Christina Conley remembers it well. She was standing at the kitchen sink washing the evening dishes when her middle child, Christian, a strapping teenager but still not old enough to drive, came up to her with an interesting statement.
“Mama, I want to be the best,” he said sincerely.
“At what?” Mom replied.
“At everything,” Christian said.
Christina thought for a moment when Psalm 1:1-3 popped into her head. She recited it to him.
“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord and who meditates on the law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever they do prospers.”
Evidently young Christian took that advice to heart. Now a junior at the University of Georgia, his roots are deep and strong and his branches have spread wide to bear fruits of many kinds.
Still Christian in every sense of the name, Conley now answers to Bulldogs fans simply as “Chris.” They know him as the swift-footed wide receiver who has thrilled them with acrobatic plays, such as the one-handed touchdown grab at Tennessee this season. As Georgia (8-4) prepares for the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl against Nebraska (8-4), Conley is the team’s leading receiver with 605 yards on 42 catches.
But there is much more underneath that number 31 jersey. So much more.
When it comes to his station as a student-athlete, Conley has stayed as busy on the left side of the hyphen as the right. A member of the UGA and SEC academic honor rolls the past three years, he was inducted into Bulldogs’ special leadership academy known as L.E.A.D. (Leadship Education and Development).
Conley also serves on the UGA’s student-athlete advisory committee (SAAC). That role was expanded by appointment last year and he now serves as the SEC’s representative on the NCAA’s SAAC committee. As one of 31 members nationwide, he travels the country to attend quarterly meetings to discuss the well-being of and issues facing student-athletes everywhere. He will be in San Diego in that capacity next month.
“I didn’t actively pursue it,” Conley said. “It was something that was given to me as a responsibility. But I enjoy it. It has afforded me the opportunity to meet great people and have my hand in some important decisions. I’ve talked to a lot of athletes and learned their struggles and learned what they want changed.”
While Conley is clearly an exceptional athlete and top-shelf collegiate football player, it’s his off-field persona that draws the most praise.
“He’s just been a great leader for us,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Younger guys look up to him for his work ethic and he’s done so many things off the field as far as community service projects and getting involved in student government. I think he’s a world-changer kind of guy. I know when his football days are over — whenever that is — he’s going to do something big.”
Lately it hasn’t been Conley’s academic rigor or legislative skills that have garnered him attention. It is his passion for movies. Specifically, the film series that is Star Wars.
Conley once dressed up as a Jedi warrior at a UGA gymnastics meet and brought along a couple of friends disguised as Storm Troopers. Since then, he has really let his geek flag fly.
Last month, Conley turned to Twitter to make an open casting call for fellow students to join him in shooting a Star Wars video tribute on campus. “Looking for fellow film or Star Wars fans on campus,” Conley wrote on his Twitter page, @_Flight_31. “I’m thinking of filming a light saber duel around campus. #EpicDuel#CallingAllNerds.”
That seemingly innocuous tweet has grown into an all-out movie production. Response was even better than Conley could have hoped, and he is now in the midst of planning what will be a four-location shoot on the UGA campus after the season ends.
“We’ve gotten some traction,” Conley said last week. “We’ve gotten things moving forward. We’ve got a camera crew, we’ve got people who are going to edit. We’re still adding two more actors and we’ll have extras, people who just want to be involved. Hopefully we’ll be able to shoot in January and then we’ll have about a month and a half to edit and get things ready before we release it.”
Such endeavors might not seem very “jock-like,” but Conley has long since out-grown concerns about what others might think of him. He refers instead to a Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation he keeps as a screen-saver on his phone.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment,” he says.
The academics, the acting, the athletics, it can all be traced back to Conley’s parents. Now an English-as-second-language teacher in Paulding County, Christina Conley home-schooled her three children in the early years as her husband Charles (now retired) served in the Air Force in California and other distant locales. While he was off to work during the day, the kids would study with their mom. Then they would make costumes and act out scenes to show their father what they had learned. The family called it “dinner theatre.”
The football thing sort of slipped up on the Conleys. They didn’t allow their son to play until he was in high school, and they were slow to grasp just how good their son was.
Christina recalled a day she came to North Paulding High to teach a class and she found her son in the hallway with coach Heath Webb. She wanted to know why Christian was not in class.
“He got a letter from Vanderbilt today,” Coach Webb informed her.
“OK, but he needs to be in class,” Christina snapped. “He’s not going to be able to get into Vanderbilt if he’s not in class.”
Said Conley: “The discipline definitely comes from my parents, academically and character wise, too. I had to stay straightened up or I was going to get whooped.”
There is a Bible verse for that as well.