The story is familiar to anyone who saw Sandra Bullock's acceptance speech at the Oscars: A troubled young man is struggling to raise himself in a rough American inner city, and gets into trouble. He's taken in by a family only miles away from his turbulent upbringing in a setting that seems years apart. There's only two differences between Shawn Conway's story and "The Blind Side": Conway is in Detroit, not Memphis, and unlike Michael Oher, who protected his quarterback's blind side on the offensive line, Conway is protecting his quarterback's reputation as a wide receiver with size and speed.
A feature in the Detroit News describes how Conway was taken in by Seaholm High School head coach Chris Fahr in a last-ditch effort to keep the receiver from being expelled from the suburban Birmingham (Mich.) high school. Fahr's wife, Andrea, agreed to take in the 6-foot-4, 190-pound receiver after she learned that Conway's mother was in a Florida prison and his two sisters were in foster homes. Conway had previously lived with a grandmother and was virtually unsupervised, running the streets of Detroit before transferring out to suburban Birmingham to attend Seaholm with his cousin Richaud Pack (Pack now plays basketball for Florida International).
When Conway lived with the Pack family, he still found himself away from day-in, day-out supervision, and eventually slipped back into the habits that had got him by on his own in Detroit. He was caught on tape stealing money from another student's locker, and the Seaholm principal considered expelling him.
Instead, Fahr said he would become a legal guardian for his receiver after his wife and two daughters, 15-year-old Alexandria and 11-year-old Sydney, agreed. The move may be the most important one yet in Conway's turbulent life.
"Yeah, in a way I felt like being caught changed my life," Conway [told the Detroit News]. "If I wasn't caught, I probably would not be in this situation here. I would be doing the same thing I was doing. [...]
"I feel like I am more like a son and actually part of the family. There are no blood differences or anything. I feel like I am at home."
Fahr has been instrumental in turning Conway's life around off the field and on it. Conway arrived at Seaholm predominantly as a jump-ball, deep-route receiver, but Fahr saw potential for Conway to be more consistent on short routes. After a little tutoring, the receiver in 2009 grabbed 38 receptions and six touchdowns, more than he'd ever had at Cass Tech and Cody High School during his first two seasons. He kicked off his 2010 season on an even more impressive note, scoring two touchdowns and racking up 170 yards in a 26-6 rout of North Farmington last Friday.
Conway participated in Michigan's 7-on-7 camp over the summer, drawing interest from the school's coaching staff. Fahr sent them a tape, and weeks later Conway and his coach made an official visit to Ann Arbor. By the end of the day, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez offered him a scholarship, and the receiver accepted.
"Oh yeah, I am going to take advantage of it," Conway said. "I plan on staying at the University of Michigan for as long as they want me. You don't have to worry about that. All that other stuff is behind me now."
The gains on the field are dwarfed by what Conway claims he's gained off it. Last summer, the Fahrs drove their new family member down to Florida to see his mother in prison, trying to provide a bridge between his new family and the one he already had. Conway hadn't seen his mother in two years, and as soon as he was with her, the receiver broke down sobbing.
"He is a kid," Andrea Fahr [told the Detroit News]. "You could see that. I mean he just broke down. He was just a kid who saw his mom for the first time in two years. I just feel like him being with us that he does not have to put up this tough-guy front. When he starts to get tough, I get on him.
"I am not his mom, but I am playing the part. ... I am trying to do everything possible his senior year to make sure his mom stays connected to him. I am sending pictures and articles and things to her that I don't even tell Shawn. We respect that he has a mom and a dad. We are just honored to be able to take care of him, mentor him and be his parents for now."
And just like the Tuohys in Memphis, Conway's new family feels like it's gained something as well. Here's what Chris Fahr told the Detroit News about Conway.
"People ask, why would I do this? Why would I put my family in this situation?
"I personally made life tougher for me. There are a lot of people who don't like this. But I know where he was headed and I know where he would be five years from now if I did not do this. You might be able to live with yourself with the consequences. I can't. [...]
"It has been a real blessing," the coach said. "I never had a son. Him moving in has been a great dynamic for the family. He is very energetic and there is never a dull moment."