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Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

A Dream Realized: an NFL Career

Editor’s Note: Chris Conte played eight years in the NFL. Currently a resident of San Juan Capistrano, he’s launched a youth development business, Sports Movements, to help student athletes learn techniques taught in the professional leagues.

I’ll never forget where I was when my wife, Stephanie, went into labor with our first child—laying down in my room at the Ritz-Carlton Phoenix, reviewing the game plan one more time in preparation for our match with the Arizona Cardinals the following day.

Stephanie, who was back home in Tampa, Fla., went into labor around 11 p.m. There were no flights available that would reach her in time so we decided I should play the game.

Between series I’d head to the sideline to get updates from Shelton Quarles, a former Super Bowl champ and current head of football operations for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who was in constant contact with Stephanie’s parents and would feed me the cliff notes version of how things were going in the delivery room.

It was one of the wildest roller coasters I’ve ever been on, and I certainly don’t suggest trying to tackle Adrian Peterson while not being in the clearest of headspace. When Charlie finally arrived, I was a mess. I started crying. The coaches decided to let me sit for the remainder of the game, which was fine since we were losing 48-14.

I was so anxious to get back home to meet this little human I had been dreaming about for months—however our plane had mechanical issues and it became a brutally long wait to see Charlie, who is now a beautiful and gregarious 6-year-old.

My life in the NFL was full of highs, lows and plenty of pain. Like the 100 million or so fans who will tune into the Super Bowl on Feb. 11 to see San Francisco 49ers vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, I’ll watch as well.

The excitement of football is unperilled and the most entertaining sport to watch. Television doesn’t quite show everything though, such as the nuances of coverage and formational adjustments that I would have to bark out from my safety position.

The sport encapsulates our country in so many ways. Nothing is ever given and when hard work meets opportunity, success is earned. Like our military, you put on your uniform, lock arms with your brothers and go into battle.

It’s such a huge spectacle. Thinking back to standing inside Soldier Field in Chicago for the National Anthem still gives me chills. Imagine a crisp fall afternoon with a breeze rolling in off Lake Michigan. Looking up into a stadium full of blue and orange screaming fans as a formation of fighter jets goes roaring by overhead. There is nothing like it.

Seabec Circle

Growing up in Pacific Palisades, I lived on a cul-de-sac filled with families. We would play all types of games until darkness fell, from ditch to street hockey to of course football. I never got into video games like so many kids these days do. I credit my older brother, Kevin, because he refused to ever hand over the controller.

I played every sport as a kid like baseball, soccer, basketball and even surfed with my dad. It wasn’t until the fifth grade that I began playing flag football, where I found my love of the game. My mom wouldn’t let me play tackle because of obvious safety concerns. I do believe tackle football is becoming safer, with a large effort being made to train coaches and players how to safely tackle and evolve the sport away from relentless hitting drills.

When I began tackle football as a freshman in high school, my dream of becoming the next Troy Aikman evaporated very quickly. But for the sake of my football career, the coaches quickly moved me to wide receiver and cornerback where I excelled.

Our high school, Loyola, won a championship my junior year and I received a lot of attention as a lanky white cornerback. Most of the Pac-12 called. Our family fell in love with Cal Coach Jeff Tedford.

I started at cornerback as a true freshman, but our defensive backs coach got fired that year and so did I. Then an NFL coach, Clancy Pendergast, who had coached in a Super Bowl, became our defensive coordinator and quickly realized my natural position was safety. He was the best coach I had at any level. Previously, I had gotten by on my athleticism. I wasn’t a student of the game. He taught me how to study film and prepare like a professional. Coach Pendergast understood offenses and how they were trying to attack.

Where a corner excels in athleticism, a safety excels in communication. If you’re a safety, you must know what everyone on the field is doing. You make calls and adjustments. Everything in football fits like a puzzle. There are only so many ways to defend a field and every coverage has its weakness.

In a game against USC, we got routed. However, because of the caliber of the players at SC several scouts were watching; I had 20 tackles.

All Pac-10

I was All Pac-10 and one of the best safeties in college that year when the Chicago Bears picked me in the third round. By that time, I had grown to 6’3”, 215 pounds and I was fast.
Before arriving in Chicago, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t believe I’d be walking into a locker room with Brian Urlacher, one of the greatest linebackers of all time.

My biggest surprise about the NFL was how down to earth everyone was. They were professionals and respected the hell out of each other. It really is a brotherhood.

When the Bears were winning, the fans were amazing. The players were treated like kings. It’s one of the greatest sports cities to exist.

When we were losing, it was horrendous. Nonstop berating radio, television and print media. There was no escaping it. I even got death threats at 24 years old. It felt like my whole world was collapsing.

I went to Tampa Bay in 2015 where I met my wife, Stephanie, who was a Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleader. Cliché, we know. We now have three amazing children together.
I played a tough position on a lot of losing teams, none of which went to the playoffs. I got a lot of ridicule, some of it fair, but most of it misguided.

I don’t miss those games in December when you’re playing for absolutely nothing and showing up to a miserable locker room after a loss knowing everyone’s livelihood was on the line. That wore on me. I started to lose passion. I was getting to the point where I was doing it for the money, so we decided it was time to retire. My body was ready.

I don’t regret any of it. The NFL was a dream I had since I was a kid. I lasted eight years in the NFL when the average stay is just 2.5. Of course, there’s more I would have liked to accomplish, but I’m very proud of my journey.

RX3 Flag Football

I knew life in the NFL wouldn’t last long so I lived frugally, like I was a college student. I put most of my money away at an early age. I did my best to live by Warren Buffett’s famous saying that compounding interest is the world’s eighth wonder.

After I retired, we moved to California because we have a supportive network of relatives and friends. We started Sports Movements to teach kids the fundamentals of movement in a range of sports such as soccer, volleyball, baseball as well as football, basketball and lacrosse. We have programs running at St. Margaret’s and St. Edward’s in South Orange County and looking to expand throughout Southern California.

I also became an investor in RX3, the OC consumer-oriented growth equity fund begun by Aaron Rodgers, Nate Raabe and Byron Roth. I participate in RX3’s annual flag football game, scheduled for March this year, where I get to play receiver, score a few touchdowns, and match up with current and former NFL greats like Aaron, Josh Allen and Mark Sanchez. Last year, the charity event raised $1.5 million, and several companies sponsored one of the 10 quarterbacks and their teams.

It brings back a lot of good memories. I still love the game and always will.

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Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung joined the Orange County Business Journal in 2021 as their Marketing Creative Director. In her role she creates all visual content as it relates to the marketing needs for the sales and events teams. Her responsibilities include the creation of marketing materials for six annual corporate events, weekly print advertisements, sales flyers in correspondence to the editorial calendar, social media graphics, PowerPoint presentation decks, e-blasts, and maintains the online presence for Orange County Business Journal’s corporate events.

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