LARAMIE – The moments of finality didn’t start to hit redshirt senior wide receiver Austin Conway until last Sunday.
Reality hit him not on a football field, in the weight room or at a teammate’s apartment.
Of all places, it happened at a Mexican restaurant a block away from the University of Wyoming campus.
Conway’s path toward being a football team captain has been a circuitous one, to say the least. For starters, the receiver didn’t even come to Laramie to play football. Though it was always his first love, Conway spent a year playing point guard for the Cowboys basketball team instead.
After realizing his heart wasn’t in it, the Aurora, Colorado, product moved back to the gridiron, where the high school quarterback had no defined position. Along the way was a well-documented suspension for possession of drugs while he was a member of the basketball team that changed his perspective on life.
So when Conway and a few friends were at Almanza’s – of nachos, breakfast burritos and late-night munchies fame – Sunday morning, he was caught off guard when a young boy at the restaurant approached him and poured out his heart.
“One of the kids came up to me and said, ‘You know, I’m really going to miss you.’ He was like, ‘I’ve been a fan of yours since you stepped into this program, and I’d like to thank you for everything that you’ve done off the field,’” Conway said. “I had not been emotional about anything until he had come up to me and said that. I didn’t really realize it was over until that point.”
Conway isn’t perfect. Danny Fisher, his basketball coach at Overland High, admits to having briefly suspended him during his prep career. But Conway’s slip-ups have never been signs of immaturity. In fact, they are quite the opposite. From the moment Fisher met Conway when he was in seventh grade, Conway has always been an adult stuck in a young man’s body. Because of that, he has been willing to take risks because he can accept the consequences. And sometimes that means falling flat on your face.
But, at his core, Conway is a leader. His intelligence, savvy and ability to make people listen and hang on every word he says are rivaled by few. And, to those who know him best, that is the Austin Conway people should remember as the clock winds down on his UW career.
“Those are the guys that make it worth it,” Fisher said. “He is the kind of kid that makes you want to do this forever … he motivates me damn near eternally as a coach. He is a part of my life and part of my program truly, truly forever.”
Even though he had known him since middle school, Fisher had no idea his starting point guard could dunk. Conway – now standing 5-foot-10, 180 pounds – has never been the most physically imposing player on the court or the gridiron. But there’s a reason Fisher referred to him as a “Video Game.”
In high school, Conway was an explosive dual-threat quarterback and one of the best players in all of Colorado. As a senior, he threw for 1,341 yards and ran for another 509. A season earlier, he threw for 1,847 yards and ran for 1,130 yards while totaling 31 touchdowns.
As a basketball player, Conway led Overland to the 2015 Colorado Class 5A state championship, its first. As a senior, he averaged nearly 10.9 points and 4.3 assists per game for the Trailblazers. His ability on the hardwood was especially incredible since Conway was never able to focus on the sport full-time. Fisher, who coached Conway in middle school, said the intricacies of basketball, shooting and ball handling with both hands were never things Conway was able to focus on. But because of his sheer athleticism, he was able to get away with it. Fisher had rarely seen a player attack to the left using his right hand like Conway could.
So when Conway and his teammates were warming up before a practice doing their own form of a slam dunk contest, Fisher was shocked when he saw Conway nonchalantly windmill dunk.
Was Fisher caught off guard? Yes. Was he surprised? At that point, not really.
“I didn’t even know Austin was able to dunk, and he windmilled,” Fisher recalled with a laugh.
Beyond exceptional athleticism, however, was an ability to lead whatever room he walked into. Conway had that ability in high school, which isn’t something every teenager is able to handle. People want to follow Conway’s lead. His intelligence, the way that he holds himself, is hard not to want to emulate.
“I would describe him as magnetic. I mean, guys love to be around him,” UW wide receivers coach Mike Grant said. “They can count on him, that he is going to do the right thing. … That mentality is contagious.”
One moment sticks out to Fisher. During his senior season, Conway approached his coach and told him that an up-and-coming star guard, Reggie Gibson, should be the team’s primary ball handler. He was better with the ball in his hands, Conway said, and it was better for the team. Conway, meanwhile, would focus on shutting down the other team’s best player defensively. Quite simply, Fisher didn’t know how to respond. This had never happened to him before.
From a young age, Conway was always able to see the end game of whatever sat in front of him. There was always a bigger goal. At that moment, the goal was to win basketball games; Overland ended up winning state after that conversation. In life, the goal was initially to go to law school, but that later changed to business, Fisher said. Conway is now on the verge of finishing his master’s degree in finance next month.
“He was always wired differently,” Fisher said. “He had plans way ahead of time for life after sports. When you see that in a 13-year-old, you kind of realize this kid is different.”
“Being a leader isn’t being perfect”
There are a lot of reasons why Conway initially chose basketball, but one of the determining factors was that few programs offered him the opportunity to play quarterback. Coaches saw his raw athleticism, but were unable to see past his size. At that time, Conway had his heart set on being under center.
“I was an athlete in space, but as an athlete in space, they wanted me to play receiver. And that’s the original reason why I decided (to play basketball),” Conway said. “I wanted to play quarterback, but I was too small in that era.”
Conway was a three-star prospect (and the No. 1 player in all of Colorado) as a point guard, and had offers from Indiana and Nebraska, per 247sports.com. He decided to stay close to home and play at Wyoming, and redshirted his freshman season.
During that season, Conway began to realize his heart wasn’t all in on basketball. Football came naturally to Conway. Basketball was starting to feel like a chore, Fisher said.
Conway can’t pinpoint the exact moment in the season when he started longing for cleats again, but one of the turning points was when he was back home in Denver at his brother’s seven-on-seven football camp. There weren’t enough players to field a full defense, so Conway was recruited for defensive back duty.
“My brother just looked at me and said, ‘You’re in the wrong sport,’” Conway said.
After some soul-searching and conversations with football coaches, Conway approached Allen Edwards, who had just been named the UW’s men’s basketball coach, and told him he wanted to play football. Edwards was supportive, Conway said, and allowed him to participate in spring football practice with the option of returning to basketball if things didn’t work out.
Conway’s first few football practices were far from glamorous.
“I was awful,” he said.
Nevertheless, Conway was having fun again and, at that point, he didn’t care about playing quarterback. He just wanted to strap on a helmet and shoulder pads again.
“When he first came out, we integrated him in the offense, and there were only certain plays that we ran with him,” UW football coach Craig Bohl said. “But now he has got the full complement, and he has made plays in the passing game, made plays in the running game (and) made plays in the return game.”
The rest, as they say, is history: 124 career catches, eight total touchdowns and four consecutive seasons of bowl eligibility for a program that hadn’t experienced that type of success since the 1990s.
While football has been Conway’s path the past four years, it was during his lone basketball season that one of his defining life moments occurred. Right before the 2016 Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas, Conway and four of his teammates were cited by police for drug use and were suspended for the remainder of the season.
Conway has always prided himself on being ahead of the curve, on being a man when others around him remain boys. When Fisher heard of his former guard’s suspension, he wasn’t necessarily shocked. Conway disappeared for two days of practice his junior season at Overland and didn’t tell anyone. Fisher had to suspend him.
After both of his incidents, Conway stared punishment directly in the face. Making mistakes isn’t the end of the world; how you deal with them is what ultimately defines you, Fisher said. When others see that Conway can take the heat, it makes everyone else aspire to that level of accountability. Since those two moments in time, Conway has made it his mission to do the right thing.
“That’s when I realized I’m not going to get in trouble again,” Conway said. “I realized (football) means more to me than anything. So, I’m not going to put myself in harm’s way.
“That’s the period in my life where I realized I grew up, because I was able to take myself out of any type of bad situation. … Nothing could deter me from a path I wanted to go on.”
Fisher believes it is Conway’s innate ability to think ahead that occasionally puts him in precarious positions. Lapses in judgment weren’t because he didn’t realize what the consequences were. They stemmed from his willingness to accept the consequences, no matter what they may be. His ability to bounce back from difficult situations is what makes him valuable.
“It’s an interesting balance. He has never been a reckless kid, but he has always seen himself as an adult,” Fisher said. “I love Austin, because 95% of the time he was doing the right thing. You have a kid who has always been willing to be accountable for his nonsense. … Being a leader isn’t being perfect … it’s about being accountable.”
“He is truly special”
You can learn a lot from a person just by watching. No one knows that better than sophomore wide receiver Gunner Gentry.
Gentry has learned the ropes of being a college football player from observing Conway over the past few years. Even if he isn’t talking, Conway is always teaching people something. It’s up to you to follow. And, more often than not, people want to follow.
“He has a hell of a work ethic. He always comes in every day with a great attitude, always has a smile on his face,” Gentry said. “(He) always tries to bring out the best in us.”
As his position coach, Grant is thankful he has a receiver like Conway. No, his numbers aren’t staggering this season: 20 catches, 274 yards and no touchdowns to show for all his work. But it’s the little things he does that has Grant feeling fortunate. Leaders don’t show up at your door very often. Ones like Conway, who willingly mentor not only the receivers, but the entire team? Those guys are one in a million.
Growing up as a quarterback and a point guard taught Conway to be unselfish. It showed him that sometimes the right play isn’t the flashy one. It taught him to see several steps ahead, rather than be caught up in a fleeting moment.
“The football game that people don’t realize is it’s a lot of mental. Assessing, it’s a lot of pre-snap decision making, and then it’s reaction after that point,” Conway said. “You kind of have to have like three, four plans in your mind of what can happen. … Everything happens, and it’s reactive.”
Conway wasn’t always a vocal presence when he joined the football program, Grant said. But through the years, he has found his voice and resumed the natural leadership position he strives for. As a former distributor of the ball in two sports, Conway is used to having the weight of the world on his shoulders.
He thrives under those circumstances.
“I can always talk to the room and use him as an example. I’m not talking about someone who’s gone or somebody I coached before. He is right here in front of you. He is one of your peers. He is a teammate of yours,” Grant said.
As much as being a point guard and quarterback helped him develop as a college wide receiver, those traits that helped him thrive under center and as a floor general have matured into an all-around person outside sports. It taught him accountability, to own lapses in judgment, even when it’s hard to.
From an indefinite suspension as a freshman on the basketball team to being a team captain as a senior on the football team, even Conway finds it hard to believe how far he has come. He isn’t completely sure what the future holds professionally, though he plans on staying in Laramie for the short term.
Conway admits he has made blunders; he owns them. But he has always been determined to do the right thing, even if the path wasn’t as direct as it should have been. That has always earned the respect of teammates and the people around him. Quarterbacks throw interceptions, and point guards commit turnovers; how the player responds after that is what makes him or her special. The same is true with life’s mistakes.
“I wanted to be something better than what I was before,” Conway said. “And I don’t think anyone would want to regress. It’s always a progression.”
It’s been about five years since Fisher last coached Conway. The two still stay in touch, and Fisher has followed Conway’s football career closely.
Fisher has won 73 games at Overland since Conway graduated. He has coached numerous Division I basketball players and has won another state championship. And still, there’s never been someone in his life quite like the “Video Game.” Finding the next Austin Conway is what keeps Fisher going.
“He is truly special. I have never coached a man like Austin in 23 years,” Fisher said. “I’ve always seen him as someone so much bigger than sports. It’s the next step that I’m anxious to see. He is a guy you feel could rule the world.”