 20 points per game his senior year, that Conlan made a believer out of Penn State.
Despite rushing for more than 1,000 yards his senior year and being named Western New York Player of the Year by two Buffalo newspapers, Conlan wasn't heavily recruited. Penn State and Syracuse expressed the most interest. Ohio State also put out feelers.
But it wasn't until Tom Bradley, a Nittany Lions assistant coach, drove through a snowstorm to attend a Frewsburg basketball game that he was convinced Conlan could play for Penn State.
"He came out and he was slam-dunking, dribbling between his legs and behind his back," Bradley recalled.
"He didn't shoot very well, but he was up around the rim," Mangano remembered. "Bradley could tell right away. He said, 'Geez there'd be 40 guys standing in front of me if it were down near Pittsburgh and anybody knew about this kid.'"
Noted Bradley, "If Tommy Sharp doesn't make the call, we never make the trip up there."
Conlan visited the State College, PA campus the following weekend and made his decision the next week.
"I think if every school in the country had recruited him, I think he still would have gone to Penn State," Mrs. Conlan said. "He always liked Penn State's defense."
So the decision was made, the letter-of-intent was signed and he was all but sealed and delivered to Happy Valley.
The easy-going, humble kid that everyone came to love when he was off the field was going to take his punishing, take no prisoners style to Joe Paterno's linebacker factory.
"I think what stands out more than anything to me is how mean he can play and how nice he can be in a non-athletic situation," Hair said. "It didn't matter what sport you were involved in. He just played tough. I use the word 'mean' in an athletic sense, which you love in a player. Then as soon as the gun sounded or the game was over, it was all humbleness again."
Jon Burch, a teammate of Conlan's in three sports, remembers him this way: "I never felt like, 'I wish this kid wasn't on my team.' He's not a glory seeker or a ball hog. He's still a friend."
Conlan was also a friend to the special education students at the school.
"Shane worked every day one period a day with the handicapped kids from the high school," said Bob Goold, a teacher in the Alternative Learning class at FCS. "This big superstar came in and was just like one of the kids. The kids related to him like a regular guy. The neat thing is he got them interested in athletics and many of them went out for the football team as a result."