Conley, Sean. The Point After: How One Resilient Kicker Learned there was More to Life than the NFL. Lyons Press, 2020. Pp. 258. Acknowledgments, epilogue, index, photographs, pregame (prologue). $29.95 hardback.
Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo
There is nothing sentimental about the NFL. It is a business, and it chews up players and spits them out like a meat grinder.
Reaching the NFL is a feat. Staying there is the bigger challenge. For every success story — and there are many — there are hundreds of players who had the talent and the desire, but never made it in the league.
Sean Conley falls in the second category.
Life goes on after pro football. That is part of the story in Conley’s engaging and poignant autobiography, The Point After: How One Resilient Kicker Learned there was More to Life than the NFL.
Conley has an inspiring story line. Diagnosed with ADHD when he was 10, Conley struggled to focus in school and invariably found himself in trouble. In the sixth grade, he put staples into a chair at the desk next to him — a girl sat down on them and cut her legs. Several weeks later, while serving as an altar boy during a funeral mass, Conley stole a bag of communion hosts. Expulsion was avoided when the priest noted that because the hosts were not blessed, it was not “a big deal.
Conley had two obsessions while growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania. The first was to become a kicker in the NFL — “It was kicking a ball through the uprights that gave me the most joy,” he writes.
While he attended a high school that had no football program and then went to a Division III college, he eventually walked on at the University of Pittsburgh, where he would earn athletic and academic honors. Conley would be signed by three different NFL teams but was cut by each one before the regular season began.
Conley’s second long-standing obsession was to win the hand of Mercyhurst Prep school classmate, Karen DiPlacido.
Happily, that second obsession was the most rewarding. Sean and Karen Conley celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary on Feb. 10, and their marriage has produced four children. The couple also owns Amazing Yoga, which has three locations in Pittsburgh. It was Karen Conley’s love of yoga and her persistence that allowed her husband to focus on life after football. The Conleys also wrote the 2010 book, Amazing Yoga.
In The Point After, Sean Conley tells an inspiring story with warmth and candor. He tends to beat himself up as he recounts his failures in college and the pros. At times, “I was like a drunken gardener with a spray hose” Conley writes about his missed kicks. Do not be fooled. Conley had some fine moments as a kicker.
Kickers operate on an emotional island. Make a kick and you’re everybody’s friend. Miss it or have it blocked, and you are shunned like the plague.
The good memories: After Pitt defeated Temple 27-20 in 1992, Conley was named the Big East special teams player of the week for the second time, converting field goals of 44 and 47 yards and three extra points. Playing for Division III Gannon on Sept. 15, 1990, Conley kicked two field goals and made two extra points in a 20-10 victory against Hobart. Gannon’s football program had been revived after a four-decade hiatus, so it was the school’s first victory since 1950. He was named to The Associated Press All-East team in 1992, and was one of four Pitt players from the 1992 squad named to the Big East Conference’s All-Academic team.
The bad memories: While playing for Pitt in November 1992, Conley had an extra-point attempt blocked by Penn State’s Tyoka Jackson. Teammate Lee Rubin picked it up and ran 82 yards for a 2-point conversion. Instead of trailing 14-7, the Panthers suddenly were losing 16-6 and the momentum had changed. The story in Times-Leader of Wilkes-Barre the next day called the block “the play of the game.” The first 11 paragraphs of the story focused on the play, even as Pitt lost the game 57-13. The Daily News of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, was less charitable, noting that because of that play, the “the Battle of Pennsylvania turned into the Massacre at Beaver Stadium.” Such is the life of a kicker. Three times during the 1990s, an NFL team signed Conley: the Detroit Lions, the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Jets. He was cut by all three.
In The Point After, Conley gives the reader perspective about the pro football locker room and the overall atmosphere. He notes that his career ended prematurely because he overtrained, kicking too many footballs during the offseason. For example, during the Colts’ training camp in 1994, Conley was asked to take the bulk of the kicks while starter Dean Biasucci rested. “As the new guy, I had to keep kicking,” Conley writes. “From the sidelines, Dean saw my leg strength dwindling. He could see his competition knock itself out of contention.” When Conley asked special teams coach Tom Batta for a break, the answer was predictable. “You’re a new guy who needs to come in here and show what you can do,” Conley quotes Batta as saying. “Get ready to kick today. Suck it up.”
When Conley tried out for the Jets, starter Nick Lowery also resorted to what Conley called “the veteran trick of the trade,” sitting out while the young kicker booted away. Conley had no choice. The result? His right hip flexor would degenerate from overuse. He could nail long field goals, but Conley’s inability to consistently put kickoffs into the end zone led to his release from each team.
Still convinced he could play, Conley signed with the Scottish Claymores of the World League of American Football. After playing for six weeks, he waited for a call from an NFL team. None came, “a reality I never wanted to accept.” “I had an addiction,” Conley writes. “I knew what I was saying to myself now was self-destructive to my well-being. But I felt powerless to end it…. My mind was polluted by my desire to have things the way they should be.” Conley considered signing with the Albany Firebirds of the Arena Football League but walked away even after being offered a contract. His football chapter had ended, but a new one was about to begin.
Conley first began doing yoga in 1994, when his wife was pregnant with their first child. She would eventually turn it into a business, and Sean would leave his job in pharmaceutical sales to help. He became convinced after Baron Baptiste used yoga to help train members of the Philadelphia Eagles — and also after suffering one spasm he called “a Hall of Famer for pain.”
Baptiste, the son of two American yoga pioneers, is credited for “westernizing” yoga, removing the spiritual aspects to make U.S. customers more comfortable with the concept. It was not an easy sell to pro athletes, but they soon embraced yoga.“Every athlete is skeptical at first,” Karen Conley told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a 2008 interview. “The media portrays yoga as a meditative practice.”
Sean Conley described his experience as “euphoric.” “I really liked this feeling,” he writes. “I might even give this another shot.” He did, and even became a teacher in 2004, mixing in humor to cover up his occasional omission. In his wife’s yoga books, “the yogis had serious looks like they were trying to solve a math problem while trying out for the Cirque de Soleil.” Conley used jokes to create his own teaching style, and it worked.
There are several heroes in The Point After. In addition to his wife, Conley was helped greatly by Pitt special teams coach Amos Jones, a disciple of legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Jones was a “badass Andy Griffith, delivering unexpected one-liners that could knock you flat,” Conley writes. Like, “what good is it if your (footballs) land on Mars when they are supposed to land on the moon?” But what Jones really offered was belief in Conley’s ability. “Those other kickers can’t even hold your doggone jockstrap,” Conley quotes Jones as telling him before Pitt’s 1992 season opener. “I believe in you.”
Larry “Deacon Larry” Richards was a priest with “a booming voice” who drove Conley to Youngstown, Ohio, for a court date for a DUI charge. Later known as “Father Larry,” he also counseled the Conleys when Karen became pregnant with her first child. Richards’ aunt gave the couple the “Father Larry” deal when Sean bought an engagement ring. Conley’s father also played a key role, signing his son up for a Punt, Pass and Kick contest when the boy was 8. His gentle demeanor, kindness and positive attitude were traits that a son could build on.
The Point After is not just a book about football. Far from it. It is the story of a man who had a dream and worked hard to achieve it. But when Sean Conley’s football dream ended, he pivoted and became a dedicated family man and a successful businessman. Those are life’s greatest challenges, and Conley has met them with the same smooth effort he had when he was nailing 45-yard field goals in college.
Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.