There is an old saying that goes along the lines of “Nobody ever thinks about the kicker until you need one.” Well maybe it’s not exactly an old saying, but I heard an ex-NFL radio jock say it once and it stuck with me. And to prove my point, if I said the name “Sean Conley” to you, you’d probably think “who’s the hell is that guy?”
He’s a former kicker of course. For Pitt. All Big-East actually. But you didn’t know that. Primarily because he played on one of the most underwhelming teams in modern Pitt history, and also because well…he’s a kicker. And so if you saw Conley’s memoir on the bookshelf, you’d probably walk right past it.
That would be a mistake.
Conley reached out to me over the holidays and sent me a copy of his recently published autobiography, titled “The Point After” (Released in July 2020). I agreed to read it, and if it was any good, I agreed to write about. Well, I’m writing about it, and I’m not just doing it to do the guy a favor. I do a fair amount of reading and I have high standards, and I will readily admit that I was entertained.
For me, a book will make or break itself on the first page; if I’m not interested halfway through, forget it. Call me a homer, but Conley’s narrative had me hooked after the first line (even though I already knew the outcome of the game):
“Tonight is the biggest night of my life, October 10, 1992. Tonight Pitt will play the most storied team in college football, the University of Notre Dame”.
In that first chapter, which he opens so tantalizingly, Conley takes us into the Pitt locker room, on to the pre-game training table, through his pre-game ritual (who knew kickers did that to the balls?), and then out into Pitt Stadium. We walk to midfield with co-captains Vernon Lewis and Alex Van Pelt. We shake hands with Rick Mirer and Jerome Bettis, and we are given a glimpse into the loneliest of echo chambers, that solitary place filled with demons and self doubt and inner resolve – the head of a kicker. I’ll venture to say that if you aren’t moved by these first six pages, well then you might not be a Pitt fan, or a football fan, or even a fan of humanity. (Even though those first six pages were written by a kicker.)
Make no mistake, Conley is no Hemmingway. His prose is not necessarily beautiful, or lyrical, or even literary in the academic sense, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a book about football, and Conley tells us his story in authentic, Erie Pennsylvania, working-class, hard-work-pays-off words. His is a story of resilience, simply told, and I found it highly engaging (and an easy read.) After the first chapter, Conley takes us back to Erie, his childhood, his love for the game of football, his passion for kicking, his adversity. And because that first chapter is such a good hook, you’ll find yourself rooting for him all the way, from his childhood, through his college odyssey, to his stint in the pros and beyond.
Without giving anything away, Conley had a few different kicking stops on his way to the NFL, and one of the best parts of the book is his anecdotes about the coaches. He does a great job conveying their personalities, idiosyncrasies, and the key moments where each coach impacted him. As a former high school football player who was always curious about what it was like to play at the next level, I found these bits to be pure gold
Additionally, if you went to Pitt, especially in the 1990’s, you’ll relish the chapters about Conley’s Pitt career. The story will absolutely take you back to Oakland. Landmarks are mentioned. Classes are referenced (Spoiler alert Conley took Geology 101, aka “Rocks for Jocks” just like me!) Former Pitt greats are encountered, including a certain quarterback in a certain watering hole, who gives the author some certain career-changing advice. (Hint: It wasn’t Matt Cavanaugh).
But I’ll also urge you to not just read it for the Pitt nostalgia. Conley’s true-life narrative about the NFL draft and what comes after are great reads. His training camp stories are peppered with run-ins with recognizable names, and insight about what the NFL is really like. No, The Point After isn’t Paper Lion (George Plimpton’s famous narrative about playing an entire preseason for Detroit in the 1960’s), but Conley’s take is more relevant to the modern game, and Conley gives us a deeper, more objective look than anything you’ll find on ESPN.com.
At the end of the day, the title of the book gives away the ending. (The Point After: How One Resilient Kicker Learned there was More to Life than the NFL). Conley’s life after football feels a little bit like it’s written on fast forward, but in his defense, maybe it actually felt like it was on fast forward when he lived it, and he certainly had a lot of ground to cover. Ultimately, our former Pitt Kicker finds inner peace in the most Amazing possible way. I should venture to ask if we should all be so lucky? Because no matter how it’s found, inner peace is sorely needed these days. Sorely. And so yes, Kicker, we need you now. We need your story. We need your ending. We need it more than ever. And we are thinking about you.
Hail to Pitt
Sean Conley’s autobiography can be found on Amazon.com.
Click here to see his book on Amazon, or click on the image below.