Never mind his age (58), gray hair and the four decades that have passed since he played at Navy — and, later, in the NFL. In his mind, Phil McConkey will always be "that skinny little kid from Buffalo" driven to prove himself to the world.
"The competitiveness never goes away," said McConkey, still 5 feet 10 and 160 pounds. "I grew up with an enormous chip on my shoulder because, at every level, I was told I was too small to play football. I had something to prove so, on every play, I went full throttle."
At Navy, he starred as a wide receiver and kick returner, setting school records and leading the Midshipmen to victory in the 1978 Holiday Bowl. There, he caught a 65-yard touchdown pass against Brigham Young and was named Most Valuable Player. After a five-year hitch as a helicopter pilot transporting nuclear weapons, McConkey returned to football. At 27, he signed with the New York Giants despite those who thought him too small and too old. The odds, he knew, were long.
"I had no chance, but every day I went a zillion miles an hour," he said. "The first day of practice, coach Bill Parcells said, 'Son, you better slow your motor or you'll burn yourself out.' Hey, I didn't know any other way."
In the 1986 season, McConkey, a role player, helped the Giants reach Super Bowl XXI, where he left his mark. Against Denver, he (1) returned a punt 25 yards to set up a New York field goal, (2) caught a 44-yard pass that led to a touchdown and (3) made a 6-yard touchdown reception off a deflected pass. New York defeated the Broncos, 39-20.
In hindsight, he said, "I was in the right place at the right time — and I seized the moment. These days, I'll break out my [Super Bowl] ring when I speak to groups of kids."
"If I can do it, you can do it," he tells them. "Society wants to put us all in a box because of our heritage or how we look or talk. Many succumb to those stereotypes and never get a chance to spread their wings. Don't be typecast. I'm an example of what you can do if you want it badly enough, so follow your passions and chase your dreams."
It's a mantra McConkey touts as president of Academy Securities, an investment firm staffed largely by disabled veterans. He, his wife and daughter live in San Diego, 2,700 miles from Annapolis, where college honed his motivation.
"[Navy coach] George Welsh would tell us, 'You're either getting better or you're getting worse,'" McConkey said. "You have to fight to stay on top; it's human nature to let down. Winning the Super Bowl is like eating Thanksgiving dinner — you're ravenous beforehand but, afterward, you sit on the couch, relax and loosen your belt a notch.
"Money and fame aren't enough of a motivator; you need that fire, that inner edge. That's why [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady stays great. He's driven by the fact that he wasn't a higher draft pick."
McConkey could bask in his football success but the disappointments, though few, still nag at him. Yes, he caught a scoring pass for Navy in its 23-16 Holiday Bowl win. But he'll remind you that he also had a 40-yard touchdown called back by a holding penalty.
"That still bugs the [crap] out of me," he said. "And sure, I made three big plays in the second half of the Super Bowl. But what about the first play of the second quarter, when I faked a defender out of his mind, then got tripped before the ball was thrown? The ref never saw it. Should have been a 60-yard touchdown."
Not that McConkey is ungrateful for his triumphs.
"True competitors hate to lose a hell of a lot more than they like to win," he said. "The sensation of losing is more intense. Winning is almost a relief that you don't have to go through the emotional turmoil of losing. But that's life, baby. That mentality has helped me succeed in football and professionally. It's both a blessing and a curse."