Shortly after finishing practice last Saturday afternoon, Chris Conte takes a seat in the bleachers as the rest of the California football team trickles out of Memorial Stadium. Eyes focused on the field, Conte begins discussing his season as a true freshman. But running backs coach Ron Gould, who recruited Conte, interrupts. "How're you doin', baby?" Gould asks.
"I'm good," Conte says with a laugh. "Spent all that time recruiting you, and then you don't even come by and see me anymore," says Gould jokingly, heading for the exits. If Conte hasn't spent as much time with Gould as he used to, maybe it's because the recruitment process is over. Maybe it's because his attention has turned'justifiably'to the defensive coaching staff. In other words, Conte has been busy with football.
For the cornerback from Pacific Palisades, there was no redshirt season during which he could acclimate to the physicality and the complexity of the collegiate game. There was no extended period of time dedicated to watching, learning and reflecting'just doing. Conte, who has played in every game for the Bears this season, has come a long way from his high school days at Loyola. But unlike many incoming freshmen, Conte's development has taken place on the field. "I'm a lot smarter as a football player'a lot more experienced," Conte says. 'The whole college football game is a lot more complex. There's a lot more you have to know, and just getting used to that takes awhile. But playing in the games gives you all that experience, and now I know what to expect." Before high school, however, Conte was seldom busy with football. Aside from an occasional scrimmage with Kevin, his older brother, and Kevin's friends, Conte steered clear of the gridiron. But it wasn't his choice. "I didn't play Pop Warner because my mom wouldn't let me," he says. "She thought it was too dangerous."
Conte, who attended Corpus Christi School before Loyola, instead resorted to soccer, basketball and baseball, and he always seemed to be one of the best athletes in the bunch. That raw talent would eventually complement a 6' 3" frame that helps him against the Pac-10's gifted wide receivers. In his junior year on the Loyola football team, Conte recorded 38 tackles and snagged two interceptions. That season, Loyola edged Esperanza 49-42 to win the 2005 Division I CIF championship at the Home Depot Center in Carson. Loyola's ensuing campaign was a dismal one, as the team skidded to a 4-6 finish, but that didn't slow Conte. Competing on both sides of the ball, he caught 43 balls for 614 yards and five touchdowns as a receiver in addition to his 58 tackles and four picks on defense.
Looking at those numbers, it would be easy to think that Conte would have an immediate impact at Cal. But because he got thrown right into the action, the playing time came before much of the progress. "I think he's really adjusted well to the speed of the game," says Bears Coach Jeff Tedford. "That's a lonely place, that corner position. And there are gonna be times when you get beat. But the thing overall about him is he's continued to hang in there and keep playing and not get down, and so with that attitude he's gonna continue to get better." Midway through the season, Conte got his first start at home against Washington State, and he didn't disappoint. Conte notched 10 tackles, one of which stopped a Cougars pass one yard shy of a crucial first down. But that 20-17 decision in November is the Bears' only victory since a 5-0 start during which the Bears downed Tennessee and Oregon. As Cal sits at 6-6 with a less-than-prestigious Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force set for New Year's Eve at Texas Christian University, Conte tries to understand'let alone explain'the downfall of what was the country's second-ranked program in mid-October. "Being at the top of the NCAA in football was a lot of fun," he says. "It was almost surreal to see all that. But once we had that loss to Oregon State, everyone got kinda defeated and it was really hard to come back. Everyone starts thinking, 'Oh no, we're gonna lose again,' and it's been hard for a lot of the team to have that confidence that we're gonna win every game."
For Conte, the Bears' collapse has motivated him even more to build on the successes of his first season in college. "Everything I do is helping me get better for football," he says. "Hopefully, I'll have a starting spot next year and throughout the rest of my career here, and do some big things." His improvements became even more apparent against USC on November 10, when he had five tackles in pouring rain. With Cal down 14-10 in the third quarter, and the Trojans knocking at the end zone's door, Conte pounced on the ball at the two-yard line after a fumble by USC running back Chauncey Washington.
Conte, who grew up as a UCLA fan, was happy that the recovery came against a doubly-hated rival. In fact, Conte might have been playing football for the Bruins'if it weren't for Gould, that is. Gould didn't see Anne Conte, an eighth-grade teacher at St. Martin of Tours, attempt to discourage her son from football. He didn't see Conte merely as a genetic product of Mark, a film editor who excelled at beach volleyball. What he saw in Conte was a kid teeming with potential, and Conte's freshman season'through trial and error'has been one of undoubted progress. "I came to camp, and it's all history from there," Conte says. And with three promising years left at Cal, it's all future from here.