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PRO FOOTBALL '87 : COACHES, PLAYERS, TEAMS AND TRENDS TO WATCH THIS SEASON : REAL-LIFE SHANE : On and Off the Field, Bills' All-American Boy Conlan Almost Too Good to Be True

September 10, 1987|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

FREWSBURG, N.Y. — Say it again: Frewsburg. It has a wholesome, gutsy bite to it, like corn on the cob and homemade apple pie.

Frewsburg, neat, clean and green, is a blue-collar village of 1,908 nestled among vineyards and cornfields near the Pennsylvania border. It was named, a local resident says, "by some Scotsman who got lost."

A lot of the people work at the Ethan Allen furniture factory or the Vac Air Alloys plant on opposite sides of town or in the much larger town of Jamestown a couple of miles up the river.

It's something like that little town out West that was settled by sodbusters who had to fight off the cowmen to survive, with the help of a tough, quiet, good-hearted gunfighter: Alan Ladd in "Shane."

"That's my husband's favorite movie," Kay Conlan says as she stocks the sundry shelves in the Quality Market where she works. "I didn't even know that until Shane was born."

If Shane Conlan would let them, they'd probably change the name of the town in honor of the young favorite son who will start for the Buffalo Bills against the New York Jets at strongside linebacker Sunday.

But, heck, he won't even let them put a little bitty sign up there on the "Welcome to Frewsburg" marquee coming into town that lists all the local churches and service clubs. It would say "Hometown of Shane Conlan."

Too bad, because it might be an inspiration for a lot of small-town kids who feel so forlorn along the back roads of America--also a lot of big-town kids lost in the darkness of drugs and misdirected energies.

Conlan's father, Dan, an investigator for the New York State Police, was inspired when he named his middle son. Shane turned out a lot like Dan's movie hero, knowing right from wrong and what to do about it.

Get this:

--While attending high school, Conlan worked in a program called "The Second Mile" for special children--no, worked is the wrong word, the way Conlan tells it. "I was just friends to them," he says. "They get picked on and that makes me sick to my stomach. I might have helped some of them socially to be accepted."

--At Penn State, Coach Joe Paterno called him the best linebacker ever at a school noted for great linebackers. He was an All-American and, with two interceptions in spite of a bad knee, led the Nittany Lion defense that upset Vinny Testaverde and Miami for the national title in the Fiesta Bowl, 14-10.

--He graduated with a degree in administration of justice, but at Penn State that's not unusual. How many of Penn State's seniors graduated after last season? "Probably 27," Conlan says. "Every one of 'em."

--Finally, Conlan was drafted on the first round by the Bills, the eighth player taken overall, and he didn't find it unusual to be one of the few first-rounders sincerely pleased to be claimed by the Bills.

"I'm happy to be there," Conlan says. "It's close to my house. I watched 'em when I was growing up. The location's perfect. All my friends and family are here."

This Sunday about six busloads of the above will make the 1-hour 20-minute trip up to Orchard Park, where the Bills play.

One bus will come from Charlie Gallagher's Frewsburg Hotel and Restaurant because, Gallagher noted, Conlan "has turned this town around. They all used to be (Pittsburgh) Steeler fans."

Rosann Paul has been a waitress at the Frewsburg since Conlan worked there while in high school.

"He cleaned up and fried fish," Paul said. "When he comes home now he's always at the ball fields with the kids. He hasn't changed at all."

Sue Johnson, another waitress, remembers him, too.

"He couldn't walk across the floor without tripping and falling," she said.

At the Frewsburg Pharmacy, apprentice pharmacist Sue Richards said she's known Conlan "since teeny tiny, 2 years old. He was always a real good athlete and a good kid. Everybody likes him.

"He still acts the same: down to earth."

Co-worker Nancy Wilson said: "When Shane comes in here he almost reaches the ceiling, but he'll still talk to you."

A block down the street at the Frewsburger Restaurant, Tom Dallas is polishing off a chocolate sundae. He played high school football with Conlan for the Frewsburg Central School Bears.

"He was good," Dallas said, then thought it over and added, "For around here, he was awful good. He was fast. He only weighed about 180 pounds in high school, but that's good size for around here."

Later, Conlan grew to 6-3 and 230 pounds.

One year the Bears were undefeated when they went to play Albion in the Section 6 Football Federation playoffs in Rich Stadium, the Bills' home. They lost, 49-14, but "to me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Dallas said.

Dallas' older sister Suzette, a waitress at the Frewsburger, wasn't nearly as impressed with Conlan.

"He was littler than me," she sniffed. "I didn't pay attention to him."

It's not easy to get into trouble in Frewsburg, even if a kid wanted to. Besides hanging out at the Igloo, there isn't a whole lot of action.

So what do Frewsburg kids do for fun?

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