A short time ago in our very own galaxy, there was a boy who couldn’t catch. This was fine with his mother. She had already ended his football career once, in eighth grade, before he ever played a down, because football was violent, yes, but also because football was not literature, not the word of God, not music, not art, not theater, not exactly beneficial to the intellect, and besides all that she figured he was too busy. He probably was. The kid did almost anything he wanted. Played the guitar. Played the piano. Played the role of Goliath on stage. He was handsome, smart, fast and agile, with long limbs and big hands. But he did not play sports. He spent his time doing homework. Television was restricted, video games rationed. He did get to see movies sometimes. Especially Star Wars, which his father loved. When the boy and his brother played outside, they fenced with plastic light sabers.
Despite his mother’s misgivings, Chris Conley wanted to play football -- to play wide receiver, in fact. Upon reaching high school he asked his father, Charles, to intervene, and Chris’ grades were so good that his father talked his mother, Christina, into it. Then he just had to learn to catch the ball. His new coach, Heath Webb, had some advice: If the pass is below your waist, put your thumbs out; if it’s above your waist, put your thumbs together. Chris listened, practiced, but still dropped a lot of passes that first year with North Paulding High in metro Atlanta. He slowed himself down on deep routes by holding out his arms when the ball took flight and keeping them out until the ball came down.
“Coach,” he said at the end of freshman year. “What would it take for me to be a college football player?”
“Hard work,” the coach said.
“I’m willing to do whatever it would take,” the boy said.
And so Conley met Webb every morning in the gym before school and learned how to catch. They started with a stationary drill called around the clock. Conley caught 10 balls with his arms at 12 o’clock, straight above his head. Ten balls at 1 o’clock, reaching a little to the left. Ten more at two, 10 more at three, thumbs out, thumbs together, arms twisting, wrists bending, working all the way around the circle. “I probably threw my arm out,” says Webb, a former high school quarterback and small-college receiver, but the work paid off. Pretty soon Chris was the North Paulding Wolfpack’s most dependable weapon.
They needed one, too. North Paulding was a new school, expanding by one grade a year, so that when Chris was a sophomore there were no juniors or seniors. His team of nothing but underclassmen was playing teams full of upperclassmen. It was rough. Coach Webb had run the option in high school, but he couldn’t expect his miniature offensive line do much run blocking. So he opened it up, spread it out, asked the boys to protect the quarterback for half a second, maybe even a whole one, just long enough to get Chris the ball. And they did.
His mother pictured brain damage, spinal injuries. She kept herself busy at the concession stand, where the sounds of the game were frightening enough. Sometimes Chris got tackled, but sometimes not, because sometimes he caught the ball and ran away from the tacklers and kept running 70 or 80 yards until he crossed the goal line, untouched.
Four years later, 2012 SEC Championship Game, and Chris Conley wears the Georgia red and black. He’s chosen the Bulldogs from 11 offers, including one from Alabama, most of which he received after catching 81 passes as a high school junior and dropping none. After a slow freshman season, he’s sharpened his game at Georgia by running routes alone on the practice field. Now, with the team’s two leading receivers lost for the season to injury, this could be Conley’s moment.
A win today would give Georgia a chance at its first national championship since 1980. Alabama leads 32-28, but the Bulldogs have time for one more drive. Complete to the Alabama 34-yard line. Complete again to the 8. No timeouts. Fifteen seconds. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray looks to the sidelines, motioning to spike the ball and stop the clock, but head coach Mark Richt wants to press his advantage against an exhausted Alabama defense. The Bulldogs line up. Thirteen, twelve. Conley stands in the right slot. Ten, nine. Murray takes the snap. Looks right. Aims for Malcolm Mitchell near the right pylon.
But the ball never reaches the target, because Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley tips it as it leaves Murray’s hand. The ball wobbles up toward the lights, above the five-yard line, where Conley is coming out of his break. If the ball hits the turf, the clock will stop. Georgia will have one or two more shots at the end zone. But Conley does what receivers do: He catches the ball. Seven, six. His left foot slips on the turf. He turns and falls across the 5, still inbounds. Three, two, one. His mother and father watch in disbelief as a cosmic paradox unfolds on the floor of the Georgia Dome. Sometimes you catch the ball, and nobody catches you, and you still fall short.
Later, Conley would say that game took five years off his life. But he put it behind him. Down 31-23 to Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl a month later, he caught a 49-yard bomb for a touchdown that set up the tying two-point conversion. In the fourth quarter, on a third-and-12, he caught a pass near the line of scrimmage and outran the defense for an 87-yard touchdown that sealed the win.
His breakthrough carried over, and in 2013 he led the Bulldogs with 45 catches and 651 yards. He had grown to 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, and there was talk of a pro career. He was busier than ever, majoring in journalism, making the dean’s list, playing his Fender acoustic, singing John Mayer and Luke Bryan tunes at open-mike nights around Athens. And then it happened again: A young man who could do a lot of things easily decided to try something really hard.
Chris Conley had always loved drama, performance, film scores. Now he would bring them all together. He was going to direct a film. This would not be a mere video, cranked out one weekend on some guy’s iPhone. He wanted a script, actors, costumes, special effects. He wanted light sabers. Just as he had learned football six years earlier, Conley set out to learn cinematography. He read about framing, shot selection, casting. He studied prominent directors. He worked up a story using characters from the Star Wars universe. He wrote a part for himself as Khari Vion, the fallen Jedi Knight.
What Conley lacked in experience he made up for in campus renown and charisma. He was a bold man with a clear vision, and people lined up to help him make it real. His older brother, Xavier, built him a convincing villain mask from fiberglass, cardboard and Bondo. A costuming organization called the 501st Legion supplied a wealth of Imperial Stormtroopers. Grayson Holt, a freshman computer-science major, rendered beautiful skyscapes and authentic light sabers. Conley himself used his football conditioning to carry him through the production. One day in the filming he kept the mask on for eight straight hours with nothing to eat or drink.
Retribution is 26 minutes long. It opens with a sky full of stars above Sanford Stadium and, in the Star Wars tradition, a scrolling block of yellow text:
It is a period of Peace and Prosperity.
The city of Athens has enjoyed years
of Football and Parties under the protection
of the Jedi order and the Mandolorian Naast Clan.
The fallen Jedi Khari Vion has been
exiled since the battle of Snelling in which
he tried to kill his former Master
and force students to wear jean shorts.
From there the story gets a little hazy. Khari Vion flies around in a black cloak, leaving a trail of destruction. A Jedi master and his new apprentice try to keep the peace. Todd Gurley shows up, airborne, indestructible, and Mark Richt sits in the plaza, oblivious to the chaos around him. Lightning, fisticuffs, a man in a bulldog suit. Retribution appeared on YouTube last July. It has been viewed more than 420,000 times. Conley’s teammates were pleasantly surprised at the slick production, especially since they’d seen no sign of distraction from the guy who works as hard on his game as anyone on the roster.
After stumbling against Florida on Nov. 1, the Bulldogs sit at 7-2, almost assuredly out of the playoff hunt but with a chance to play the spoiler role if SEC East leader Missouri stumbles. Georgia could find itself back in the SEC championship with a chance to ruin some other West division team’s New Year’s plans. Before that, the Bulldogs will have a chance to avenge last year’s heartbreaking last-minute loss to Auburn this Saturday.
Conley, too, is hoping for a late surge. His numbers are down this season. Murray, a four-year starter who holds the SEC career records for passing yards and touchdowns, was a fifth-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. His replacement, Hutson Mason, has attempted only 25.5 passes per game (204 in eight games) compared to 35.3 in 2013 (459 in 13). The Bulldogs throw less and run more, but his old coach still gets calls from NFL scouts. “He’s a low-risk prospect,” Webb says of Conley. “He’s gonna work hard, he’s gonna perform. There are no character issues.”
One NFL scout sees Conley going in the fifth or sixth round. “Obviously he’s a multi-faceted young man with his movie prospects,” the scout says. “That’s very impressive considering he’s a college student. He has some vertical speed combined with size … He has the opportunity to raise his stock if he finishes the year strong and has a good spring.”
Conley wants to play in the NFL, but in December he’ll have his degree, and if pro football doesn’t happen he’ll have more time for his next film. He already has a script and a rough-cut trailer. This time it’s an original feature about a man earning money in underground cage fights. The man has a destiny he’s just beginning to understand. The world needs a hero. He’d better get to work.