ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – The first Star Wars reference came from, of all people, Andy Reid. It was Kansas City Chiefs rookie mini-camp, and the coach was explaining a play.
“This is some great stuff – just like Star Wars,” Reid said, then looked at Chris Conley.
There was some confusion in the room, but Conley smiled, and Reid went on with his talk.
Conley was a third-round pick this year, his star rising after a bravura performance at the NFL combine. He’s a 6-foot-3 athlete who can run fast and has good hands. But all that may be secondary to the other things that made him famous.
He directed a short film based on Star Wars, co-starring Todd Gurley and Mark Richt. He was a student representative to the NCAA. His charity work earned a spot on the All-State national team, leading to a co-starring role with actor and pitch-man Dennis Haysbert in a Vine.
Through it all, Conley also managed to be Georgia’s leading receiver as a junior and senior. It was a balance that was relatively easy for Conley, who felt Richt and UGA provided the time and the means to be creative off the field.
But now Conley is in the NFL, which in some quarters stands for the No Fun League. Some teams don’t distractions, even when they’re seemingly good ones.
During a quiet moment during Chiefs training camp, Conley was asked whether he felt discouraged to keep encouraging in his off-field endeavors.
“I don’t feel that,” he said. “I feel like I’m encouraged here to be myself, with the connotation of: Remember you’re being paid to play football. But when we’re off the field we’re encouraged to be great men. They encourage us to be active in the community. They encourage us to continue to be people who know that football is just something that we do, it’s a tool that we can use to reach other people. We’re told that every day.
“That being said, I feel like I’m in a great spot. Especially with all the stuff that I do off the field.”
Notice the use of the present tense, as in Conley still plans to be who he was at Georgia – but maybe not as much.
He shot a short film in Georgia a few days before training camp opened. It’s in post-production now, and out of Conley’s hands. He’s focused on camp, with football taking up 98 percent of his time, he estimated.
Ideally, Conley said, his goal would be to have his life be 70 percent football, 30 percent off-the-field. The ratio was closer together in college, but much of that was because it had to be, thanks to classes and NCAA rules limiting practice hours.
“It’s a bit different now, because it’s a new organization, it’s a new coaching staff, it’s a new way of doing things here,” Conley said. “They’re counting on me in different ways than I was counted on at Georgia. My role was much different here than it was at Georgia, and that’s all on-the-field stuff. I’m not really counted on as that leader yet. I’m just being counted on as someone who has gotta learn everything, and has gotta be able to make plays when we strap it up. So the difference in that, it’s a time thing. I’ve gotta take time to adjust, to get used to this offense, get used to this coaching staff, get used to guys that are playing around me, and learn how to play in that supporting role.”
He hasn’t even been able to do much of that so far in training camp: Conley sat out the first week with a knee injury. It might set him back as far as immediate playing time, but this is where Conley’s intelligence definitely helps, according to offensive coordinator Doug Pederson.
“I’ll tell you this: Working with Chris Conley, he’s a very smart individual, a very smart football player,” Pederson told the Kansas City Star last Friday. “He really knows our system well already. He’s getting mental reps. I’ve challenged him here and there, just talking to him on the sideline.
“Obviously, you can’t take away the actual live rep of a play. That just goes without saying. But hey, we’re not going to rush him. Our medical team is going to make sure he’s 100 percent before we put him back out on the field.”
The Chiefs wouldn’t have picked him if they were worried his off-field endeavors would take away from football. Hence Reid’s quip about Star Wars.
But in describing how dedicated he is to football, Conley turned to a phrase more commonly known in Star Trek.
“This is the final frontier of football,” Conley said. “So that being said I want to get everything I can out of the game. … Once I’m done with football I can devote all my time to my film work, to my writing and my directing. So right now I really want to enjoy this and be the best football player I can be.”