Bears FS Chris Conte is focused on improving, not breaking stereotype
BY JOE COWLEY firstname.lastname@example.org August 4, 2012 12:05AM
Bears safety Chris Conte celebrates after intercepting a pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during an NFL game last season at Wembley Stadium in London. | Streeter Lecka~Getty Images
Updated: September 6, 2012 6:27AM
Free safety Chris Conte isn’t the only white defensive back in the NFL. He’s not even the only one on the Bears’ roster.
But given the few white starters at his position, he’s reminded of it almost daily.
‘‘Yeah, it’s always been a thing, you know,’’ Conte said with a laugh. ‘‘It’s not something that bothers me, and it shouldn’t be something that bothers anyone else. But it’s a thing.
‘‘I mean, [quarterback] Jay [Cutler] was just joking earlier, ‘Well, whenever Conte’s out there, the ball is going to his side because he’s the white guy.’ There’s always going to be that perception that white guys aren’t as athletic. It would be nice if people didn’t think like that, but that’s not realistic. I’m trying to prove those people wrong.’’
Barring some sort of disaster in the next three weeks, Conte will get a chance to do just that. He hopes to pick up where he left off as a rookie last season — starting for the Bears at free safety.
His to-do list starts with continuing to improve in the Bears’ cover-2. That means breaking on the ball better, taking better angles and doing less thinking and more reacting.
The fact he plays a position more often occupied by an African-American player is way down on the list of things he thinks about. Just not everyone else’s.
Conte heard things in college, especially when he was a cornerback at California.
‘‘Definitely heard it then,’’ Conte said. ‘‘I heard it from wide receivers, quarterbacks. . . . I remember my first game, playing against Tennessee. Erik Ainge was their quarterback, and he yelled to the defense, ‘You keep leaving that white boy out there at cornerback, we’re coming after him.’ ’’
Ainge, by the way, is white.
‘‘Did they come at me?’’ Conte said. ‘‘They tried to. That was my first college game, and I did well against Tennessee.’’
Being drafted in the third round by the Bears didn’t put an end to it. Not from the opposition, fans or even teammates.
‘‘I hear ‘Great White Hope’ all the time,’’ Conte said. ‘‘It’s funny to me. I don’t let things like that get to me.’’
The NFL is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. Let meaningless jabs like those land cleanly, and a player can go from the starting lineup to the punt team quickly.
What helps Conte is he doesn’t see color. That’s what makes him so open in talking about it.
‘‘I can joke about it and hear the jokes about it and not care,’’ Conte said. ‘‘The people that do have those types of issues with a certain player being a certain color, those are the people that I don’t get.’’
Coach Lovie Smith couldn’t care less about Conte’s color — as long as he does what’s expected of him this season.
‘‘You want consistency as much as anything [at free safety],’’ Smith said. ‘‘You want playmakers. Chris Conte has a chance to be a very good football player. . . . He can cover a wide receiver. He’s not afraid to hit. You want to be locked in and see consistency at safety, and I think we’re going to get that.’’
Consistency is what Conte is trying to chase down in camp right now.
‘‘I only played safety one year in college, then obviously last season,’’ he said. ‘‘The more you play it, there are so many little things you can get better at. The better you understand the angles, breaking on the ball, the better off you’ll be. That’s my focus.’’
How about beating stereotypes?
‘‘I’m sure I’ll keep laughing at the comments,’’ Conte said. ‘‘I guess I’m holding it down for the white guys.’’