The Post-Journal

Maybe Now Fans Will Appreciate Conlan

It was the week before Shane Conlan's first game with the Buffalo Bills in September 1987 when he and I sat down for dinner at a restaurant less than a mile from Rich Stadium.

The premise of the get-together was so that I could interview him for a magazine article I was doing in which he was to be featured.

What struck me then - and what I still vividly remember from that conversation today - was his obvious, unbridled enthusiasm for playing so close to home.

Frewsburg, a hamlet he had placed on the national map by virtue of his All-American career at Penn State, was just a little more than an hour away from the stadium.

Furthermore, that meant that his family and friends could see him play all the time and the fans of Western New York could embrace him as a native son.

Hollywood couldn't have scripted it any better.

But while Conlan generally received good reviews during his six years with the Bills, the three-time Pro-Bowl linebacker was never fully appreciated by a segment of the fans for what he did for the team.

The Bills organization loved him. His teammates and players around the league respected his abilities. But he was never given his just due from the people who could most identify with him.

Here was a man - a blue-collar one at that - who gave all he had, every game, every play. And in the process, he didn't seek the spotlight, didn't want to be singled out, didn't try to draw attention to himself. All he wanted was to do his job and do it well.

But after earning AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 1987 and three straight trips to the Pro-Bowl, his star began to fade in the eyes of fans.

He was maligned for being injury prone, although he led the team in tackles as recently as 1991 in what was his best season.

He was ridiculed for two contract holdouts, although teammates had done the same thing and not suffered as much grief.

He was criticized for not making more big plays, but was working within the confines of a defense that was geared to Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett. If they didn't disrupt the play, the gap-control was out of whack, leaving the rest of the unit to try and compensate for that.

And, lastly, there were those, I suspect, who were just plain jealous of a kid from Frewsburg who was paid almost $1 million a year, although that was the market value for a player with Conlan's credentials.

True to his nature, he didn't lash out publicly about the things that were being said and written about him. All he did was go out and play.

Now he's being rewarded.

The Los Angeles Rams, needing help at linebacker, have signed Conlan to a guaranteed three-year contract, reportedly worth almost $1.8 million annually. The deal makes him the second-highest paid player on the Rams behind quarterback Jim Everett.

An unrestricted free agent, Conlan made $975.000 with the Bills last season, the last year of his contract. He had hoped to stay with the Bills, but they weren't willing to up the ante to match what the Ram's were offering, so he headed for the glitz and glamour of LA. A press conference was scheduled for today to introduce Conlan to the Los Angeles media.

Conlan, who was visiting family in Pittsburgh Sunday and could not be reached for comment, is the second Bills' linebacker to jump to another team. Carlton Bailey signed with the New York Giants last month, leaving Mark Maddox as Conlan's likely replacement.

While Buffalo management wasn't interested in re-signing Bailey, it is upset about losing Conlan. General Manager John Butler admitted as much. Still, the move was the right one for the Frewsburg native.

Not only will he be playing for a team which desperately needs a run-stopper (the Rams finished next-to-last in the NFL in run defense), but he and his family will also be financially secure for the rest of their lives.

Who could pass up that opportunity?

Which brings me to one final observation.

Sometimes people appreciate something only after they can't have it anymore. It's my guess that the Conlan bandwagon will be adding a few members now that No. 58 isn't here to kick around anymore.

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