ATHENS -- Christian Robert Conley was born in Adana, Turkey, in a country straddling two worlds. His father was a military man. His mother was a school teacher.
So it was probably inevitable that Conley’s life would be defined by striking his own balance between two very different worlds.
There are two Chris Conleys. One is a well-spoken man of the world, comfortable in a room full of college presidents, an honor roll student who off-handedly uses the word “symbiotic.”
The other Conley is a 6-foot-3 elite athlete who made a one-handed touchdown catch on national television last week and is now the top receiver for the seventh-ranked Georgia football team.
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There are a lot of good students. There are a lot of good athletes. There are very few Chris Conleys.
“I’d be hard-pressed to find any student at the University of Georgia that’s more involved in the total experience than Chris Conley,” Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said.
“He’s definitely out of the norm of your typical Division I football player,” teammate Arthur Lynch said.
“He’s the poster child for dependability,” head coach Mark Richt said. “He’s maximizing, in my opinion, every gift that God gave him.”
Thanks to injuries, Conley is now moving into a more visible role for the Bulldogs. He will be the most accomplished receiver at quarterback Aaron Murray’s disposal in Saturday’s game against No. 25 Missouri.
And Conley didn’t even play sports until the ninth grade. His mother wouldn’t let him. So while the players he’s lining up against now were out playing some sport ...
“I was inside doing school work,” Conley said. “And when I did have time to go outside and play, I wasn’t playing sports. I was probably riding a bike or something.”
His father Charles was in the Air Force for 20 years and is now retired. His mother Christina is a high school and college teacher. The stereotype might be that Charles dispensed that military discipline to Chris and his two siblings (he’s the middle child), but it wasn’t exactly that way.
“I would say loving disciplinarian,” Chris said of his father. “I would describe him as a gentle giant. Most people see him, and they won’t say anything to him because he’s a pretty big human being. But my Dad is a real calm, quiet man. A thinking man.”
Both parents were committed to education. And when Richt or teammates talk about Conley, invariably they bring up his parents.
“You could just tell, as articulate as he is, the majority of the reason why is because of his parents,” Lynch said. “They raised him right. And they’re very smart, educated people. And I think in turn they want the same thing for their son.”
As a member of the NCAA student-athlete advisory council, Conley has attended meetings in Indianapolis and Washington, discussing national matters. He has also presented at the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla., and McGarity said afterwards that fellow athletics directors told him how impressed they were with his football player.
Lynch and Conley have talked NCAA issues, including whether athletes should be paid. Reporters routinely seek out Conley on NCAA matters, whether it be the targeting rule, the debate about paying players and the A.P.U. protests. Invariably, Conley gives an answer that doesn’t alienate anybody, straddling the line between player and administrator.
“He’s a consensus builder,” McGarity said.
Conley’s family was stationed in Warner Robins, at Robins Air Force Base. Then the Conleys went to Edwards Air Force Base in California for seven years. Finally he ended up back in Georgia, attending North Paulding High School, signing with Georgia and of course enrolling early.
As a freshman, Conley played in 11 games, catching 16 passes, including two touchdowns. Last year he emerged as a starter, catching six touchdown passes. His biggest moment was a low one, although not his fault. By instincts, he caught the pass that ended the SEC championship game, then sat in the locker room and put all the blame on himself, even as teammates and coaches said that was ridiculous.
Conley lives most of his life in a world where even the coaches speak quite differently.
“Style shift is the term, where you change the way that you speak in different situations. And that does happen. It’s something that’s become pretty seamless,” Conley said.
Conley says he has a bunch of long-term goals. But for all the jokes about being a future President of the United States, he doesn’t think politics is one of them.
“I just want to be honest in all situations. And you know, maybe that doesn’t work in politics,” Conley said.
He’s thinking about sports broadcasting. He could see himself coaching. If not football, he isn’t ruling out law school.
“People in our building just love the guy,” McGarity said. It’s just a great example of a young man that has his priorities in order and is really the ultimate student. Really the ultimate student-athlete.”
Then McGarity added, “Pretty good football player now, too.”