ALAMEDA — From a national perspective and a safe distance, Gareon Conley’s recent storyline is a familiar one.
He’s just another entitled athlete gone astray.
That’s not the case in Massillon, Ohio, where news of a rape allegation against one of the most popular student-athletes in a city famous for high school football was greeted with shock and then skepticism.
This wasn’t just anybody. It was Gareon Conley, the shy, humble star from Washington High who turned heads for his considerable skill on the field and the way he conducted himself off it.
Two weeks ago, Conley took a break from draft preparation to appear at a weight-lifting event at Washington to talk with current players and sign autographs. He goes back to his high school occasionally, telling students the importance of accepting coaching and doing things the right way.
“I don’t know the situation. That’s for the law to figure out,” said Dan Hackenbracht, the defensive backs coach at Washington High. “It’s just way out of character for anything you’d think about Gareon Conley.”
Joe Pierce, an offensive coach at Washington when Conley was playing wide receiver and cornerback said, “Anyone who has a son like I do would want him to grow up to be like Gareon Conley.”
Until a few days ago, the Ohio State cornerback had a clean record and a spotless reputation. He is scheduled to meet with Cleveland police Monday, and both Conley and the Raiders are confident the No. 24 pick in the draft will ultimately be exonerated.
Same goes for Massillon.
“You come to our school, you could talk to any teacher that he had, and everybody just loved the kid,” Hackenbracht said. “A high-character kid, great kid. Top-notch. I don’t know if you could find negatives about him if you dug and dug and dug.”
It was the same story at Ohio State, where coach Urban Meyer called Conley’s leadership skills “exceptional” and told the Columbus Dispatch “he basically runs the entire back end in terms of practice habits and attitude.”
Conley, whose family moved from Akron to Massillon during his sophomore year, considered basketball his first love. According to the Dispatch, it was Conley’s step-mother Angel Conley who provided a financial incentive for Gareon to play football.
Angel’s daughter, Daija, is the same age as Gareon and was less likely to go to school for free. Angel’s message?
“Honey, one of you has to get a scholarship and cheerleading doesn’t get them,” Angel Conley said.
Conley’s ascent at Washington was quick as he grew into his body.
“At one point in time he was not the best player, but he’s developed into everything he should be — a first-round player — because of his hard work,” Pierce said. “It’s like the light came on, and next thing you know he’s a high school All-American.”
Hackenbracht, who played defensive back at Michigan State under Nick Saban, said Conley’s self-discipline and dedication set him apart.
“Gareon would study film at a different level than most kids,” Hackenbracht said. “He’d watch it on his own, ask questions on what he saw. On the practice field, he was just amazing. It was 100 percent all the time with him. You never had to say, ‘Hey, Gareon, let’s go.’ He was the team leader, and everybody followed him.”
Hackenbracht regrets not keeping any video of Conley during practice.
“We did a lot of tackling, sideline-sideline tackling stuff for DBs,” Hackenbracht said. “I kick myself for not filming him and keeping them as instructional videos because it was that great.”
A two-way player, Conley was slowed by a broken arm as a junior but still excelled on defense. As a senior, Conley caught 51 passes for 1,095 yards and 16 touchdowns in addition to being a top-rated defensive back.
The only Ohio high school player with whom Pierce compares with Conley is a former Raider and Heisman Trophy winner.
“He started catching 5-yard passes and turning them into 50-yard touchdowns,” Pierce said. “Having watched Charles Woodson play in high school, Gareon is the one who comes closest to being like him. And Charles Woodson was phenomenal.”
Ranked the No. 1 player in Ohio as a senior, Conley, like Woodson, initially committed early to Michigan. Reasoning that he hadn’t looked anywhere else, rescinded his commitment, visited other schools and was sold on Ohio State by Meyer.
Conley’s biggest moment came as a freshman, when he started for Eli Apple in the Big Ten championship game, missed a tackle, gave up a big play, and was taken out of the game.
“I feel like it changed my whole career because I kind of lost self-confidence and I feel like my coaches and teammates were the ones who helped me,” Conley said. “No one batted an eye, no one talked about me and they were all cheering me on.
“They had so much confidence in me, I had to have that self-confidence in myself.”