Bears safety Chris Conte had doubters, but he’s playing part well
BY ADAM L. JAHNS firstname.lastname@example.org December 15, 2012 8:34PM
The Minnesota Vikings Adrian Peterson ties to run around the Bears Chris Conte during their game at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday, November 25, 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
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Updated: January 17, 2013 6:48AM
Chris Conte has Hollywood in his blood.
His grandfather Richard was an actor who appeared in films with Frank Sinatra and is probably best known for playing Don Barzini in “The Godfather.”
His father, Mark, is an award-winning film editor who worked on “Turner & Hooch” with Tom Hanks and “The 6th Day” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, among other movies. He currently edits the TV series “Person of Interest.”
Hollywood was in Conte’s schools — “Martin Short’s son was one of the students with Christopher,” Mark said — and in his small California community. He has met Schwarzenegger and heard stories about Sinatra.
But this isn’t a true Hollywood story.
Conte’s tale is about a football player who proved his many doubters wrong.
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Conte’s parents, Mark and Anne, recall the times he played hockey and football in their cul de sac with older brother Kevin.
“Christopher was six years younger than everybody else,” Mark said. “He took his bruises.”
Sports were everything to Chris. He excelled at soccer, playing for a top-notch club team, and the rest. But he wasn’t allowed to play tackle football until high school. (“My mom wouldn’t let me play,” Conte said with a smile.)
Conte primarily played receiver and cornerback at Loyola High School in Los Angeles. It was his play at cornerback that opened eyes but also raised those doubts.
“When I started working with him, everybody would say, ‘What position does he play?’ I would say, ‘He’s a cornerback,’ ” said Darrick Davis, a coach/trainer who played briefly with the Falcons and in Canada and NFL Europe and works with Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson.
“They would say, ‘That’s pretty good. A quarterback.’ I would say, ‘No, CORNERBACK.’ They were like, ‘Are you sure? He’s more like a safety. White guys don’t play corner.’
“I told him, ‘I’m sure the world feels like you can’t do it,’ ” said Davis, who started working with Conte his junior year.
Davis saw Conte’s natural athleticism, coordination and size. He saw a Division I football player. He just needed some help.
“He believed in me, and I believed in him,” Davis said.
Davis will share plenty about Conte, but there are no stories about giving up. They would work out at 6 a.m. before Conte went off to classes.
It all worked. Conte was a star his senior year, and California and UCLA offered him scholarships — as a cornerback.
Still, he was overlooked.
“Both Rivals and Scout . . . they said, ‘From the safety position, he did this, this, this,’ ” said Mark, who edited and sent Conte’s high school tapes to colleges. “And ever since then, every article that was about Christopher said he played safety.
“He never ever had played safety.”
Clancy Pendergast, Cal’s former defensive coordinator, isn’t surprised Conte started as a rookie or that he has 79 tackles, two interceptions and five pass breakups this season.
As the story goes, he knew what Conte could be the first time he saw him in the Cal weight room.
“I was like, ‘Who is that kid?’ ’’ Pendergast said. “Someone was like, ‘That’s Chris Conte. He plays corner. He’s kind of been a coach killer. He hasn’t really come to fruition in terms of ability.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s the kind of guy they’re looking for at the next level to play safety.’
“At that time, I was determined to help the kid become a player.”
An NFL coach for 15 years, Pendergast has coached several standout safeties, including Darren Woodson, Roy Williams, Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson. He saw similar abilities in Conte.
“It was just a matter of him buying into the system, buying into the coaching,” Pendergast said.
Like with Davis, Conte did. There were hundreds of hours spent watching film and working on reads and communication.
“I met with him in his office all the time, just learning as much as I could,” Conte said.
There were tough moments and mistakes — “It was uncomfortable at first,” Conte said — but there was excitement after scarcely playing his first three years at Cal.
Conte said coaches often praised him for his athleticism, but more playing time never came. They grew frustrated with him, and vice versa. He went from starting as a true freshman at cornerback to being benched.
More doubts arose.
“I honestly was going to transfer,” Conte said. “My mom was integral in keeping me level-headed and just telling me things would work out for me.
“I was blessed when Clancy came.’’
Solid performances against USC, Oregon and UCLA affirmed Pendergast’s initial beliefs, so did Conte’s first-team All-Pac-10 selection. Pendergast talked him up to his NFL connections, scouts and coaches before the 2011 draft, saying he was a sure open-field tackler and solid in coverage. As the story goes, Bears defensive backs coach Jon Hoke was one.
Still, some teams had doubts because he played safety for only one season.
The Bears didn’t, though, and took him in the third round.
“He’s unique because he’s got a skill set that allows you to do different things,” Pendergast said. “He’s a great fit for what they like to do. . . . He’s not a liability.”
Opponents have tested him, and there’s still some growing to do. But the Bears will tell you that they’re better with Conte, who has overcome his share of injuries.
Opposing quarterbacks’ combined 67.6 passer rating with Conte and Major Wright as the starting safeties is a testament to that.
“Everybody I talk to tells me they’re very happy with him in Chicago,” Pendergast said. “I know he’s really happy there as well.”