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Cerebral palsy bound him to wheelchair, but passion led to a career
Gaston Gazette - 10/10/2018
Oct. 10--BOILING SPRINGS -- Most sportswriters will tell you they were born into the profession based on fandom or having been a former wannabe athlete themselves.
For Jacob Conley, that fandom has helped him overcome a physical challenge that could've left him bitter and unable to have the passion for sports that he shows every time he covers games for The Daily Courier in Forest City, The Shelby Star, The Gaston Gazette and other newspapers in the region.
Born with cerebral palsy, the 34 year old listened to Atlanta Braves baseball and Duke Blue Devils basketball as a child and has spent the past 20 years writing about local sports in Rutherford, Cleveland and Gaston counties.
"He's handled his disabilities very well over the course of his lifetime," said Gardner-Webb sports information director Marc Rabb, who first met Conley as a GWU freshman in 2002. "He's always very upbeat and never uses anything as an excuse. He's very positive in general about his situation in life. And I think he's always appreciated the people he's around.
"I know we appreciate him and what he does."
Born eight weeks early on Dec. 11, 1983, in Shelby, Jacob Conley and his twin brother James Conley made a family of five for older brother, Joseph Conley, and parents, Darrell and Margie Conley.
Darrell Conley grew up in Andrews and Margie Conley grew up in Goldsboro before they met at N.C. State.
While Jacob Conley was bound to a wheelchair, his brothers worked on the family farm in Henrietta.
He developed a love of sports by listening to the radio.
"Growing up on a farm, my brothers were out doing all kinds of work and I couldn't do any of that," Jacob Conley said. "So I started listening to the Braves on the radio. You know, Skip Caray, Don Sutton, Pete Van Wieren, Ernie Johnson... all of those guys. And I sort of got hooked on those teams in the early '90s. Also, around that time I started watching Duke basketball with Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley and all of them. Those were two really good teams and that's really how it got started."
All the while, Conley developed a positive attitude that carries on to this day.
"Everybody has bad days," he said. "One of my favorite Bible verses is in James. It's about counting all joy. I figure there's a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is based on your circumstances. You can be joyful even when everything seems to be going wrong. That helps keep me positive."
Eventually using his interest in sports to become a writer for the school paper at Chase High School, Conley became determined his disability wouldn't prevent him from following sports or going to college.
"I was accepted to seven or eight different schools (among them Duke University)," he said, "I just felt at home here (at Gardner-Webb). They really worked with me as far as handicapped accessibility. And with it being a small college, I didn't feel like I'd get lost in the shuffle. Plus, they had just moved to (NCAA) Division I, and I wanted to go to a Division I school. So it worked out perfectly."
After enrolling at Gardner-Webb, Conley began working in the sports information department.
Rabb had heard of his interest in working for the department that oversees and publicizes all of Gardner-Webb's athletic events.
Conley was hired by Rabb while he also worked for Gardner-Webb's school newspaper The Pilot.
"He's done a little bit of everything for us in the office," Rabb said. "At first, he handled duties like when ESPN was calling our press box for updates."
In addition to answering phones, Conley has been involved covering or working virtually all of the 21 sports the school offers.
"We've always been very accommodating," Rabb said. "I've pushed him up many hills. We thought we lost him at Furman once (in 2005). There was a huge hill we had to go down and it was very bumpy. He's been very patient with my driving."
Conley eventually got and still uses a motorized wheelchair.
That's led to some humorous incidents.
Once, he crashed into a flagpole on the Gardner-Webb campus in such a manner that the school has since reinforced the foundation around the flagpole.
"It was a warm spring day, and I was driving back from the cafeteria and there's all these sunbathers out there," he said. "You know, face down and stomach down, and a bee buzzes by one of the girls and she jumps up and flashes me. And I look and pop right into that flag pole. It knocked off my foot plate. I didn't know what to say so I just wave and go on. Then I go to my room, call my mom and tell her there's damage to my foot plate. She's like, 'What happened?' I said, 'I have no idea.' Filling out the damage report for that one was interesting. It said, 'Reason for damage?' and I wrote, 'Bad driving.'"
Another time, Gardner-Webb athletic director Chuck Burch nearly ran over Jacob Conley as he was moving about the campus.
"I was driving down below the education building and, out of nowhere, comes this guy in a wheelchair just flying across the road," Burch said. "I had to slam on the brakes and I call Rabb and say, 'Who is that guy in the wheelchair? I about killed him!'"
Conley admits the incident scared him but he also says it helped him.
"I never had a motorized wheelchair before and never had driver's ed so I didn't know the rules of the road," he said. "So I had to learn fast."
Clearly, Jacob Conley has learned the rules of the road since his biggest hobby away from sports is competitive wheelchair cycling.
"I like to get on the bike in the winter time and ride 90 to 100 miles a week," he said. "I like a lot of things, but I think that you only live once, so you should take advantage of every opportunity that you have."
At the prompting of his physical therapist, Conley began cycling in 2009.
"My therapist challenged me to do it," he said. "And I'm one of those people that if you challenge me to do something, I'm going to prove to you that I can do it.
"We do this 180-mile cycle run from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach and you peddle with your arms. It's with a group called ASAP (Adaptive Sports and Adventures Program). We go down Hwy 9. We hit Monroe and go through Pageland, Cheraw and Mullins. It's two-lane roads, and they don't close off the roads. They have some Vietnam Vet motorcyle riders go and block traffic for us, which is pretty cool.
"It's 60 miles a day for three days, and it's groups from 15 to 40 people. We ride together, so it's one big family. We just ride and hang out and try to overcome a challenge together."
As much as Conley has enjoyed competitive wheelchair cycling, perhaps the worst day of his life occurred on April 28, 2013, when his roommate died of a heart attack on the way to Myrtle Beach.
He considers the story he wrote on Rutherford County Hospital worker Jimmy Melton the toughest story he's ever had to write.
"He was in my room, and I'm the one who found him," he said. "So I wrote about that. That was pretty tough."
However, Melton's memory remains an influence on Conley who considers Melton the person he most admires.
"I'll tell you that one of the people that's really been an inspiration for me was Jimmy Melton," he said. "Anybody who needed help on that cycle ride, he was always there for them."
When Conley graduated from Gardner-Webb in 2008, his first job was working for the United State Department of Labor in Washington, D.C.
He enjoyed the work but admits his love for sports led him back to the area.
"I had an internship for the department of labor when The (Daily) Courier called and offered me a job," he said. "So I left D.C. and came back home and took it. I get paid to watch sports and write. What better job could you do?"
Don't misinterpret Jacob Conley as a homebody who has no interest in leaving the area -- or even the country.
In 2011, he travelled to Sweden.
"It was basically a vacation," he said. "But it was because I had a foreign exchange student (Mattais Skoog of Sweden) that was a roommate for one semester in 2006. We became really good friends. When he left, he told me that when I saved up enough money, to come see him. It took me five years, but I did. And in 2011, my aunt (Donna Adams) and I went over there."
When most sportswriters cover events, they simply show up, sit in a press box then go down to the field to discuss what they've just watched with coaches and players.
For Conley, simply getting into and out of some high school facilities can be a challenge that means he has to be extra prepared.
The high school football season that he's currently covering involves a week-long process.
"I start on Monday," he said. "I call the (athletic director) and find out what the (handicapped) accessibility is. And if they're not accessible, we have to figure out what we're going to do. And I have to get there early and set up signs to keep people from sitting in front of me because if they stand up, I can't see. Most people are very accomodating."
Conley says he doesn't start that process so early looking for special treatment. Far from it actually.
"I think, sometimes, people look at you and look at the wheelchair and think you're mentally disabled or something like that," he said. "I can tell you so many stories where people will say, 'I didn't know you could do what you do?' or they try to treat you with kid gloves because they'll think you're offended by something they may say or do.
"I just want to be treated like you'd treat anybody else. And that's all anybody can ask."
In addition to high school sports, Conley has covered events ranging from little league baseball and American Legion baseball to summer league baseball, college sports, NFL football and major league baseball.
Two weeks ago, he covered the fourth of the four major leaguers Rutherford County has ever produced when he went to Baltimore's Camden Yards.
"So I've been to a NFL press box, a major league baseball press box and Duke and Chapel Hill for Gardner-Webb games and all of them have been really good experiences," Conley said.
Gardner-Webb sporting events have been the subject of most of his coverage.
In truth, he got a great head start as his academic track at GWU took six years.
"I went to school for six years and was involved in student government each year," Conley said. "Gardner-Webb honored the presidential scholarship I got for the time I was there."
Coaches have noticed his work over the years.
"He's always smiling -- and that's an inspiration to our guys," Gardner-Webb baseball coach Rusty Stroupe said. "Here's a guy who could have a lot to complain about and never complains. So you've got these talented athletes looking at him and realizing their problems aren't that significant. He's a guy who's followed his passion and never let anything hold him back."
Adds Gardner-Webb football coach Carroll McCray, "He's a great ambassador for our school and I'm sure he's a great ambassador for the newspaper as he covers games throughout Cleveland County and Rutherford County."
Richard Walker: 704-869-1843; twitter.com/jrwalk22
(c)2018 Gaston Gazette, Gastonia, N.C.
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