The Post-Journal

Playing for the Bills is a Dream Come True for Conlan

Former Penn Stater Grew Up Just 70 Miles Away

 

Tom Sharp didn’t have to gaze into a crystal ball to forecast Shane Conlan’s football future.In Sharp’s eyes, there was never any question.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” the Frewsburg Central School 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, this year’s Fiesta Bowl Penn State vs. Miami.

With six-and-a-half minutes remaining in the first quarter, Conlan was laying on the turf of Sun Devil Stadium, the victim of an inadvertent leg whip by a teammate. His knee was killing him.

Out ran three members of Penn State’s medical crew. They examined Conlan and he eventually limped off the field under his own power.

But would he be able to return to The Game, college football’s version of the Super Bowl?

“I said, ’You’ll have to kill me to get me off the field,” Conlan said. “I knew I would come back.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Two pass interceptions off Heisman “Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde, the second one setting up Penn State’s game winning touchdown, earned Conlan the defensive Most Valuable Player award and solidified his position as one of the top linebackers in the country and as a certain first-round pick.

It was a fitting end to an illustrious college career, one that---in Joe Paterno’s eyes—was as good as that of any linebacker that ever came out of Linebacker U.

The Buffalo Bills were impressed enough to use their first-round pick—the eighth overall after a trade with Houston—to select Conlan, a local boy who had always dreamed of playing for the Bills.

Such an attitude hasn’t been exactly common among the Bills’ first-round picks over the years.

Tom Cousineau—the first player chose in the 1979 draft—opted for Canada rather than don a Bills’ uniform and even Jim Kelly had some reservations about Buffalo before his arrival prior to last season.

While Cousineau never gave himself a chance to learn to appreciate Western New York and Kelly needed some time, Conlan already knows what it is like.

He grew up in Frewsburg (pop. 1,908), located 70 miles from Rich Stadium, followed the Bills as a kid and attended a few games with his family and friends.

He used to watch Fred Smerlas and Jerry Butler—now teammates and, in earlier days, O. J. Simpson and Jim Braxton.

He even had a chance to play in Rich Stadium as a high school senior when the Frewsburg Bears faced Albion in a sectional playoff game.

To call Rich Stadium a home-away-from-home may be stretching it a bit, but Conlan feels pretty good about the way things worked out.

“It’s perfect,” he said. “My family’s right here, my friends can come up. I could go home during the week. It’s only an hour-and-a-half away. I wanted to stay around here anyway. I love it.”

And Frewsburg loves him.

A committee, formed to determine what would be the best way to honor the hamlet’s favorite son, planned to put up a sign on Route 62, proclaiming Frewsburg as the “Home of Shane Conlan.”

But true to his humble nature, Conlan squelched the idea.

“I thought that was going a little too far,” he said. “I’m really happy they feel that way, but I think they jumped the gun.

“Plus my friends would give me so much flack it’d be unbelievable.”

Instead, Conlan and the committee settled on a scholarship in his name: the Shane Conlan Scholarship Fund.

The money will be used to help find college scholarships for students who meet the standards set by Conlan on and off the field while he was a student at Frewsburg Central School.

A sign would have been more flashy and certainly more attention-grabbing, but that’s not Conlan’s style.

He does drive a 1987 Corvette, but beyond that you’d be hard-pressed to find anything ostentatious about Conlan’s lifestyle.

He’s settled into an apartment in Hamburg, but other than some new furniture, which his mother, Kay, picked out, and his 27 inch Sony television—his pride and joy—it would be hard to tell that a No. 1 draft pick lived there.

He still doesn’t like to shop for clothes, although he admits he likes them. That duty is usually left to his mother or his girlfriend, Caroline Wesel.

“I just don’t have the patience to go shopping,” he says.

Growing up in Dan and Kay Conlan’s small, white Cape Cod-style house on Carroll Street meant playing whatever sport was in season, many times at the expense of garage-door windows and Kay’s flowers in the side yard.

With Kevin, Shane’s older brother by a year, Shane and Mike—a redshirt sophomore at Rutgers—the sports wars were frequent. The Conlans’ oldest child is daughter Kelly.

“We didn’t have much,” Kay Conlan said. “But all the sporting equipment they had, they had to have the best.”

Kevin, who suffered a serious knee injury his freshman year in high school, later punted at Edinboro University and still holds the school record for the longest punt, an 82-yarder.

Shane, who turned down a professional offer to play baseball, earned The Buffalo News Player of the Year in 1981. But only Penn State, Syracuse and Ohio State showed any interest among Division I schools.

And it wasn’t until Penn State assistant coach Tom Bradley saw Conlan play in a basketball game that he offered the eager-to-impress youngster a scholarship.

“If I had eight colleges, I still would have picked Penn State,” Conlan says now.

He even like the Nittany Lion’s uniforms and black shoes.

That’s right. You won’t find any Boz-like qualities in Conlan. No earrings, punk haircuts or outrageous statements.

In fact, Conlan would rather melt into a crowd than be the center of attention.

“I don’t like all the notoriety that I got this year or last year,” Conlan said. “I don’t mind signing autographs. I think that’s just great for little kids.”

But he’s not yet used to his time being in such demand.

“Every time my mom says, ‘Oh just do it,’ or my father (an investigator for the New York State Police) says, ‘It’s good press.’ They help me in that way.

“I’m never rude. I’ll never be rude. It’s just something inside. I don’t tell anybody. It just gets rather bothersome. I think it’s the way I was brought up. They expect me to be humble. I’m a quiet person. I shy away from the big crowds.”

On the field, it’s a different story.

“I love hitting people,” Conlan said. “It’s just fun. But you can’t go out on the street and start hitting people. You just have to turn it on and turn it off. Out there, you’ve got the pads on. It’s competitive, it’s just you against the guy in front of you, it’s like a war.”

That kind of attitude is what impressed the Bills, according to Coach Marv Levy.

“Shane jumped out at me,” he said. “The fact is he played every down with great intensity. The more we found out about him as a person and with his football temperament, we were very impressed. We felt he was an outstanding athlete with excellent speed and other qualities for a person his size.”

So enthralled was Levy that he named Conlan the starting left outside linebacker the day after the draft.

But when Conlan was late reporting to training camp because of a contract squabble, Levy demoted him and replaced him with veteran Hal Garner.

The holdout lasted until Aug. 9 when Conlan signed a contract worth a reported $1.7 million over three years, plus an option year.

Conlan was admittedly behind after missing 18 days of camp, but ended up starting the season-opener against the New York Jets because Garner was on injured reserve following knee surgery.

All Conlan did in that game was make 10 total tackles, including seven solo stops.

“I think I played pretty well,” he said. “I missed a big tackle I should have made, but other than that, I think I played pretty good.”

But that’s about as far as Conlan will go when it comes to self-evaluation. In this day and age when humbleness and God-given ability mix like oil and water, Conlan is a refreshing respite.

“I don’t think I’ve ever got out of hand,” he said. “Since I started to do well at Penn State, I don’t think I’ve come home and they’ve noticed a change. They brought me up the right way where nothing could really change me and it never has. I’m sure if it ever had, they would have let me know right away.

“If you took our family and put us in the middle of a big city, I think I’d be the same way.”


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