Revitalized Conway catching on

Curtis Conway is free again. The 12th-year veteran receiver is romping around 49ers training camp happy and rejuvenated, unencumbered by the kind of things that dragged him down in recent seasons. The 49ers are enjoying the lively bounce in his step just about as much as the experience and savvy he's bringing to the team's ultra-young receiver corps. "He gives them some stability," coach Dennis Erickson said. And he's giving the 49ers something they can count on at their most uncertain position.

Conway may be the old man among San Francisco's kiddie corps of receivers, but he has brought a fresh energy and enthusiasm to the position during training camp. It has been something of a surprise even to Conway, who was feeling considerably burned out on football and the business aspect of the game after he was released by the New York Jets during the offseason, a move that came one offseason after he was released by the San Diego Chargers.

"The last two years, I finally hit the business part of it," Conway said. "It wasn't whether I could play or not. I couldn't take the fact that I'm out there busting my butt and at the end of the day you get released because of a business move, not because you can't play. I was ready to stop because of that."

But then the 49ers came calling at the end of May, and Conway has had an attitude adjustment ever since. It has been particularly evident during the past two weeks in training camp, where he has grasped the system and allowed his still formidable athletic ability take over and move him prominently into the team's receiving plans.

"I'm playing football like I was playing back in the days when it was just fun," Conway said. "I don't have no expectations. I'm just going out there having fun. I mean, it's a lot easier that way. I'm not looking to come in here and start, I'm not looking to come in as the third receiver, I'm just looking to come and play football. And it's been great, it's been so much better, just to go out here and have fun, and not worry about all the expectations people might try to put on you."

Conway has had plenty of expectations heaped upon him during his 11 seasons with the Jets, Chargers and Chicago Bears, a period during which he managed to record 556 receptions. That's 492 more career receptions than the rest of the receivers on San Francisco's roster combined.

If he snags 44 receptions this year with the Niners – something that appears possible now that Conway is working his way into the main receiving rotation – he would become the 33rd player in NFL history with 600 receptions.

Conway's smooth route-running, sure hands and ability to absorb the system has him currently running as the team's No. 3 receiver behind projected starters Cedrick Wilson and Brandon Lloyd. He's well ahead of any other youngster in the passing plans as the Niners start preparing for Saturday's exhibition opener against the Oakland Raiders.

"Curtis has just been a pleasant surprise," Erickson said. "He wants to resurface and get back to where he was in this league. And this is an opportunity, and he's taken advantage of it."

The Niners, of course, signed Conway for more reasons than just his proven pair of hands. The team is equally interested in his veteran presence and the wisdom and savvy he has developed since joining the league as Chicago's first-round draft pick in 1993. Those are things he can relay to the team's young receivers.

"Just his experience and them being around that experience," Erickson said. "They ask him questions. There are things that he does out here with experience on routes that you don't learn unless you play for a long time. So, our other receivers can learn from that."

San Francisco's other receivers have been learning from Conway since he joined the team during June minicamps. They have not hesitated to ask him for advice.

"I'm pretty much quiet and laid-back," Conway said. "I told the guys from Day One, ‘I'm not going to come up to you and try to change your game, but if you have any questions for me, I'll be welcome to answer them.' So they come to me every now and then and ask questions."

Conway's been giving the right answers.

"He's a perfect person for us right now," Lloyd said. "He calms us down, and at the same time he's like a coach out there on the practice field. C-way is a positive influence on us and he's looking to help us out. It really means a lot to me, because everything he says is valuable."

The 33-year-old Conway may have found the fountain of youth with the Niners, but he still can feel the generation gap between himself and other young receivers such as Lloyd, who can remember playing a Tecmo Super Bowl video game a decade ago in which Conway was one the video's characters.

"But you know what? That's a good thing," Conway said. "Because I can see the maturity in myself as a man. I used to talk about the old guys. I used to talk about them cats like, ‘Man, they're old and they're getting massages and they're getting in the ice tubs.' Now here I am, getting the massages and getting in ice tubs. But it's fun watching these young guys go out there and play."

And even more fun being in the middle of the action with them.

"It's a blessing to be my age and still being able to play a game you love to play," Conway said. "I know I'm still a good player, and I just look at it now like I'm out there playing ball and whenever my number is called, I just do what I do to help this team. At this point in my career, it really doesn't matter if I'm a No. 1 (receiver), a No. 2 or 3. It's going out there, having fun and enjoying the game."

Conway is doing that with the Niners, and he's helping make the game fun and enjoyable for them, too.

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