Navy football assistant Rick Lantz was getting ready to travel to Buffalo to recruit an undersized wide receiver he had received a tip about. Before departing, Lantz decided he better get approval from his boss.
“I’ve got a line on a pretty good receiver, but the problem is that he weighs 140 pounds,” Lantz told head coach George Welsh.
It was January, 1975 and Welsh was trying to turn around a struggling program that suffered seven straight losing seasons. Navy lacked team speed and that was the biggest attribute the second-year head coach was concerned about.
“I don’t care how big he is. If he can run, bring him in,” Welsh told Lantz.
Phil McConkey had starred as a defensive back and wide receiver at Canisius High, a Jesuit school in Buffalo. He was the son of a Buffalo city police officer who had to work side jobs in order to send Phil and his sister Debbie to private schools.
Army and Navy were the only Division I programs that recruited McConkey, who knew his father could not afford to pay for a college education. He chose Annapolis over West Point and went on to enjoy a record-setting career, graduating as Navy’s all-time leader in touchdown receptions (13), punt return yards (734) and kickoff return yards (1,280).
After serving five years of active duty as a helicopter pilot, McConkey made an improbable comeback – making the New York Giants roster on the strength of his skills as a returner. He wound up playing six seasons in the National Football League and reached the pinnacle as a member of the 1986 Giants team that captured Super Bowl XXI.
“I grew up with an enormous chip on my shoulder because, at every level, I was told I was too small to play football. I had something to prove so, on every play, I went full throttle,” said McConkey, who will serve as guest speaker for the 64th annual Touchdown Club of Annapolis football awards banquet.
This will mark McConkey’s second appearance at the Touchdown Club banquet with the first coming in 1979 after he was selected as recipient of the prestigious Silver Helmet Award as Most Outstanding Player at the Naval Academy.
McConkey remembers sitting at the head table on the stage of the St. Mary’s High cafeteria and that former Arkansas football coach turned athletic director Frank Broyles was the guest speaker. His sponsors, Henry and Gloria George, were in the audience.
“It was an incredible way to wrap up my college career,” McConkey said of being presented with the Silver Helmet.
McConkey joins Chet Moeller as the second Silver Helmet Award winner to return to the Touchdown Club football banquet as special guest.
“I am always thrilled when we are able to bring back one of Navy’s esteemed graduates to Annapolis to speak at the banquet,” Touchdown Club president Scott Schuetter said. “It is truly special when we get to connect our young award winners with graduates that have been in their shoes, and also make a lifelong memory for everyone at the banquet.”
McConkey was a pure playmaker for Navy and averaged 24 yards on 22 catches while setting a single-season school record with six touchowns as a senior. The skinny kid from Buffalo “bulked up” at the academy as McConkey was listed at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds.
Welsh was wise to favor speed over size as McConkey was instrumental in leading Navy to its first postseason appearance since the 1964 Cotton Bowl. In 1978, Navy compiled a 9-3 record that was capped by an upset victory over Brigham Young University in the Holiday Bowl.
McConkey was the catalyst of an impressive comeback as Navy rallied from a 13-point deficit to beat BYU, 23-16. He scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 65-yard pass from quarterback Bob Leszczynski and set up two other scores with big gains on reverses, earning the game’s Most Valuable Player award.
“I will never forget that game. We dug down deep and were able to beat a great BYU team,” McConkey said. “It was an awesome way for the seniors to go out and kind of put a bow on what had been an outstanding season.”
Welsh had managed just one winning season (7-4 in 1975) in five years at Navy and knew time was running out. That 1978 team was the turning point for the Welsh era as the Midshipmen posted four straight winning seasons and also made appearances in the Garden State Bowl and Liberty Bowl before the head coach left for Virginia.
“It was a special team and an incredible show of leadership from a great senior class,”McConkey said. “We had a small senior class that was very close-knit. It was our last opportunity to play football and we were determined to make the most of it.”
McConkey and linebacker Nick Mygas served as co-captains while Leszczynski, kicker Bob Tata, wide receiver Sandy Jones, nose guard A.B. Miller, center Steve Kremer and defensive backs Kip McCulley and Herb Wilson were other key seniors.
“That group of seniors demonstrated true leadership in every respect. We made every member of the team, even the lowest plebe, feel important,” McConkey recalled. “George Welsh said it was the easiest coaching job he ever had.”
Navy was 7-0 and ranked No. 11 in both the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) national polls after beating Pittsburgh 21-11 on Oct. 28. The Panthers were two years removed from capturing the national championship and that game remains one of the biggest ever played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Navy played Notre Dame at old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland the following week and was soundly defeated, 27-7. McConkey was injured by a cheap shot to the knee while calling for a fair catch on a punt the following week at Syracuse, missing most of a disappointing 20-17 loss.
McConkey was on crutches with stretched ligaments and did not dress for the only time in his entire college career as the Mids suffered their third straight loss in humbling fashion, 38-6 at Florida State. However, Navy finished strong by routing archrival Army 28-0 at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia and received the invitation to the Holiday Bowl.
“There were not many bowl games back then so to earn a berth was a big deal,” McConkey said. “Navy had not been to a bowl for a long time so that was a huge step for the program.”
McConkey thought he would never play competitive football again after leading Navy past BYU in the Holiday Bowl.
“We were in the locker room at Jack Murphy Stadium and in such a state of euphoria. I realized this was the the last time I was ever going to take off the pads,” he said. “I remember getting undressed very slowly so I could really savor that feeling.”
Ironically, McConkey wound up truly ending his football career in that very same locker room when he removed his uniform as a member of the San Diego Chargers in 1989. That a 160-pound wide receiver would make the NFL at the age of 27 after having not played football for five years is truly remarkable.
McConkey flew the CH-46 Sea Knight – a medium-lift, tandem-rotor transport helicopter. He primarily performed underway replenishment, carrying loads from ship to ship.
When McConkey was discharged from the Navy and decided to attempt to play professional football, the first person he approached was longtime Navy assistant Steve Belichick.
Belichick, the consummate scout and noted evaluator of talent, was terse in his assessment.
“You better run under 4.6 or nobody will give you a chance,” he told McConkey.
McConkey proceeded to run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds on the Rip Miller Turf at Navy with Belichick making him do it twice to make sure the stop watch wasn’t mistaken.
Belichick went inside and immediately called his son, who was defensive coordinator under head coach Bill Parcells with the New York Giants at the time. McConkey attended a Giants mini camp and dove for every single pass thrown his way. He earned an invitation to training camp and beat all odds by making the team in 1984.
“I didn’t want to be 60 years old and wondering if I could have played in the NFL. I had to at least give it a shot,” McConkey said. “I drove myself to the brink of exhaustion to try to reclaim my skills.”
McConkey had his best statistical season in 1985 with 25 receptions for 404 yards while adding another 676 yards on punt and kickoff returns. He will always be remembered by Giants fans for his superb performance in Super Bowl XXI.
McConkey caught a 44-yard pass from Phil Simms off a flea flicker to set up a touchdown and had a 25-yard punt return that led to a field goal. He capped the big game by grabbing a 6-yard touchdown pass after the ball had glanced off the fingertips of tight end Mark Bavaro.
“I was so very, very fortunate to be part of such a great team and was thrilled that I was able to contribute to a Super Bowl victory,” he said.
McConkey has lived in San Diego since retiring from the NFL and is president of Academy Securities, a financial services firm that hires and trains military veterans.
“I am so proud that every day I get to work with incredible heroes, people who have sacrificed so much. I’m in awe of their service and honored to be able to help them transition back into civilian life.”
TD CLUB BANQUET
WHEN: Feb. 15, 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: DoubleTree Hotel, 210 Holiday Court, Annapolis.
WHO: Shane Davis (Rhodes Trophy), Timber Berzins (Laramore Award), Broadneck High (Mears Trophy), D.J. Palmore (Silver Helmet), DJ Moore (Gold Helmet).
TICKETS: Cost $70. Limited number available. annapolisTDclub.com