Trying to make the team

Published 10:34 pm Friday, June 19, 2009

For the last month, Nansemond River and Hampton University alum Dennis Conley has been hard at work with the Chicago Bears in the Bears’ OTAs (Organized Team Activities).

“OTAs basically are organized practices, but with no pads, but the intensity is the same as with pads,” said Conley, who said the practices during May and June are the NFL’s equivalent to spring practices for college teams.

Conley returned home to Suffolk on Thursday and will be heading back to Chicago on July 29, two days before preseason training camp opens for the Bears.

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Since mid-May, Conley, an offensive guard who was an undrafted free agent signee by the Bears shortly after the NFL Draft, has had a lot thrown at him as he works to earn a spot with the Bears. At the same time, Conley knows he’s making progress and is optimistic about his chances.

“I’ve had a lot of unknowns. I mean I played only three games last year (as a senior at Hampton), and now I’m in a situation where I’ve got a legitimate shot at making this team,” said Conley.

“Basically we’ve been going over plays. We get down into the playbook and break everything down,” said Conley, “and this is the time we really go over the basics as far as technique and all the small things linemen have to do.”

It’s obvious the physical demands are great, but Conley, who’s listed at 6-foot-4, 303 pounds by the Bears, says learning everything he needs to as quickly as possible has been what the Chicago coaches expect the most.

Thinking ahead to training camp in less than two weeks, Conley said, “the biggest thing for a lineman is you’ve got to learn the playbook. That’s the big thing. That’s the main thing. If you learn the playbook, you’ll have a good chance.

“As far as being physical, I know I can do that. I’m not worried about being physical enough.”

Conley, who was a tight end during his high school career with the Warriors, and then moved to guard while at Hampton, knew he’d have a lot of studying to do in a hurry.

“I’ve been learning for five years, but now, there’s someone telling you how to do it their way and it’s totally different than the coaches I’ve had before.

“It’s tough learning the plays to the point where you know them when you hear it in the huddle. It’s one thing to know the playbook, but it’s another to know it in the huddle,” said Conley.

“By the end (of OTAs) I was doing that very well and I know I’m getting better.”

The whole team, veterans and rookies, is present during OTAs. While Conley said on some teams, in some situations, veterans might not be eager to help out rookies who could in turn take their spot in the lineup or even on the team, the Bears’ veterans have been nothing but helpful.

“The Bears have a lot of veterans, but they are guys in the prime of their careers, so I think they’re more inclined to help a young guy out,” said Conley.

Conley says veteran linemen such as Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza and Josh Beekman have been especially helpful. Kreutz, Garza and Beekman have a total of 24 seasons of NFL experience.

“There have been times when one of the guys will come up to me without me saying anything. They’ll say, ‘you’ve got to do it this way’.

“I think it’s a sign of respect if they’re trying to help, and they’re more likely to say something and help you if they see you’re out there working hard and trying to get it right,” said Conley.

A typical day for Conley and the Bears starts with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call. The team is lifting weights by 7 a.m., then there are positional and team meetings, followed by practice. Most days, everything’s done by about 1 p.m., said Conley.

So while the football part of each day is as intense as possible, at the same time, “we have a lot more leisure time,” said Conley. “It’s something I wasn’t used to when you compare it to college.”

“The city’s great. The fans are great,” said Conley. “One of the good things is Chicago’s one of the biggest media capitals.

“All the fans, when they see us out around the city, they treat us really well. At restaurants, we’re treated great. We never have to wait to get in. People there really show their appreciation for who you are, the work you’re doing and what you’re trying to do.”

The Bears have players involved in a number of activities around Chicago. Conley said, just in the past week before coming home, he and teammates worked with the Boys and Girls Club and at youth football camps hosted by the Bears.

“It’s really good experience and a way to get accustomed to the community,” said Conley.

Conley is working to stick and make it in another community, a much larger one, but he remembers Nansemond River and Suffolk and is working to set a pattern for kids here to follow.

“Anyone can make it and do this if they work hard and try hard. If you work hard you can make it go your way,” said Conley.