Monday, May 26, 2014

Shane Conlan: Skinny Legs and All

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

It was Pro Day at Penn State 27 years ago and I was on the practice field as the seniors went through agility drills.  On the sidelines, NFL scouts watched and scribbled notes on scraps of paper.  (There were no cell phones, iPads, or laptops).

Penn State had a terrific group of graduating seniors.  Just months earlier, the team had won the national championship with its upset of heavily favored Miami, 14-10, in the Fiesta Bowl.

One player had every scout's eye.  Shane Conlan.  He was a consensus All-American linebacker who had been MVP of that Fiesta Bowl game with eight tackles and two interceptions of Vinny Testaverde.

I knew Shane a bit through his friendship with two players who were friends. Tim Johnson, from Florida, the All American defensive tackle who would go on to a 10 year NFL career before becoming a minister, and D.J. Dozier, the running back who would join the select few who played both NFL football and Major League Baseball.

Anyway, I'm standing next to Ray Wietecha, the college scout of the Green Bay Packers, which had just finished an abysmal year and were drafting fourth.  (NFL aficionados will remember Wietecha as a center for the New York Giants in the 1950's and 60's  An old-school, tough-as-nails guy).  In this photo, he looks like he's still playing at age 45. 
I remember looking at Wietecha's gnarled hands -- broken fingers going this way and that -- as he took notes.

"Number 31's really good," I said, referring to Conlan.

"Skinny legs," Wietecha replied.

"Fast.  Great anticipation.  Great ball sense."

"Skinny legs," Wietecha repeated.

In the NFL draft, with that fourth pick in the first round, the Packers took Brent Fullwood, a running back from Auburn.  He played four years, and if you don't know his name, well, he was just okay.  The Buffalo Bills took Conlan with the eighth pick.  He becomes NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, is named All-Pro three times, plays in three Pro Bowls, and selected to the Bills' All-Time 50th Anniversary team.

Skinny Legs and All

This was brought to mind today by (1) the announcement that Conlan will be inducted into the College Hall of Fame and (2) an excellent story about how the skinny kid from a tiny town in western New York state made it big-time.  The story, "Hall of Famer Shane Conlan, Wanted by Nobody but Tom Bradley in 1982, a Recruiting Story of a Bygone Era," is by Dave Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot.

It tells the story of how then young Penn State assistant coach Tom (Scrap) Bradley, who would become one of college football's best recruiters, drove through a snowstorm to watch Conlan play BASKETBALL.  Football season was long over.  There was no video in those days, just some grainy 8 mm film, and precious little of that for Conlan's high school in Frewsberg, a school with just 94 seniors.

Conlan was 6-3, 175 pounds.  Even in those days, that was far too skinny to play big-time college linebacker.  Did I say big-time?  Not only did Conlan lack any Division 1 scholarship offers, no small colleges expressed interest, either.
But Bradley liked what he saw on the basketball court.  Even though Conlan only scored three points that night, his aggressiveness and fluid athleticism were easy to see.  (Bradley's mentor, the great Joe Paterno, often scouted high school football players by watching them play basketball.  Both men thought the sport showed overall athleticism in a way football -- particularly on film -- did not).  Still, Conlan was not an easy sell at the coaches' meeting just a few days before signing date:

"No one on the staff really wants him," Bradley said.  "Back then, I don't have much of a track record. I knew what I saw. But I started thinking: Maybe I don't know what I'm looking at.  Finally, Joe pounds the table and says, 'You want him? You take him. But you gotta coach him. And you'd better be right.'"
So Penn State gave Conlan his one and only football scholarship offer.

"I owe Tom everything," Conlan told reporter Jones.  "If he hadn't given me a shot, if he hadn't convinced Joe [Paterno] that I was the right kid for them, who knows what would have become of me?"

Lots of lessons here.  How important is it to have someone who believes in you.  And to have a mentor.  And to make the most of your talents with the gifts you have.

Skinny legs and All.

(A final word about that 1987 NFL Draft.  The University of Miami provided three of the first nine players taken, an incredible number.  Testaverde was the first player of the first round, running back Alonzo Highsmith went third and defensive tackle Jerome Brown ninth.  For Penn State, besides Conlan going eighth, running back Dozier was chosen fourteenth.  Overall, Miami had eight players chosen and Penn State thirteen).

Paul Levine


  1. from Jacqueline. OK, I will be the first to admit that what I know about "American football" could be written on the top of a nail head (though I know rugby, funnily enough), but this post is about so much more than football, yet the football story is a really, really good one. It's the underdog who became Best In Show story, and it resonates far beyond the football field. I loved it. Thank you!

  2. James O. Born5/26/2014 9:21 AM

    More football posts!

    or basketball

  3. Well, Jim Born, with your Seminoles about to defend the national championship, I expect to be hearing your war chant quite soon.

  4. Pauly, I loved this post so much. This is for all the people who struggle to succeed and for those who have the power to lift them up if they'd only bother to look beyond their own biases. Reminds me of all the editors who turned down the chance to publish Harry Potter.