The Force Is with Chiefs Wideout Chris Conley
KANSAS CITY — Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley arrived at the Screenland Crossroads bar/arcade/theater on McGee St. wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with Darth Vader’s mask and the word Georgia. The shirt was part of a line of college-themed Star Wars clothing released last year, around the time Conley debuted his Star Wars fan fiction film, Retribution, in which the former University of Georgia student stars as a fallen Jedi who has gone to the Dark Side.
Conley, drafted in the third round last May, is probably the NFL’s foremost expert on the movie franchise after spending a lifetime exploring the Star Wars universe—and a spring defending his love of football to NFL types who thought his filmmaking chops might have been a little too good. “They want their athletes to be intelligent people who are well-rounded, but at the same time, when someone comes up to them that may be too well-rounded, they get nervous,” Conley says. “They get nervous and they start to question whether that person really wants to be there.”
Before seeing The Force Awakens last Friday, Conley, 23, and fellow Chiefs rookie Ross Travis, a tight end, played N64 Super Smash Brothers on a projection screen with grade schoolers before the 6:30 pm showing. Three hours later, Conley sat down with The MMQB for a spoiler-free interview breaking down his love of the genre and comparing the Star Wars universe to that of the Chiefs, who have won their last eight games and have become one of the league’s most dangerous teams on the verge of the postseason.
Conley has 15 catches for 177 yards in his first NFL season.
KLEMKO: What’s your gut reaction to the movie?
CONLEY: I really enjoyed it. It’s been so long that I have been waiting for this movie to come out. So much anticipation. So many things happened during the film, unexpected things, things that caught you off guard. But then ultimately you got back to the core of what Star Wars is and what so many people have connected with over the years, and I’m glad that a new generation can be introduced to something so special.
KLEMKO: Were you nervous this movie wouldn’t fulfill all of your expectations?
CONLEY: I think everyone on some level was a bit nervous, everyone who is a true fan of Star Wars. More so because we’ve enjoyed so much of this franchise, of this story, this universe, we don’t want injustice to be done to those people who are coming into it fresh. We want those people to be able to enjoy it and connect with it just like we have. And I felt like this film did that to me. Sitting there, there were multiple times throughout the movie when it just hit me right in the feels and brought back memories from when I was a kid. Brought back all this random knowledge and facts that I know from the extended universe—and this movie connected just right to it and it’s opened up so many doors for where they can go next.
KLEMKO: You were angry earlier when we walked out because we were sitting next to some kids who had no understanding of it.
CONLEY: None. None whatsoever, and the fact is, they weren’t young kids, they looked like they were in their mid-20s, and they had no idea what was going on—not to mention they were talking during the movie. I wasn’t too proud of the way they were talking about my Star Wars. They were sitting there saying, ‘I have so many questions.’ And I wanted to stand up and say, ‘Go home and watch the other movies and stop talking in ours.’ It’s all good, but I think they were made fans of the genre today, too, and I think that’s the good thing about it.
KLEMKO: I loved the first three, the 1970s movies. I was hoping this one would have that feel, and it kind of did.
CONLEY: Yeah, there are Star Wars purists who try to disown Episodes 1, 2, and 3 [the prequels released beginning in 1999], but my generation came in as those movies were coming out, so those were the first movies that I connected with—and then I connected with the ’70s movies. So I have an appreciation for all of them, and I think they all have their place in the Star Wars canon. Some are better than others, but in terms of the story—and ultimately the story is what I have really connected with—I just felt like this movie was Star Wars. This universe that you saw was Star Wars. It was very moving and impactful.
KLEMKO: You were born in Turkey on a military base, correct? When did you move to Georgia, and when were you introduced to Star Wars?
CONLEY: I moved to Georgia around the age of 3, and grew up in Georgia and California. I was introduced to Star Wars at a young age; my dad has always been into science fiction and movies. Once we saw it, we really took to the story. When I say we, I mean, myself and my siblings. It’s really one of those things that we never let go of… It’s gotten to the point where it’s gone beyond just watching the movies. My brother does cosplay; he makes props and costumes. I, myself, have done some of the film work and created some of these stories in this universe. My sister does some things too. It’s just something that everyone can connect to.
KLEMKO: First episode you ever saw?
CONLEY: I remember the Phantom Menace. That’s one of the first ones I remember, and I think that is what got me so attracted to the story: the struggle between good and evil, the light and the dark, and starting to follow these characters who—although they have these great powers that they are beginning to understand—are still so left in the dark sometimes at what is really going on in the big picture and the way that the story is going to turn. That is one of the intriguing things about it—someone with so much power, in many of these instances, has no idea what is going on and has to learn just like everyone else.
KLEMKO: What was the impetus of your fan-fiction film? How long had you studied the film world before you got into it?
CONLEY: About four days. Four days before we had our first production meeting, it was really a crash course on what filmmaking is, a lot of trial by fire, a lot of errors that were made that when I watch it now it makes me cringe, things that I would never do again. It was so valuable, being in that situation. Being thrown into the fire like that made me learn so much faster. I was blessed to be surrounded by some really talented people. Grayson Holt did visual effects for us; he’s a guy who was born with a laptop, born with a computer, he can do it all. Having his help, being able to bring what I had in my head, my vision, to life, took the production value up through the roof. And then being able to work with people and find members of the Mandalorian Mercs and the 501st, people who have these costumes and armors and being able to bring them in and communicate a vision to them, it really took this thing from being a second-rate homemade video into something that was a true fan film.
KLEMKO: Sixty second recap of your film…
CONLEY: It’s funny, after watching that, but my film is about a fallen Jedi named Khari Vion, who comes back to the city of Athens to basically finish what he left there. He fled and went to the Dark Side, and he goes to finish off his old master. His old master has taken on a new apprentice, reluctantly, and in his apprentice he sees much of his last one. So he goes to Athens to take him out, and it’s about that struggle between the dark and the light, and someone who is lost coming home.
KLEMKO: I don’t remember a young black male character the way Finn was portrayed in the new movie. Did it mean anything to you that they cast that role that way? Could you ever see yourself in another life playing that role?
CONLEY: I was very proud of the way that [J.J.] Abrams directed this film. Finn was a great character—his actions and his personality showed greatly throughout the film. I remember when they had the open casting for the two lead roles of Finn and Rey, and I was so tempted to go and audition because they had an audition that was hours from where I was at—and unfortunately, being a football player, you are always busy and you are always on a schedule, and I knew that if I had gone for that audition and you get a callback, you are basically saying, “Hey coach, I’m done, this is it for me.” And I knew I couldn’t do that for my teammates. But I am so proud of the way they cast this film. It was fresh, and the actors did a great job.
KLEMKO: During the NFL draft process, how many times did you get asked about this movie and your love of Star Wars?
CONLEY: Countless times. These teams make a big investment in you when they want to bring you in, and they want to know if they can count on you. Especially with the position I play. They need guys that are focused, guys that can make plays, guys that aren’t going to be high-maintenance. I got asked this question everywhere I went, What’s up with this filmmaking thing? It was more so about the filmmaking than Star Wars. I got asked many times if I would rather be playing football or pursuing film in Hollywood, and I had to let them know that’s something for later. Everyone has to have a backup plan and something ready to do when their football career ends. I put so much time and effort into playing football and so many people have sacrificed for me to get here, so this is where all my focus is right now.
KLEMKO: There had to have been some resentment when you were questioned about your dedication to football?
CONLEY: Yeah, you know there’s definitely a bit of oxymoron-ism to it. They want their athletes to be intelligent people who are well-rounded, but at the same time, when someone comes up to them that may be too well-rounded, they get nervous. They get nervous and they start to question whether that person really wants to be there. The reality is, there are a lot of people who play this sport at this level who had no other options. This was the only thing that they had going for them. Then there are a lot of people in this league who have many other talents and who have other areas and ways in which they can reach people.
KLEMKO: Is there a Mark Richt [Conley’s coach at Georgia] in the Star Wars universe?
CONLEY: Yeah, whenever you see a coaching figure you think of somebody who is like a Jedi master. I would probably say that Coach Richt and Coach [Andy] Reid have a bit of Yoda in them—the person who is always there overseeing, not too overbearing, but always has words of wisdom. More so Coach Reid, because he always has jokes he’ll throw in here and there, so he reminds me of an older Yoda. We have guys all around that the locker room that remind of you of different characters. I’d probably say that Travis Kelce is the Han Solo of the locker room, either him or J Mac [Jeremey Maclin), those are the two guys who think that they are extremely smooth. They may be smooth, but they definitely think they are, just like Han Solo. You have the Aces in the locker room that you can always count on, who have been doing things for a long time, kind of like Jason Avant. And then you have the Sith in the locker room would probably be the guys on the D-line, Justin Houston or Tamba Hali. When you look into their face mask, you probably see some of those masks like Vader and Kylo Ren. There are parallels all throughout the place, I could make comparisons for days, but they are good guys.
KLEMKO: Is there an Eric Berry character in Star Wars?
CONLEY: Eric Berry has always been a selfless guy. Before this, he may not have gotten all the credit he deserved, but he’s always done the right things, he’s always been a leader, he’s always stood up for what’s right and always taken other people under his wing and shown them the right way to go. He’s been a tremendous leader and a great playmaker for us. With that being said, I’d probably say Eric Berry is like Obi-Wan Kenobi, the guy who always does the right thing but everyone might not see his contribution that he made. He doesn’t seek that attention either; he just goes about his business and does what he’s supposed to do, tremendous leader.
KLEMKO: You got some razzing from teammates who were surprised you even showed up for work today. Who was the driving force behind that?
CONLEY: My locker is right by Jeremy Maclin’s, and he likes to poke fun all the time. Great guy, but he hasn’t seen Star Wars and he’s not a big fan. I try to explain the story to him and things like that. But everyone else in the locker room knows that this is something I am into, and many of them are just like me and are huge fans of this franchise. But some of them don’t take it to the extent that I take it to and make a fan film about it. I don’t know many people that do. But it’s all in fun, and once again it’s something that everyone can relate to in a different way. I’ve seen that in that locker room—there are different guys who like that for different reasons.
KLEMKO: Were you surprised by the number of teammates who are Star Wars fans? Did you think there would be more or less?
CONLEY: I don’t know. Football can be this macho-man sport where a lot of guys don’t like to admit that they are fans of things, especially things that could be considered nerdy or way too far out there. But I’m proud of the fact that there are a lot of guys who can stand up and say, “Yeah, I love Star Wars.” That’s something that’s really cool. I think what gets me the most is when I go out in public and I see someone who is like, I’ve never seen or heard of Star Wars. And I’m like, OK, how have you been living in this country for that long and never seen or heard of a Star Wars movie? That’s what gets me, not the people who decide to stand up and support it.
KLEMKO: Which Star Wars character are you at this point in your football career?
CONLEY: It would be great if I could use the references and not spoil this movie, but I won’t do that to people. For me right now, this year has been a huge learning process. Learning not only about the game of football, but learning about myself. I’d probably say I’m just the generic Padawan right now, just trying to learn my craft and get to the point where I can do these things consistently and explosively and help my team win any way possible.