Selfless Jimmy Conway made lasting impact
Before he became one of the driving forces in the growth of soccer in Oregon, Jimmy Conway was a beloved player for Fulham Football Club and the subject of a popular chant.
"We've got Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy Conway on the wing, on the wing," was a popular song at Craven Cottage during Conway's 11 seasons with the West London club.
The song rang out again last weekend at the Fulham ground, in loving memory of the popular Conway.
Songs of praise have been heard throughout the Oregon soccer community since Conway's death on Feb. 14 at age 73.
Conway died more than a decade after being diagnosed with trauma-induced dementia, a disease believed to be the result of concussions suffered playing the game he loved and a condition that kept the outgoing Conway mostly out of the public eye during the last years of his life.
Conway's impact on soccer in these parts cannot be understated. Close friend Mick Hoban, a teammate of Conway with the North American Soccer League Portland Timbers of the late 1970s, compares Conway's importance with that of former University of Portland coach Clive Charles.
One of five members of the Timbers Ring of Honor at Providence Park (along with Hoban, Charles, John Bain and Timber Jim Serrill), Conway came to Portland in 1978 at agw 31, after 11 seasons playing for Fulham and a couple with Manchester City. He played three outdoor seasons and then two seasons of indoor soccer for the Timbers.
Hoban describes Conway as a "blue collar footballer with while collar skills," a tough-as-nails competitor who was strong and fast and almost impossible to take the ball from.
That technical ability served Conway just as well after his playing days.
In the early 1980s, Conway coached men's soccer at Pacific University, then was the first men's soccer coach at Oregon State, guiding the Beavers from 1988-98. Later, he was an assistant coach for the reborn Timbers in the A-League.
Conway and his family befriended Gavin Wilkinson, the Timbers' current president of soccer, who in 2001 came to Portland from New Zealand to play for the second-tier Timbers.
"(Jimmy and wife Noleen) understood what my wife and I were going through, moving here from so far away," Wilkinson said. "They were always there to help other people. The word to describe Jimmy is selfless."
Conway's generous spirit and passion for soccer had its greatest influence in the almost three decades he spent with the Oregon Youth Soccer Association, many of them as the director of coaching. In that role, he traveled the state.
"From Jewell to Seaside to Bend to Pendleton," as Hoban put it, Conway loved getting to know people and sharing his expertise with even the greenest of coaches.
It was a side of Conway that Hoban experienced as a teammate. After a small-sided training game early in Conway's time in Portland, he pulled aside Hoban to offer tips on how to better keep the ball. Such interaction among players was unheard of during an era when players depended on bonuses that were earned only when they played in games, so competition in practices was fierce. Hoban quickly understood that Conway wasn't picking on him, but trying to help him improve.
"It was rare that a senior player would take you aside and give you advice. But that was Jimmy," Hoban said.
Conway's passion for sharing and teaching the game became his legacy. Rather than return to England or to his native Ireland, Conway built a life for himself, Noleen and children Paul, Mark and Laura in Oregon.
"He had a joy of life about him," Hoban said. "That came from pursuing his life's passion."
When Wilkinson founded the Eastside youth soccer club, Conway was an influential sounding board. He and Noleen were "a constant resource on every level" for Wilkinson as he put down roots here.
"I smile every time I think of him," Wilkinson said. "To say that about a coach at the professional level is pretty rare."
Conway's humble, quick-witted personality was born from growing up the oldest of 12 children in Dublin. That experience helped Conway keep cool even when opponents came after him with rugged tackles. According to Hoban, in more than 400 games as a professional, Conway never saw a caution card or an ejection.
"That symbolizes Jimmy's professionalism and game smarts, too," Hoban said.
When his playing days ended, Conway shared that expertise whenever and wherever possible.
"Jimmy always found a way to connect with everybody," Wilkinson said. "He was always easy to work with in every way."
The final decade of Conway's life was anything but easy as dementia took hold.
"It was the hardest thing to see," Hoban said, describing the disease's advance as "a steady path to nothingness."
But even that chapter made an impact. Locally, the Conways and their soccer family became active in local Alzheimer's fundraisers. In Britain, Jimmy's plight was publicized by Noleen in an effort to increase awareness of trauma-caused dementia.
Such efforts help Conway's legacy live on. It will live on, too, on March 1 against Minnesota United as the Timbers open their 10th MLS season. It's a milestone that might not have become possible without the grassroots work Conway did to grow soccer here.
Many fans will arrive wearing No. 8 jerseys with the name Valeri on the back and sing their support for current Timbers heroes.
Conway also wore No. 8 as a Timber, but because of his illness he didn't have the opportunity to appreciate Valeri's magic on the field. It's a scene Conway would have loved.
The impact Conway made can be seen on soccer fields all over town. But his legacy also buzzes around a stadium with his name on the ring of honor, a place where (whether they know it or not) 25,000 folks honor the memory of Conway by putting their own passion into a game of soccer.
Jimmy Conway funeral and reception — A Catholic funeral Mass for Jimmy Conway will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25 at St. Mary's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 1716 NW Davis St. A reception will follow at approximately 2:30 p.m. at Multnomah Athletic Club, 1849 SW Salmon St. All are welcome to attend the Mass and the reception.
• Conway's family suggests that donations in Jimmy's memory be sent to the Boston University CTE Center, a leading program studying Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
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