Legendary comedian Tim Conway was shaped by experience as Chagrin Falls football player

Aug. 7—On Aug. 22, 1986, "Good Morning America" was live from Cleveland with an episode devoted to Northeast Ohio.

One of the people entrusted with showing the country Cleveland was more than a burning river and dilapidation was Tim Conway, who had a nearly five-minute segment on his hometown.

One of the funniest and most recognizable comedians of all time, Conway was proud to call Chagrin Falls home.

On that "GMA" segment, Conway sat with his mother Sophia.

"I was great at sports, wasn't I?" Conway asked.

"You were very small," Sophia deadpanned.

That didn't deter Conway, however, from recognizing his tenure as a Chagrin student-athlete had vital impact on where his life and gift of humor led from there.

Conway was born in Willoughby on Dec. 15, 1933 to Sophia and his father Dan, their only child. Dan Conway was a horse and pony groom at Chagrin Valley Hunt Club in Gates Mills and, later, for noted Cleveland businessman Thomas A. White.

When Conway was 2, the family moved into a cottage on White's estate, with his dad eventually being promoted to White's head groom.

The Conways, technically, moved to Chagrin Falls twice. The first came in 1936 to a residence on Franklin Street.

"Chagrin Falls is about as picturesque a place as you can imagine," Conway wrote in his 2013 autobiography "What's So Funny?".

"... Trust me, it's a dream town, a living template of mid-nineteenth century America. And I haven't even gotten to the people."

After about a year on Franklin Street, Dan moved his family again, this time to Kirtland. But Chagrin Falls beckoned once more.

"In the summer of 1938, Dan Conway moved his flock out of Kirtland and back to Chagrin Falls," Conway wrote. "That's where my folks stayed for the rest of their lives, and that's the place I call home. It hasn't changed a pebble since the days the Conways arrived, and I honestly believe that living in that wonderful village shaped my life."

Following a stint on Oak Street, the Conways found what would become their family home on East Orange Street, one block away from the Chagrin River.

Before delving into Conway's time at Chagrin, Conway's given first name was actually Thomas, shortened to Tom through high school. It wasn't until Conway embarked on his entertainment career that he changed his first name to Tim.

"There already was a Tom Conway," Conway explained in a July 6, 1972 Plain Dealer interview, referring to the British actor known in part for his portrayals of detectives including Sherlock Holmes. "Obviously you can't call yourself Clark Gable or you'd get a lot of his checks. And Bette Davis was already taken, so I took Tim Conway."

Conway was a three-sport student-athlete at Chagrin. He played two years of basketball and participated in track and field for four years, primarily as a pole vaulter.

But it was football in which Conway found purpose, beginning in the fall of 1948 as a 97-pound freshman trying to impress legendary Tigers coach Ralph Quesinberry.

"Quiz," as Conway called him, wanted to make him a manager due to size.

In "What's So Funny?", Conway reminisced about practice during which he was in a tackling drill.

He counted off who his opposite drill partner would be — much to his lament, it was 240-pound first-string tackle Ralph Tinge. Onlookers worried for Conway's safety, but he followed through.

"At the impact, I felt like I'd gone to another place," Conway wrote. "My body seemed to accordion, and my head settled into my lap. As I lay there, I could hear the faint sound of my teammates applauding.

"'All right, Conway,' Quiz called out. 'You've got a uniform.'"

Employed as a guard, the bulk of Conway's action came amid a strong stretch for Chagrin in his junior campaign in 1950 and senior season in 1951, as the Tigers went 11-4-1 and were a Cuyahoga County League contender.

Although a few games are lost to time, Conway is known through media accounts to have started as a junior in a 38-0 rout of Independence in 1950 and subbed into games against Chardon, Brecksville and Mayfield.

"What Tom lacked in size he made up for in fight and spirit," the yearbook staff wrote in the 1951 Zenith, the Chagrin Falls yearbook. "He should be a real scrapper next year."

He is also known to have logged at least four starts his senior year, including victories over Independence and Mayfield, and subbed into a win over Brecksville.

Conway's football career didn't come without a scare — one that proved to be a benefit in a way as a comedian.

While playing rival Orange, Conway was out front as a blocker when his running back barged helmet-first directly into Conway's back. Conway was carried off the field and later hospitalized.

He complained of extreme soreness, but an X-ray checked out. A neck brace was provided, and he was sent home. Conway trudged around school in discomfort, returning to football after a three-week absence.

Decades later, Conway went to a doctor complaining of back spasms, per "What's So Funny?"

The doctor asked if he had suffered any back trauma such as a sports injury. Conway affirmed he had in that clash with Orange. The hypothesis: Conway suffered a broken vertebra, but it was lodged back into place by being carried off the field. In turn, the injury didn't show up on an early '50s X-ray.

In the doctor's opinion, Conway was fortunate he didn't suffer permanent disability.

Healing from the injury did have one silver lining.

Conway explained in "What's So Funny?" that the memory inspired his The Oldest Man character on "The Carol Burnett Show."

"Ace was another one of our watch charm guards," it was stated in the 1952 Zenith. "He played valiantly on both offense and defense. He made up for size with spirit and determination."

Conway, in addition to three sports, was Varsity Club president as a senior, spent two years in Key Club and played Freddie North in the high school play "And Came The Spring."

In his Zenith senior profile, the staff hailed Conway: "Tom holds undisputed first place as class comedian."

Conway had a decorated career as an entertainer the world over. He was a six-time Emmy winner who appeared in "McHale's Navy," his transcedent work on Burnett's show, in films such as Disney's "The Apple Dumpling Gang" and with his ad-libbing and character comedy such as Dorf.

It came as the pride of Chagrin Falls, from which he graduated in 1952.

"I can't turn a page from the Class of 52 yearbook without a smile and a grateful look back," Conway wrote. "The kids, the teachers, the wonderful people and that cozy little town where you could embrace life and know it was going to hug you back."

Dan and Sophia are laid to rest at Evergreen Hill Cemetery in Chagrin Falls.

Conway died in 2019 at the age of 85, memorialized by all he inspired through his comedy, character and class.

In that 1986 "GMA" segment, Conway was mostly joking around retracing his journey in his beloved hometown.

His closing line, however, was from the heart as a product of Chagrin Falls, one who represented the community as a student-athlete punching above his weight.

"Maybe you can't go home again," he said. "But maybe you don't have to, either.

"Maybe there's a part of you that never left."