Jets' Conley proof positive patience pays off

By Jim Buchan, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin September 13, 2011 

WALLA WALLA -- When T.J. Conley stepped on the field Sunday for the first time at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., it was the culmination of a lifelong dream.

Also the product of dedication and determination. But most of all the power of patience.

Conley, a 2004 graduate of DeSales High School and a three-sport Irish standout, is the new punter for the NFL's New York Jets. He won the job in his third camp and will be doing the punting -- and holding for placekicker Nick Folk -- for the Jets season-opening 27-24 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

"I'm very excited, but I'm trying to treat it like any other game," Conley said before the game. "I'm not going to hype it up in my head, just treat it like practice.

"To say this is the big time and that I have to make my best punts, I will get just the opposite out of it. I just have to stay calm and stay focused and do what I can do, and that will be good enough."

That's the attitude Conley has taken throughout his athletic career.

Certainly he needed to maintain a positive attitude during the Jets' 2009 and 2010 summer camps when he was a leading candidate for the team's punting job only to be cut before the regular season began.

"Everybody has their doubts," Conley said of those earlier disappointments. "But I knew that I had what it takes to punt at this level. I just knew that I needed the right timing and the right system and the right coaches.

"And that's what I have found here. My coaches here have given me three opportunities to make this team. Knowing they have that faith in me has meant a lot and helped a lot."

But Conley discovered the power of perseverance several years before his first professional tryout.

It was in December of 2003 under the concrete roof of the Tacoma Dome that Conley experienced ultimate adversity for the first time.

Two minutes and 11 seconds remained in the first quarter of scoreless battle between unbeatens DeSales and Reardan for the Class 2B-11 state championship. As Conley, the Irish quarterback, scrambled for an 8-yard gain to the Indians' 7-yard line, he was tackled hard and low by a Reardan defender.

His left tibia was shattered. He was taken from the field on a stretcher. Reardan went on to win the title with a 13-3 victory, and Conley wouldn't return to the football field for nearly two years.

The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder was recruited to the University of Idaho as a quarterback. But he was grayshirted by the Vandals the first year, which still allowed him four years of eligibility plus a redshirt year if needed.

"I was still recovering from my broken leg and wasn't quite ready to practice," Conley said.

His rehabilitation complete, Conley played quarterback during the spring of 2005 before being switched to defensive back -- and punter -- that fall. But four games into the season, during a midweek practice, Conley broke his left leg for a second time, this time a little higher and not as serious, but damaging enough to end his season.

He recovered in time for his sophomore campaign and served as Idaho's backup quarterback as well as the Vandals' punter. He averaged 39.4 yards on 67 kicks as a sophomore and 40.3 on 68 punts as a junior.

Finally, during his senior season in the fall of 2008, he gave up his QB duties and focused on punting. The result was a 47.4 average on 58 kicks.

"It was a tough transition because I really wanted to play quarterback," Conley remembered. "But I am really glad that I did it because you can tell by my stats that it wasn't until my senior year that I began to focus on punting and started to excel."

Although Conley led the entire nation in punting as a senior and was the Walter Camp All-American first-team selection as well as the ESPN, Sporting News and College Football News first-team pick, he went undrafted in the NFL's 2009 college draft.

But the Jets were aware of his skills and signed him as a free agent. Three seasons later Conley has finally reached the big time.

"I had several other tryouts but nothing ever worked out," Conley said of the two camps in which he was cut by the Jets. "At the same time I am glad, because of the situation I am in now. I couldn't ask for a better organization to be working for. The Jets are a first class team and I am very happy to be here."

Conley is also proud to be DeSales' first NFL player and to belong to a select group of Walla Wallans who have reached football's pinnacle in recent years.

"It's great to represent my high school," Conley said. "There have been some amazing athletes there in the past, and it's an honor to be associated with players like Joe Levens and Brian Lindgren and a lot of others.

"And guys like Drew Bledsoe and Peter Sirmon, it's just an honor to be associated with those kinds of names. It's humbling."

Wa-Hi's Bledsoe was the NFL's No. 1 overall draft pick by New England in 1993 and enjoyed a 13-year pro career quarterbacking with the Patriots, Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys. Sirmon, also a Blue Devil, was selected in the fourth round in 2000 and spent six seasons playing linebacker for the Tennessee Titans.

After failing to make the Jets roster in 2009, Conley returned to Idaho where he had graduated the previous spring with a degree in civil engineering.

"I trained there, and I got a job with a land surveying company, which was the closest thing I could find to my engineering degree," he said.

The following year, he and his new bride, Tassie, whom he met at Idaho, spent the off season in Seattle where he trained at the University of Washington.

"The majority of the coaching staff that I had at UI was now at the UW," Conley said. "I got a chance to work out with some of the Huskies and also some of the Seattle Seahawks, who were training there because of the (NFL) lockout."

The Conleys are expecting their first child in March. And family, he said, has been a driving force throughout his pro football journey.

"I owe a huge amount of thanks to my family, to my wife and to her family as well," Conley said. "They never once pressured me to give up my dream. They always supported me 100 percent.

"My wife is a pharmacist, and this past year she has supported us so that I was able to focus on my training. I owe her a great amount of thinks, It has helped a great deal."

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