It seems like an eternity ago, but there was once an era when the Buffalo Bills were among the best teams in league history. Buffalo won four consecutive AFC titles from 1990-93 and though they’d fall in each Super Bowl appearance, no Bills fan will forget the memories this cast of characters created.
While everyone remembers that nucleus of core players and what they accomplished in their prime years in Buffalo, many won’t recall what happened once their time ended and were forced to move on. Nearly every key veteran from this era saw their career end with another team.
We’re running a series of articles, recalling where 10 former Bills’ stars would go on to finish their careers. After kicking things off with James Lofton, today we’re focusing on former linebacker great Shane Conlan.
Born in nearby Frewsburg, New York, Conlan seemed destined for athletic stardom early. In high school he was a three-sport superstar, dominating in baseball and basketball alongside football. As a baseball catcher he captured all-league honors all four of his high school seasons and actually came close to becoming a professional baseball player when the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him a contract following an impressive tryout.
He also won numerous basketball honors over his junior and senior seasons.
But of course it was football where Conlan excelled most. In 1989 Conlan was selected as the Buffalo News Player of the Year for his production as a running back and linebacker at Frewsburg. He parlayed his football success into a solid college career as a linebacker at Penn State, where he was a three-year starter and an All-American in his final season.
Not many remember this, but the Bills actually held the third overall pick in the 1987 draft. General manager Bill Polian traded down with the Houston Oilers, who were desperate to draft running back Alonzo Highsmith. When the Bills went on the clock with the eighth pick, Polian selected Conlan.
It took virtually no time for Conlan to have a major impact for Buffalo as the team began to turn its losing ways around. Conlan was in the starting lineup as a rookie from his very first game; briefly at outside linebacker before moving inside. In 12 games during the strike-shortened 1987 season, Conlan went on to lead the team in tackles by a wide margin and for his efforts was named NFL Rookie of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America.
Conlan would become a key component for the defense throughout his six-year tenure in Buffalo— playing in 80 games, ranking fifth all-time in team history in tackles, picking off three passes, forcing four fumbles, recovering three and accumulating six sacks. He was a starter on the first three of Buffalo’s four AFC championship winning teams.
The way things worked out with the NFL from a business standpoint, Conlan got to be among the first crop of NFL unrestricted free agents in 1993. He struck what was considered gold at the time when the Los Angeles Rams offered him a three-year contract worth $5.4 million. Knowing there was the possibility of the league having a salary cap the next season (turns out there was), Conlan went for the huge money grab and signed with the Rams on April 10, 1993.
Conlan would battle injuries through much of his three seasons with the Rams, which turned out to be the final years of his career. Despite the large payday, it would be easy to question Conlan’s decision after his first season in Los Angeles after the Rams won just five games while his former teammates would go on to their fourth and final Super Bowl.
Conlan had an uneventful second campaign with the Rams in 1994 before fighting injuries and racking up just 47 tackles in 13 games in 1995.
Conlan would retire from the league after that season. Since then, he was named to the Bills 50th Anniversary All-Time Team and was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2006. Perhaps someday he’ll go on the Bills Wall of Fame at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Although Conlan said numerous times after leaving Buffalo that he didn’t have regrets, you have to wonder how much more he may have done had he remained in Western New York past his first six seasons.
Coming Next: Cornelius Bennett.
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