Chris Conley's direction in life

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ATHENS, Ga. -- Chris Conley has a problem today. Actually, Conley has a problem with today. It lasts only 24 hours. There is so much to do.

When you're a starting senior flanker on a top-10 team and a college senior, a film director and a screenwriter, a budding athletic administrator and a coffeehouse musician, a Bible-quoting honor student and a superhero-loving, "Star Wars" geek, time is not something you waste. "Madden" can wait.

Take July 17, when Conley boarded a plane in Athens at 7:30 a.m., flew to Birmingham for SEC media days, spent several hours bouncing from one interview room to the next, flew back to Athens, went through a seven-on-seven session with his teammates, showered and ate dinner.

And then worked on his next film into the wee hours.

"I'll sleep when I'm dead," Conley said that day in Birmingham.

If you have any question about the talent and dedication of the college generation, spend a day with Conley. He will leave you shaking your head, just as he does the men and women who spend every day with him.

"I think everybody who's ever met him wants to hire him," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "Whoever coaches him is going to fall in love with this guy, because of his ability, because of his coachability, because of his leadership, how he'll affect the locker room."

Conley has made himself into a good football player. A kid who never played organized football until his freshman year at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga., has caught 81 passes for 1,281 yards and 12 touchdowns in three seasons at Georgia. Richt believes Conley will be drafted next April.

Conley has made himself into a promising film director. A young man, who sent out a tweet earlier this year requesting to video some light-saber battles on the Georgia campus, developed that whim into "Retribution," a 26-minute "Star Wars" fan film. It has been viewed nearly 400,000 times on YouTube.

"It was pretty impressive for a student film," said producer Chris Hines, the board chairman of FilmAthens, a local nonprofit agency. Hines is working with Conley on his next film, about a superhero of Conley's own creation. Conley petitioned the NCAA to allow him to raise money for the film on Kickstarter, the crowdsourcing website. The NCAA said yes, albeit after extensive head-scratching. No student-athlete had ever asked to use Kickstarter.

"There are a lot of talkers," Hines said. "There are a lot of people that have ideas and want to do stuff. He's doing it. He's really doing what he says he wants to do. I'm super-impressed with him, with everything he's done."

Conley made himself into one of the most influential student-athletes in the nation. He already has completed two-year terms on both the Southeastern Conference and the NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committees (SAACs). He became a regular consultant to the NCAA president Dr. Mark A. Emmert.

"I talked to President Emmert multiple times about various issues, many having to do with how to communicate with student-athletes," Conley said. "Being the president of such a large organization, he can't be everywhere at once, and sending emails and memos isn't as effective as spoken word. We talked about how to bridge communication gaps."

Emmert, in a statement, called Conley "a remarkable young man. ... I always learn something from my conversations with him and all the student-athletes on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee."

The first SEC SAAC meeting that Conley ever attended, "He commanded the room," said Tre Stallings, a former SEC officer who now is the Tennessee Titans' director of player engagement. "He asked me if he could step in [and lead]. This was rare. He stepped in and kids automatically gravitated to him. They wanted to hear what he had to say."

Conley remains a non-voting member of the Georgia Athletic Association Board of Directors.

"Within the first month of him being here as a freshman," Carla Williams, the Georgia executive associate athletic director, said via email, "... We had a discussion about his goals and intent to maximize his time at [Georgia] by excelling in football, in the classroom, on campus, and in the community. I told him we would do everything within our power to help him reach his goals. What freshman does that?"

Conley arrived at Georgia in January 2011, a semester ahead of schedule, and will graduate with a degree in journalism in December, a semester ahead of schedule.

"I always talked to my advisers, 'I'm not going to drop a class. I'm going to finish every class even if I don't like it. But that being said, don't put something on my schedule that's not going to go towards my degree,'" Conley said. "... Some people don't necessarily have a plan for when they want to graduate. I did, and my plan was 'As Soon As Possible.'"

We can go as far back as you want. All-State in chorus in high school. Regional winner of a third-grade science fair. That one was cool -- he received a $5,000 savings bond and a family trip to Chicago for the national competition, where he got to meet TV handyman Bob Vila.

"That's when we got an idea," said Conley's mother, Christina. "I asked, 'Lord, is this what we're in store for from him?'"

Christina is a high school teacher. His father, Charles Conley, made a career in the U.S. Air Force. They emphasized faith (Chris' given name is Christian) and academics to their three children. Sports never ranked higher than third, which is why Chris didn't play football until he reached North Paulding High.

"He wanted to play receiver," Charles said. "I would go pick him up [after practice]. He would just come back upset because he couldn't catch the ball. Other kids were picking on him. One day, when I picked him up, he said, 'Dad, I can't catch the ball.' I guess God told me to say this: I just said, 'Look, all you gotta do is catch one. Just one ball. That's all.'

"I don't know if it was the next day or when, but I went to pick him up and he came back to the car and was all excited. 'Dad! Dad!' He had caught a ball. And it just kind of took off from there."

By midseason, Conley had begun making leaping grabs, his hands away from his body. He has hands the size of oven mitts, a hereditary gift from his paternal grandfather, a bricklayer. "One game," Charles said with a glance at his wife, "we both were looking at each other and looking at him, 'OK, whose child is this?'"

As a sophomore, he began getting letters from recruiters. Vanderbilt and Stanford showed interest. Alabama invited him to camp. But once Conley met Richt, another devout man, he knew where he would play.

Under the glass on Richt's desk is a piece of white copy paper, folded in quarters. At the top, Richt wrote, "Chris Conley."

As a sophomore in high school, Conley wrote 10 goals that applied to his life in high school, college and beyond, and then posted the goals in his bedroom. In 25 years of recruiting, Richt hadn't seen that very often. When he saw the goals during his recruiting visit to the home, he asked for a copy.

"If he went off the deep end somewhere along the way," Richt said, "I was going to open this up and show them to him, remind him, 'These are your goals. They're not mine. What are you doing?'"

In four years, Richt said, "I never pulled them out for him. I pulled them out for some other guys."

The goals are printed neatly in ink on unlined paper:

Be a man after God's heart.

Be the best athlete I can be.

Win region in football senior year.

Leave Tradition and Pride at NPHS

Be the man God wants at [Georgia's black block G logo].

Play 4 years -- earn a spot and contribute significantly.

Graduate with my degree.

Go into NFL draft and have career.

Marry God's woman for me.

Teach other young men wisdom and God's grace.

"When I wrote those things down," Conley said, "I wanted to be ambitious. I wanted to be lofty. If you don't have a big dream, you're shooting for something that's small, and why would you want to do that?"

Of the first five, Conley seems to have taken care of four (North Paulding didn't win its region in 2010). He can take care of the next two -- playing four years and graduating -- by December. That leaves the NFL and marriage. Conley nailed the last one, to teach young men wisdom and God's grace, some time ago.

When Conley arrived at Georgia as one of two midyear freshmen, he resumed living the life he had led for 18 years. He worked in the classroom and in the weight room. He studied his schoolbooks and his playbook. He went hard every snap. That didn't go over so well in the locker room.

"I had a lot of those moments," Conley said, "when we'd be in a meeting and they'd be talking about doing your best, someone in the crowd would say [sarcastic tone], 'Conley!' And everybody would just start laughing."

Conley didn't drink alcohol. He didn't want to hit the bars in the offseason. Richt said Conley isn't the only player in the locker room who goes all out on every snap and every drill, on the field and in the weight room.

"But not many guys are wired that way outside of football," Richt said. "That's what makes him different. And just realize that he's more than just a football player. He's got other interests. He's got other gifts. He's not afraid to explore them. That's the way I see him: not afraid to explore life, and not worried about what anybody thinks about him. He's willing to accept anyone mocking him or criticizing him or 'Why ya doing it' or 'You can't do it.' He just kind of ignores it."

Said Conley, "It's just being different and being all right with being different and loving that you're different. The fact that I don't shy away from my love of superheroes and comic books, 'Star Wars.' That's me. And I like the fact that that's me."

One middle school summer, Chris and his siblings discovered their father's cache of comic books from his youth. Conley's devotion to the DC and Marvel canons, as well as the galaxy, far, far away, is the basis for his filmmaking.

Earlier this year, Conley wrote, directed and starred in his "Star Wars" fan film, set on the Georgia campus. "Retribution" has the "Star Wars" theme of good versus evil, filtered through a Dawg sensibility. Tailback Todd Gurley has a role as a student with Superman-like qualities. Richt performs a hilarious deadpan cameo, and Hairy Dawg, the Georgia costumed mascot, appears as a leader of the rebels fighting the empire.

At the end of the film, after the rebels repelled the empire yet again, the voiceover intoned, "In loss lies a challenge, an inspiration to achieve victory, to unite, to fight."

In the wake of the Dawgs' disappointing 2013 season, when injuries sent a top-five team to an 8-5 finish, that voiceover took on added meaning.

"The ending of 'Retribution' had many themes that deal with obstacles and loss," Conley said. "These were some themes that we encountered as a football team, and when writing this film, we put many of these themes in the project."

His next film will focus on a reluctant superhero, a man who can absorb energy from other sources but is spent after using it. Conley, with the help of Hines, the producer and FilmAthens chair, hired a professional crew and cast from Atlanta.

"We really play with the idea, is a hero born or does destiny raise a hero when his efforts are needed?" Conley said. "Is a hero made or does he actually come along when he is needed the most? We play with the idea of sacrifice. How much are you willing to give?"

They shot 22 hours on the final weekend before Georgia's workouts began. And Conley's work on the film took a backseat to football and graduating and the rest of his multilayered life.

In the film "Broadcast News," a colleague sarcastically says to the news producer played by Holly Hunter, "It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the room."

"No," Hunter says, her hyper-efficient shell cracking just a little. "It's awful."

His coaches say Conley works so hard that he doesn't know when to back off. The nagging injuries that kept him out of two games last season came from overwork. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said the coaches are careful what they tell Conley. When they tell him not to perform extra work, they monitor the practice field and the weight room to make sure he doesn't.

"I wouldn't call myself obsessive," Conley said. "I realize that all of these things that I do are just that. They are things that I do. They're not me. They're things that make up who I am, but they're not me. I don't put all my eggs into a basket and say, 'I am football.' I don't say, 'I am a filmmaker.' I say, 'Those are things that I do. But that's not just who I am.' Who I am is Chris Conley, a guy who is extremely flawed. People just choose not to look at those things because they think I do some cool stuff."

His mother recalls doing the dishes one night during Chris' junior year in high school.

"Mama," he said to her, "I want to be the best. How can I be the best?"

Christina responded with the first three lines of the first psalm, which blesses the man who walks not with the ungodly but who takes delight in God's law. The third verse ends, "And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper."

Sounds about right.