In Frewsburg, Shane Is Name of the Game
By Gene Warner
FREWSBURG - The proposal seemed reasonable to a community that is proud of its favorite son. Village leaders wanted to put up a sign on Route 62 at the entrance to the town proclaiming Frewsburg as the "Home of Shane Conlan."
Conlan, the All-America linebacker at Penn State, stopped the idea with the same authority that he topples running backs.
"I was honored, but I think it's a little too much," Conlan explained in his home last week. "I don't want to make a big deal out of this."
Conlan is a big deal in Frewsburg. Defensive star of the Fiesta Bowl, which earned Penn State the college football national championship. First-team All-America linebacker. Projected as one of the top 10 picks in Tuesday's National Football League draft.
In fact, Sports Illustrated, in it's mock draft, picked Conlan as the third overall pick - by the Buffalo Bills.
All this from a Western New Yorker raised in a Chautauqua County village of six miles outside of Jamestown. Frewsburg's 1,908 residents could fit into Rich Stadium 40 times.
Conlan's small-town roots bring to mind comparisons with Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, from East Brady, Pa., another tiny community in the Western New York - Pennsylvania hill country. But Conlan might fit more appropriately in a Boy Scout uniform, rather than in an Iron City Beer sweatshirt.
While scotching the sign proposal, Conlan did agree to give his name to the Shane Conlan Scholarship Fund, which hopes to raise at least $5,000 to help fund college scholarships for students meeting the standards he set at Frewsburg Central School, both on and off the athletic field.
A scholarship, yes. A gaudy sign, no.
That in itself tells the Shane Conlan Story and his relationship with his hometown.
Substance, not style, reigns in Frewsburg.
Go anywhere in town, whether it's to the school where he once starred, to the Dinner Bell Restaurant on Center Street, the Frewsburg Hotel or the Conlan home, and townsfolk tell you why they like Shane Conlan so much.The All-American linebacker, who has hit the big time and likely will receive a multiyear, multimillion-dollar pro football contract, hasn't let the publicity go to his head.
Shane's father, Dan, a 50-year-old state police investigator, was standing in his basement last week - surrounded by his son's All-Star game football jerseys, All-America certificates and trophies - when he was asked what makes him proudest about Shane.
"He hasn't changed," his father said. "He's still the same. There are 20,000 college players. They don't all get the break. He got the break, and he's never gotten a big head over it."
Bill Hair, the new Frewsburg High School principal, coached Conlan in his four years as varsity baseball catcher. Conlan hit .610 his senior year, according to his family.
But Hair is quick to point out something else that Conlan accomplished, starting in his sophomore year, when a teacher introduced him to several special-education students.
"He took them down to the locker room and said to his teammates, "You guys, I want you to meet so-and-so and so-and-so. These are my friends."
The friendships blossomed. Conlan and a couple of classmates started tutoring the special students in school, taking them out on picnics and even inviting them to their houses after school.
It's a special relationship that still exists to this day.
"I almost think he and his classmates got it going," Hair said. "They set up a relationship so these kids aren't shunned."
Conlan seemed almost embarrassed when asked about the special-education students, pointing out that others were involved in the project. But he explained why he got involved.
"They get picked on, and that makes me sick to my stomach," he said. "They're great kids. I had a lot of fun with them."
The Shane Conlan Story also is a story about Frewsburg, a blue-collar town for Jamestown's industries. Townspeople consider Shane Conlan sort of a blue-collar athlete.
Yes, but only hard work built his body from 185 pounds to 230 pounds in the last five years. Football pile-ups and battles for loose balls in basketball were Conlan's high school playgrounds.
Hard-working, shy, with basic values. Those attributes describe Conlan and the town that raised him, according to the people who live there.
"He's what the whole town is all about," said Chet McMurdy, 37, a big sports booster and owner of the Dinner Bell.
"I don't think there's anybody in the community who hasn't marveled at the job his mom and dad have done in keeping his head level," Hair said. "They did one heck of a job."
Dan Conlan doesn't like talking about Shane's accomplishments without mentioning the achievements of the Conlans' other three children - Kelly, Kevin and Michael. Strict discipline was practiced in the home. The street corners were not for them. Dan Conlan even discouraged his children from going out on Halloween.
Shane Conlan still can be put in his place at home. When arrangements were made for newspaper photographs of Shane, his father told him to get a haircut. And friends like to tell the story about Shane's sports jackets and his mother, Kay.
Preparing to go on two different All-America television appearances, Shane told his mother he needed a new sports coat. When she reminded him that he had just bought a new one, he replied that he didn't want to wear the same one on both shows.
"Poor Shane," his mother replied in fake sympathy for his plight, according to the story that has gotten around Frewsburg.
Frewsburg's pride over Conlan's success is hard to describe. It's deep but low-key, like the town itself. The pride is there, but nobody's doing cartwheels on Main or Center Street.
"The community is just bursting about the kid," Hair said. "I've been here 28 years, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime situation for a small town. This is the one time they can identify with an athlete who became big-time."
A small part of Conlan's accomplishments has rubbed off on all of Frewsburg.
"I feel it's part of me and everybody in town," said Jeffrey Brink, bar manager at the Frewsburg Hotel. "It reflects on all of us. It's like one family here. We're tight."
Saying you're from Frewsburg can evoke the same kind of laughs that Buffalonians understand all too well.
Conlan remembered introducing himself to his Penn State teammates his freshman year.
"I could have said I was from Jamestown or Buffalo," he said. "I said Frewsburg. They just laughed."
This is a small town. It's a place where people still say the word "Heck".
"I'll bet you 99 1/2 percent of the people in Buffalo don't know where Frewsburg is," McMurdy said. "I'll bet they hadn't even heard of it until Shane Conlan. He put us on the map."
"When you're in a small-town situation, you don't want anybody to think you're behind in any way, shape or form," Hair said. "You get a little defensive in a small town if you think anybody is looking down at you. Certainly Shane did something to dispel that."
Most Frewsburg residents would love to see Conlan in a Bills uniform, largely so they could see him play. But there are a few dissidents, hard-core Browns or Steelers fans, who want to see him play in Cleveland or Pittsburgh.
Conlan would love to be picked by the Bills Tuesday.
"It's so close, he said. "I can't see me going to the West Coast, so far from friends and family."
Frewsburg residents who want Conlan to stay close to home even tried to do a little lobbying with a Buffalo News reporter.
"Tell Mr. Wilson (Bills owner Ralph Wilson) that if he got (Conlan), he'd sell 1,500 more season tickets from the Jamestown area," said Jack Treadway, father of Conlan's best friend, Jon.
Long-suffering Bills fans - who have endured first-round draft choices like Phil Dokes, Reuben Gant and Tom Cousineau, who either didn't want to play for the Bills or didn't want to play at all - would be interested in Hair's comments about Conlan, his former baseball player.
"He had that tremendous drive, that ethic to work and not loaf," Hair said. "That's what paid off for him. He'll listen to everything a coach says, and they'll get all that effort out of him. It was nice to coach him as a senior.
He still showed the respect. He would still hang on your every word like he was a wide-eyed freshman."
The Shane Conlan Story seems almost too good to be true: Great athlete. Excellent student. Respectful. Quiet off the field, but consumed by driving competitiveness once he dons his football uniform. Concerned about the special-education students who didn't mix with others. Still driving his beat-up '78 Dodge. A big talent who hasn't lost his small-town values.
Spend a day in Frewsburg and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone with a bad word for Conlan.
"You'd have to hunt, and I'm not sure you'd find anybody," said Willis Hale, 66, a Frewsburg resident and the retired manager of the Chautauqua County Airport.
Actually, the biggest hint of any flaw came from Conlan's father.
"He's still a slob," the elder Conlan said with a trace of a smile. "His room looks like heck. He still does the breakfast dishes and leaves the egg (stains) on the forks. He's a good athlete, but not much of a domestic."
After Tuesday, he may not have to worry.