The Post-Journal

Things Started Slowly For Conlan At Penn State

Penn State assistant coach Tom Bradley knew the Nittany Lions were getting something special when Shane Conlan knocked Mike McCloskey, then a senior tight end, on his back on the first day in pads in the Frewsburg native's freshman year.

"It didn't take long," Bradley said.

And that was only the beginning.

In a career that may surpass that of any other linebacker in the school's storied history, Conlan left his mark both on and off the field.

From the freshman who was disappointed when he was red-shirted to the fifth year senior, who was a Fiesta Bowl hero in one of the biggest college football games this country has ever seen, Conlan hasn't changed.

"You can't find a negative," Bradley said. "The kid has not changed. Nothing has gone to his head. He's shy and bashful around people, but the kids love him."

As a linebacker, his former coach loves him, too.

"I don't know if we've ever asked a linebacker to do as much as we've asked Shane to do," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said last fall on ESPN. "Conlan is a very, very aggressive, mean, tough football player who has been asked to do more - maybe Jack Ham and Dennis Onkotz could have done as much - but we've never had a linebacker do as many things as well as Conlan does here."

But things started slowly, or at least not as fast as Conlan would have liked, as he red-shirted his freshman year, forced to watch while the Nittany Lions captured the 1982 national championship.

"He's never sat on the bench in anything, ever," Kay Conlan, Shane's mother said.

Added older brother, Kevin, "He'd say 'I know I could start. These guys are big but they fall so easy.'"

Rather than wallow in self-pity, Conlan took his frustrations out on the practice field as a member of the "scout" team.

"He was Sugar Ray Conlan," Bradley remembered. "Marvin Hagler over there. It was intense. He was up there trying to kill people, trying to impress the coaches."

"Curt Warner and those guys. They dreaded him over on the scout team."

The decision to red-shirt Conlan was not based on lack of ability, Bradley said, but because there were enough players at outside linebacker.

"We didn't want to waste him," Bradley said.

The decision proved to turn out for the best for Conlan as he recorded a strong second-half of the season in 1983, while alternating at outside linebacker with Rogers Alexander. Conlan finished the season with 27 tackles, two sacks, an interception and a tackle for a loss. He also started in the Aloha Bowl the following January.

"I remember the very first game I saw," Kevin Conlan recalled. "My roommates and I went to the Pitt game at Pitt. Shane was just starting to play toward the end of the season and he was always on kickoffs. My friends and I were the only ones yelling for Shane. I remember a couple turning around and saying, 'Are you Shane's brother?' I said, 'Yea.' And they said, 'We just come to watch him on the kickoffs.'"

Conlan left his mark the following year too as he began to show the big-play capability that is so much a part of his game.

Not only did he lead the team in tackles (77) in 1984, but he also had a team-high 15 tackles for losses.

The All-American whispers quickly followed and Conlan didn't disappoint in 1985, recording four 10-tackle games en route to a season total of 91. He also had four sacks and six tackles for losses. For his efforts, Conlan was named to the Newspaper Enterprise Association first-team All-American squad and the Football News' second team.

"He had played well all year," Bradley said. "You could see it in 1984 and in '85 he was a tremendous talent.'

Then there was the Orange Bowl game against Oklahoma.

Some have called it the single-best linebacking performance in the school's history.

In that game, Conlan was a one-man wrecking crew against the Sooners' wishbone attack, registering six unassisted tackles, including three for losses, and recovering a fumble.

"In almost all the big games, he's been a factor," Bradley said.

Following the loss at the Orange Bowl, Conlan had to make a decision whether to turn pro or return for his final year of eligibility.

After a couple of weeks of deliberating with family and Penn State coaches, Conlan decided that he would return to Happy Valley.

He talked about not having reached his potential (he was projected as a second to sixth round pick in the 1986 draft) but there was also another consideration - wanting another crack at a national championship, one that eluded him against Oklahoma.

He fulfilled both goals last fall, racking up 79 tackles to tie him with John Skorupan for second on the Lions' all-time career list (274), registering five sacks and eight tackles for losses.

His picture appeared almost regularly in national magazines and he was a consensus All-American selection.

And in fitting style, Conlan finished his collegiate career with a bang.

Hounding harassing and intercepting Miami's Vinny Testaverde, the gimpy-kneed Conlan (he was injured early in the game) was the hero in Penn State's Fiesta Bowl victory over the Hurricanes.

His 38-yard interception return in the fourth quarter set up the game-winning touchdown. His two interceptions and eight tackles earned him the Defensive Most Valuable Player Award.

"That leg would have had to have been severed (for him to have come out of the game)," Bradley said. "It was a gutsy effort and he wasn't 100 percent."

Now it's on to the National Football League.

Conlan's high school coach, Tom Sharp, recalled a conversation he and Conlan had just after last year's NFL draft.

"I don't care where I go," Sharp remembered Conlan saying. "I know I can play. I know I can do it."

When he says that stuff, you know it's going to happen.

Go to Part 3

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