by Scott Kindberg
The late Jack Keeney, the former Panama Central School football coach, told me a story — its origins more than 35 years old — that qualified him as something of a prophet.Of course, predicting that Shane Conlan, the gangly, yet wildly athletic, kid from rival Frewsburg, was going to be something special took Keeney all of about 15 seconds to confirm.
After all, Keeney, watching from the sidelines, had the best seat in the house.
“It was probably the first time (he) touched the football,’’ Keeney recalled. “We kicked off to about the 15-yard line and I know he mishandled the ball. … It was finally recovered by Conlan at the 2-yard line.
“And 98 yards later, he stopped running.”
It was a “welcome-to-my-world’’ moment for the humble, shy kid from the ’Burg.
In the years that followed, Conlan took his talents from Carroll Street to the Super Bowl and points in between, a gridiron odyssey that was culminated last year when he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Conlan, the third-oldest child of Dan and Kay, was joined by his family and friends at the gala evening, putting a figurative exclamation point on a college football career that places him among the elite of the elite.
The former All-American linebacker out of Penn State joined an exclusive fraternity that numbers just over a thousand. According to the NFF, a total of 5.06 million people have played or coached the college game in the past 145 years. Of that total, only two-10-thousandths of one percent (.002) have been deemed worthy of enshrinement.
At the press conference announcing the Class of 2014, Conlan was accompanied in Irving, Texas by fellow inductee LaDainian Tomlinson, the former running back out of Texas Christian. When the meeting with the Third Estate was completed, Conlan gathered LT and master of ceremonies Bonnie Bernstein, pulled out his smartphone and took a “selfie” of them together on the podium.
The image was also captured by an Associated Press photographer and the photo was ultimately sent to media outlets worldwide. Four decades after touching a football for the first time in a high school varsity game, Conlan wanted to save his biggest professional moment for posterity.
And, if he had had the opportunity, he would have tried to squeeze his parents, his brothers Kevin and Mike and sister Kelly, and his wife Caroline and their four children into the frame. His high school buddies, including Jon Treadway, Steve Cass, Jon Burch, Steve Clinger and Jim Holsinger would be there, too, as would head football coach Tom Sharp and assistants Mike Mangano, Steve Vanstrom and Bob Anderson, baseball coach Bill Hair Sr. and special education teacher Bob Goold.
And we haven’t even mentioned his lifelong friends and teammates at Penn State or his football coach, the late Joe Paterno.
Conlan lives in Sewickley, Pa., a Pittsburgh suburb that is also home to the likes of Mario Lemieux, Sydney Crosby, Jack Ham and Lynn Swann. But inside Shane and Caroline’s place there’s little evidence that a former pro football player resides there, certainly not one who was an All-American and a two-time national champion in Happy Valley and a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker with the Buffalo Bills
There are no visible signs of trophies, helmets, jerseys or press clippings that would chronicle his journey from Frewsburg, to State College, Pa., to Orchard Park and, finally, to the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams. In fact, the only concession to stardom are two drawings that hang on the walls of the living room. One shows Conlan in his Penn State uniform, while the other — a masterpiece by noted artist LeRoy Neiman — depicts him in Super Bowl XXVII in Pasadena, Calif. There, he and Buffalo teammates Phil Hansen, Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett are captured rushing Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman in the Rose Bowl. Also included in that painting are Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith and tight end Jay Novacek.
Of that group, Hansen is the only one not a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
As a visitor ponders that thought, he can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Tom Sharp had not pleaded with Penn State assistant coach Tom Bradley to come take a look at Conlan at a Frewsburg basketball game in the winter of 1982.
The story is a familiar one:
Bradley drives through a blizzard, is wowed by Conlan’s athleticism and aggressiveness and returns to State College where he convinces Paterno to offer him a scholarship. By the time Conlan’s done in Happy Valley, he is a red- shirt practice player on one national championship team, plays in two more title games and, in the final one, is the Most Valuable Player in Penn State’s victory over Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. He is drafted in the first round by the Bills, No. 8 overall, plays in three Super Bowls and is member of Buffalo’s 50th anniversary team.
Nearly 20 years since his last NFL game, Conlan is now the vice president of corporate partnerships with the Pittsburgh Power of the Arena Football League. Interestingly enough, his favorite sport growing up was baseball, and he came fairly close to signing with another Pittsburgh franchise — the Pirates — following a tryout at Three Rivers Stadium just before his high school graduation.
“I remember seeing Dave Parker with a briefcase of money and I was meeting all those guys,’’ recalled Conlan of his visit to the Pittsburgh clubhouse. “It was kind of cool.”
But Dan Conlan reminded his son on the drive home to Frewsburg that Penn State had already offered him a scholarship, meaning his education would be paid for.
“He didn’t give me a choice,’’ Shane Conlan said.
As it turned out, it was the best decision he ever made.
Already a member of the Chautauqua Sports and the Greater Buffalo halls of fame, Conlan has been recognized near and far for his football accomplishments, but there is one thing he has never grown comfortable with.
“The first thing that came to my mind (when informed of his College Football Hall of Fame selection) was, ‘God, I have to give a speech.’ I can’t stand to do that.’’’
But when former Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker and Penn State alum Jack Ham informed Conlan that he wouldn’t be required to speak at the Waldorf Astoria in three months, the relief was apparent.
“Thank, God,’’ Conlan said.
His reticence off the field is in direct opposition to the aggressiveness he showed on it.
“My family is very competitive,’’ said Conlan, whose brothers Kevin and Mike played football at Edinboro and Rutgers respectively and whose oldest son Patrick was a quarterback at Hobart. “I tell people I was fast and aggressive. It just worked out. I liked to hit people.”
Apparently, the contact was enough of a reward.
As a pair of visitors entered his home, Conlan’s teen-age daughter, Peeps, had retrieved some of her father’s trophies that he earned during his playing days and she placed them on the kitchen counter.
Over the course of the next 20 minutes, Conlan made several return trips to the basement where he collected even more of his memorabilia. Among the items were game-worn Nittany Lions and Bills helmets, trophies of various shapes and sizes and a signed No. 31 Penn State jersey. All of them were being loaned to the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame as part of a display that will be unveiled in a few months.
Before his visitors could leave, however, Conlan disappeared one final time and came back with a rectangular cardboard box. Inside, was a commemorative football from the College Football Foundation that was still housed in a plastic bag.
Inscribed on the ball was the following:
“The National Football Foundation
Congratulates Shane Conlan
Penn State University
As A Member of The
2014 College Football Hall of Fame Class
December 9, 2014 - New York City”
If Jack Keeney were still alive, here’s guessing he’d say, “I told you so.”