Sometimes the best books you read are the ones you least expect to be fantastic. Sometimes the best sports autobiographies are written by athletes you’ve never even heard of.
My latest homework assignment was to read and review “The Point After: How One Resilient Kicker Learned there was More to Life than the NFL” by Sean Conley. Let’s call this a very enjoyable homework assignment.
I had never before heard of Conley or if I had, his name had slipped my mind. When we think of field goal kickers, a few great (or more importantly bad) ones come to mind. Maybe we’re familiar with those that played for the teams we cheer for. But while we sports fans partake in conversations about the greatest athletes or position players of all time, when’s the last time you debated over the NFL’s greatest kickers?
“Being a kicker is a lonely job. I can be a hero or the goat of the game. My opponents are the wind, the cold, and the 10-foot-high metal posts that I have to kick the ball through, but also anxiety, fear and worry. My allies are confidence and hitting the ball just right. Missing it by a sliver can send the ball careening outside the uprights and my mood into pits of despair. I remind myself to think positive.”
What you’ll find in Conley’s beautifully-written The Point After is a story about life, struggle, family, determination and an unmitigated desire to reach the NFL. It is a captivating and inspirational read.
“I loved the smell of the grass. I loved watching the ball sail through the air, flying end over end through the goalpost with just the sky for background. I would imagine lining up for a last-second field goal in front of a roaring crowd and then splitting the uprights. “The crowd goes wild!” There in the damp, sparse grass, with the sun sinking behind the trees, it was my own field of dreams.”
Every kid who’s ever played football has dreamed of playing in the NFL. Would Conley’s dream come true?
Diagnosed at an early age with ADHD, Conley secretly refused taking his medicine. Instead, he looked to combat his disease by focusing on kicking a football, which he did every day after school for years. “I simply couldn’t envision anything else. I was a kicker. It’s just who I was, and who I would always be.”
The odds of any player making the NFL are miniscule at best. The odds of Conley doing so were even smaller than that. He went to a high school that didn’t have a football team, opting to play soccer instead, all the while his goal still in mind. He ended up playing football at a Division III school where he wasn’t even that good statistically. For his senior year, he decided to transfer to Pitt and walk on to the football team. Nothing in Conley’s lifelong pursuit was a given; everything was earned.
After a personally successful season as a Division I college athlete, yet disappointing because of his team’s overall record, Conley took to the pros to pursue his dream, although he had to do so without a coach. The entire Pitt staff was let go after a three-win season. “The chances of successfully making the jump from college to the NFL as a kicker are slim. In 1993, the NFL had 28 teams. Each team carried just one kicker. There is no “backup kicker”: 28 teams, 28 jobs for kickers. That’s just 28 positions in the entire world for what I do.”
Enter Draft Day. Despite promise from multiple teams that he would be selected in later rounds, Conley went undrafted. Then the Detroit Lions came calling. He was cut after a single post-season but not after a few great stories to tell about the experience.
After that, at only 23 and still determined, he found out that his soon-to-be fiancée was pregnant, not the greatest time to be broke and questioning one’s future.
But then… a workout with the Colts.
As the pain in his body kept increasing, the result of overtraining, he was cut yet again. Apparently making the NFL is no easy task. He resorted to driving an ice cream truck to pay the bills and feed his newborn daughter.
A season passed. His dream still alive, Conley got another tryout, this time with the New York Jets, until…
“’I’m afraid that your hip flexor has degenerated from overuse.’ I pretended not to hear him. I pictured my thigh muscles torn to shreds. I stopped breathing. A kicker who couldn’t kick. It couldn’t end like this.”
Conley’s obsession continued, playing a season in the CFL. “Instead of feeling passionate about playing, I was obsessed and destructive. My success-at-all-costs-mid-set was hurting myself and it was hurting others.”
His journey continued but I don’t want to release any spoilers. You’ll have to read it to find out where he ended up. Conley’s is a story you can’t help but root for. It is one man’s journey to find out what’s truly important in life, his NFL chase serving as metaphor for the paths that any of us choose in following our dreams.
In addition to The Point After being a tale of one man’s determination (if not obsession) to play professional football, it is also a love story and a story about one man’s love and respect for his father.
Readers of my generation will love the references to players like Jerome Bettis, Qadry Ismail, Rick Mirer, Lou Holtz, Curtis Martin, and Barry Sanders who first told him in a London hotel lobby that there was more to life than football, the subtitle of the book.
Like I said earlier, sometimes the best sports autobiographies come from athletes you’ve never heard of. I’m happy to say Conley’s makes that list.