Chris Conley turned 24 in October, and in virtually every way he is wise and versatile and accomplished far beyond his years.
He is eloquence personified on any number of topics or issues, enough so that he has emerged as a voice of conscience for the Chiefs and one who wants it understood that he takes stances not political but ethical.
Affirming that it’s not just talk, the second-year receiver is about as vigorous in the community as any member of the team could be in his relatively brief time in Kansas City.
That shows up in everything from participating with teammate Albert Wilson in the “Catch A Break” program to benefit the Bishop Sullivan Center and a recent visit to Central Middle School, where he met with students, addressed the school at an assembly and spoke at length with City Year Kansas City tutors and mentors.
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This was no perfunctory thing to Conley, whose engagement was evident in eye contact, questions he asked them and the fact he was taking his own notes.
“I think there is a lot that we can learn from these people who’ve taken the time to give of themselves,” said Conley, who applauded the group for “being the hands and feet of all the talking mouths.”
By now, you know about how as a student at the University of Georgia he made “Star Wars: Retribution,” a 26-minute movie that became a YouTube sensation with nearly 600,000 views and counting.
He also is a musician who began learning guitar in sixth grade and spent a Monday in September assembling a piano and soon thereafter started working with a teacher to “expand that skill set.”
Conley was born on Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, the son of an Air Force veteran, and spent most of his early life on bases. But perhaps counter to that structured foundation, the pinned post atop his Twitter account declares that “Atypical and unorthodox should be words to strive for, not negative terms.”
He is a self-described lover of Christ and the Bible, but his love of literature also extends into the comic book realm that helped stoke his imagination when he was introduced to his father’s vintage comics back in elementary school.
The mainstream characters were appealing, but what he really enjoyed was getting to know the superheroes that people had never heard of.
As for what super power he’d choose if he could have any, Conley playfully told the group at Central that (other than obvious “super power to have any super power”) the dilemma for him typically comes down to super-speed vs. the ability to fly.
Since he’s “already kind of fast,” he said, “I lean a little more towards the flight part.”
Conley in fact is on the cusp of taking flight for the Chiefs, as his two catches for 70 yards against Oakland on Thursday served to remind.
Each spoke to different steps in Conley’s development in terms of being plays he hasn’t regularly made.
One was a diving 39-yarder, his season-long reception, the other a catch-and-run for 31 yards on an improvised throw by scrambling quarterback Alex Smith.
They foreshadow what figures to be an increasingly bright future for Conley, who has 36 catches for 450 yards this season and the measurables (a 4.35-second 40-yard dash and 45-inch vertical leap at the NFL Combine) that suggest a high ceiling.
But if Conley remains a work in progress, someone whose better days are ahead, there are a few understandable reasons for that.
The reason he is a more complete and developed human being than he yet is as a football player starts with the fact that he didn’t play the game until ninth grade.
“My parents wanted their (three) kids to be well-rounded, and they wanted their kids to know how to operate and carry themselves in other circles,” Conley said in a series of recent interviews. “It was not anything against sports; it just wasn’t time for that yet.
“So I was a straight-A student all the way through (to ninth grade), because that’s all I did.”
Before he went out for football at North Paulding High, Conley seldom had even thrown a football around casually.
Merely catching the ball, he said, “was really difficult for me. … It was really awkward. It was kind of foreign.”
He was tall and clumsy, so running routes was another issue.
The first time he put a couple of these things together and actually caught a ball, he ran to his father after practice thrilled to tell him it had happened at last.
That mental block faded as he did it more, of course, and with good reason, Conley came to have faith in himself as an athlete.
“But in terms of knowledge of the game instincts, oh, yeah, way behind,” he said. “Every year that you play, you get a little more instinctual.
“But there are still some things that I’m learning right now, picking up on.”
The late start isn’t the only reason Conley hasn’t quite come into his own yet.
While he had fine coaching at Georgia, where he had the same number of catches his senior year as he has so far this season (36), this Chiefs offensive system resides in a galaxy far away in terms of sophistication.
“They did a lot of good things at Georgia, but it was different stuff from maybe what we (do,)” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said recently.
Conley (along with Wilson) made vast strides in the offseason thanks to the prompting of Jeremy Maclin, who encouraged Conley to stay with him in Kansas City for that span and stressed working on route concepts and film study.
“He’s come a long way,” Maclin said a few weeks ago. “I think 99 percent of it is to his credit. He’s a guy who wants to get better each and every day and has the will to want to know more. It’s shown.”
Slowly … but surely.
The thought process that may have made him tentative at times, Conley believes, is becoming, well, an afterthought.
“Now,” he said, “I just go play.”
Meanwhile, Conley remains as dedicated as ever to making a difference off the field.
When he was a sophomore in high school, Conley wrote 10 life goals he posted in his bedroom, goals that showed a hope for compatibility between who he would be as a person and his athletic ambitions.
Only a year into playing the game at that time, Conley’s list according to a 2012 ESPN story included having an NFL career, yet was underscored by the final priority:
“Teach other young men wisdom and God’s grace.”
Then-Georgia coach Mark Richt was so taken with this list that he asked for a copy he kept folded under the glass on his desk.
The idea, as Conley remembered it, was that if he “ever got too caught up in football, (Richt) could remind me of the man I wanted to become when I was younger.”
Richt never needed to do that, it turned out.
And by all indications, as Conley moves toward taking flight on the field, he has remained on the same trajectory off the field.
Conley wasn’t thinking of his own path as he tried to inspire the mentors and tutors the other day — but he easily could have been.
“I think everyone in our country likes to see finished products: ‘who won the award, who started the company …?’” he said. “They don’t like to take the time to see how far that person came.”