More than a quarter century ago, SUNY Fredonia was sponsoring a journalism day. High school students from throughout Chautauqua County were going to be in attendance and I was invited to speak to the kids about the newspaper business, sportswriting in particular.
In an effort to give the teenagers a practical reporting experience, I had asked the college in advance if it was OK if I brought someone along with me. I wanted to introduce the prospective Rick Reillys-in-waiting to what a press conference was all about and to make the day an interactive one. So with me as the moderator and my friend as the subject of the question/answer period, we left Jamestown early one morning for the 25-mile trip to the Fredonia campus.
Heck, I didn't even have to drive. My friend said he'd be happy to pick me up. So imagine my utter shock when he pulled up in a late-model Corvette.
Frewsburg native and former Penn State linebacker Shane Conlan, left, and former TCU tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, right, pose for a selfie with event emcee Bonnie Bernstein after Conlan and Tomlinson were introduced as 2014 inductees at a National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame news conference last week.
Tom Sharp watches the action from the sidelines during a Frewsburg High School football game in 1989.
P-J file photo
Nearly three decades later, covering Shane Conlan, Frewsburg native and linebacker extraordinaire, continues to be quite a ride.
Last Thursday, the National Football Foundation announced its selections for the 2014 College Football Hall of Fame. Knowing that it was streaming live on the Internet, I found the link on my iPhone and listened as I was running errands.
The first player announced was defensive back Dre Bly from North Carolina, followed by Southern California offensive tackle Tony Boselli and defensive tackle Dave Butz of Purdue. I was just about to pull into the Walmart parking lot in Lakewood when the fourth name was read.
When I heard it, dozens and dozens of memories flooded my mind. From trips to Penn State and the Orange Bowl game in Miami during his college days, and from Rich Stadium to cities and stadiums in every corner of the United States during his NFL career with the Buffalo Bills, I was reminded how fortunate I was to have a front row seat to witness it all.
And then I had this thought: I wonder how Tom Sharp, the retired Frewsburg High School football coach, feels about his former player's latest honor. Because were it not for Sharp and his don't-take-no-for-an-answer attitude more than 30 years ago, Conlan may have never landed at Penn State; wouldn't have had the opportunity to impress Nittany Lions assistant coach Tom Bradley enough to recommend that Joe Paterno offer him a scholarship; and, ultimately would have never taken his place among college football's all-time best.
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"I opened the paper (on Friday), looked at (the story on Conlan's Hall of Fame induction) and I was joyous,'' said Sharp from his Jamestown home. "What a great thing, what a great accomplishment for him.''
Truth be told, I was happy for Sharp, too. For while his name won't appear at the College Football of Fame in Atlanta, it's no secret that he was the driving force in helping forge that Conlan-Penn State connection. The story has been recounted plenty, but it bears repeating. Despite being named The Buffalo News Player of the Year in 1981 and rushing for more than 1,000 yards his senior season, Conlan was getting virtually no attention from colleges. At the time, he was a tall, wiry kid who happened to live in southwestern New York, hardly a recruiting hotbed.
But Sharp was undeterred. He sent film to Bradley at Penn State and the latter finally agreed to visit Frewsburg to watch Conlan play a basketball game.
"He came out and he was slam-dunking, dribbling between his legs and behind his back,'' Bradley told me years ago. "If Tommy Sharp doesn't make the call, we never make the trip up there.''
Bradley's white-knuckle ride through a snowstorm turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
I spoke with Conlan a few hours after last week's press conference to announce the College Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2014. I could tell he was still overwhelmed by the honor.
"It's great that you can share this with people,'' he said. "I never envisioned that I would get this far. I wanted to play college football. That's it.''
So as we chatted, he listed Sharp, Bradley and Paterno as the men who were most influential in getting him to the top of the college football world.
"(Sharp) chased those guys around and made them come watch me,'' Conlan said. "He just wouldn't give up when a lot of people said, 'No thanks.'''
As one of those who had the privilege of watching Conlan take his game from the 'Burg to the Super Bowl and points in between, especially Happy Valley, I'd like to offer my own personal thank you to Sharp.
The "ride" wouldn't have been possible without him.