By Paul Levine
The College Football Hall of Fame could not have been on Shane Conlan’s mind when he played high school basketball on a wintry night in early 1982. He was 6-3, 175 pounds, and if there’s anything he didn’t look like, it would have been a major college linebacker.
That January night, in tiny, frozen Frewsburg in western New York State, Conlan just wanted to put on a good show for the college football coach in attendance: Tom (Scrap) Bradley, then a young assistant at Penn State. Bradley was the only coach in the country interested in Conlan as a football player. No one from Pitt or Ohio State or Michigan…or even little Division 2 schools had any interest in the skinny kid from the sticks.
(Yes, hang on, folks. There’s a moral to this story).
Conlan only scored three points in that basketball game, but the field goal came on an alley-oop dunk, and Bradley liked the kid’s athleticism. Bradley’s mentor, the great Joe Paterno, often scouted high school football players by watching them play basketball. Both men thought the sport showed agility and overall athletic ability 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 in an interview with the Harrisburg Patriot-News. “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 said in an interview. “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.
College Football Hall of Fame Announcement
This was brought to mind today by (1) the announcement that Conlan will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and (2) an excellent story about how the skinny kid from a tiny snowbound town 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-News.
By “bygone era,” Jones means these were the days before video and YouTube and high school recruiting gurus. All Bradley had to go on — other than that basketball game — were a few grainy frames of 8 mm film showing Conlan playing for his little high school (94 seniors) against less than stellar competition. And, of course, a coach’s sixth sense about a player’s desire, aggressiveness, intelligence, and overall athleticism.
No Easy Route to College Football Hall of Fame
Conlan had a stellar collegiate career. A consensus All American linebacker, he was the Most Valuable Player of one of the most famous games in football history: Penn State’s 14-10 Fiesta Bowl upset over heavily favored Miami to win the 1986 national championship. Conlan had two interceptions of Miami QB Vinny Testaverde and eight tackles in the game. (Testaverde would be the first player selected in the upcoming draft and two other Miami seniors were taken in the first nine slots. Overall, Penn State delivered a whopping 13 players to the NFL that year, including two first rounders).
Okay, so Conlan was a standout in college. But just how would he fare in the NFL?
I happened to be on Penn State’s practice field in Spring 1987 for Pro Day. So were a dozen or so NFL scouts, watching the graduating seniors run agility drills. The players ran, and the scouts scribbled on scraps of paper. (There were no cell phones, iPads, or laptops).
Unlike that wintry night in the Frewsburg gym, Conlan was the center of attention. I knew Shane a bit through two of his classmates I had been been friends with since their freshman year: 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.
So 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. He was 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, as if my words would boost his draft status.
“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, Wietecha’s employers — 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 became NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, was named All-Pro three times, played in three Pro Bowls, and was selected to the Bills’ All-Time 50th Anniversary team. Skinny legs and all.
Long-time readers will know that I have a special kinship with Penn State linebackers. My best-known fictional character, Jake Lassiter, was a walk-on who played linebacker for Paterno. But Jake had disciplinary problems and run-ins with his Coach. As he admits in “Lassiter,” “Joe parked me so far down the bench, my ass was in Altoona.” Jake, needless to say, is not in the College Football Hall of Fame.