Phil McConkey felt so old at 26.
He had watched his first career, a life in the Navy, become impossible after four stomach-churning months at sea. Then he watched what he had hoped would be a second career, football, kept at bay by a five-year promise he had made to the Navy.
So, for months, for hours on end, and for a way to fill his days and vent his frustration, McConkey ran. He lifted. He sweated. He looked for something that would make his body forget the years and worked for something that would fight the fear that maybe it couldn't.
Not quite a year later, the fear is gone. And to watch McConkey, older, stronger and the fastest he's been in the years he has called football his game, is to see a man who has recaptured something more dear than youth.
"It's been an experience that has helped me know myself," McConkey said by telephone yesterday, before the team that gave him a new start, the New York Giants, plays the Washington Redskins here Sunday. "It's been a time that I've thought a lot more about people and become a heck of a lot less self-centered."
The experience of claiming a spot on a National Football League team was never in McConkey's plan. A highly regarded wide receiver on Navy's 1978 nationally ranked team, he left Annapolis to become a fighter pilot. That life slipped away when on trips to sea, McConkey became ill. Finally in 1982, the doctors tested him for inner ear problems and other possible physical ailments that might pinpoint the reason for his recurring sea sickness.
No answer existed. McConkey was simply a victim of chronic motion sickness. For the first time in his life, he felt he was a failure.
He looked to family and friends for help. Their advice was to work hard at that thing that made him special: football. Still committed to the Navy, McConkey began training under a self-designed regimen of running, kicking and passing. He took his annual leave from the Navy to show up for training camp in 1983. The Giants were impressed. So impressed that they kept him past the first cut, past the second cut, into four preseason games and thought he looked good to make it past the final cut.
The Navy had other ideas. McConkey was still their man, officials decided. He had committed himself to five years of service in exchange for an education and training and he would have to serve his time at a desk job in Pensacola, Fla.
McConkey was crushed. Months of appeals produced the only reprieve he would get -- a valuable one, he admits, for someone in his mid-20s -- an adjustment to the clock that was counting down service time. Instead of serving five years from the day he graduated from flight school in 1981, McConkey would be allowed to serve five years from his graduation from the academy in 1979.
"With all my problems with seasickness, a Navy career was out of the question," McConkey said. "And then when I had a chance at the NFL, something I had dreamed about since I was a kid but never thought could happen, that was snatched away from me. It was probably the worst time in my life.
"I had gotten a taste of what I could do and a taste of the NFL. I was hungry for it."
McConkey satisfied that hunger with daily wind sprints, hours in the training room and afternoons passing the ball with fellow officers. He had always thought a naval career could be the most challenging work for a man. Now he had a bigger challenge to meet, a time to prove himself as he had so many years ago at high school and at Navy.
McConkey went to Navy as a 5-foot-11, 135-pound receiver from Buffalo that no major college wanted. He graduated as the school's career leader in touchdown catches, punt returns and kickoff returns. His last year of school, he had six touchdowns, tying a receiving record at the academy.
Some of the same drive that made him a star once could at least put him in serious contention for a place with the Giants, he reasoned. The Giants' management, seeing a man this year who could bench-press 310 pounds, run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds and lend a sense of maturity to their team, decided McConkey's determination had done better than that.
"He's a phenomenon," General Manager George Young said. "He fought his way on this team. His chances were probably 20-80 when he showed up this year. But he turned that around. You just get an outstanding effort all the time."
In this year's preseason, that effort resulted in a 15-yard average returning punts and one touchdown reception.
Pat Hodgson, the receivers coach, noted McConkey, who is backup to Earnest Gray, is one of only five receivers on the team. Not bad for a guy that had five years without playing, "even when he's as physically healthy as Phil has been," Hodgson said.
McConkey acknowledges that he's been hearing a lot of good things these days. Not surprisingly, he can readily return the compliments to the Giants. What is surprising is what McConkey has to say about the service that almost eclipsed his chance at the NFL.
"I got a foundation, an education, a training and a chance to travel the world with the Navy. How can I be bitter at anybody who could give me all that? . . . This year helped me mature a lot and understand what are really the important things in life -- God, family and friends. I'm closer to God now than when I was an altar boy in Buffalo.
"There's a real blessing in that."