Sideline beats firing line for dad of Bills' Bailey

Ken Rosenthal

January 23, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

Conway Bailey was all set to listen to the Super Bowl last year, all set to tune in Armed Forces Network in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert. But the day before the game, his unit received orders to relocate 12 miles inside Iraq.

Could his luck get any worse?

The new position was out of AFN's range, and Conway didn't learn that his son Carlton's Buffalo Bills lost to the New York Giants until hearing the score on a BBC radio broadcast the next day.

Conway Bailey, 45, was scared he would never see his son again, much less see him play in another Super Bowl. But yesterday he flew to Minneapolis, again with a last-minute adjustment in his plans.

He was scheduled to stay in a hotel 60 miles outside the Super Bowl city. Instead, with one lucky phone call, he got a room downtown.

Funny how life evens out.

A year ago, Conway Bailey was serving in Sarah, Saudi Arabia, Chief Warrant Officer in the 29th Ordinance Company, 260th Quartermaster Battalion. Serving as an ammunition technician. Serving in a war he did not fully support or understand.

Now he gets to watch the oldest of his four children play in America's premier sporting event, the one he missed last January while resupplying ammunition to Allied infantry in northern Iraq.

From the desert to the Dome.

What are the Vegas odds on that?

"It's a dream come true," Conway said of the Bills' return to the Super Bowl. "You hope that it would happen again. You hope to be a part of it. And now it's happening. I just want to sit back and enjoy it, go with the flow."

Conway Bailey said this while relaxing in his Woodlawn dining room Monday night. He and Carlton's mother, Thelma Smith, are divorced with new spouses. Carlton, a Bills linebacker, graduated from Woodlawn High in 1983, then played football and earned a sociology degree at North Carolina.

Today Conway has a Bills sticker on one car, a Tar Heels sticker on the other. He worked 19 years counseling employees at the Maryland House of Correction before state budget cuts eliminated his position. He begins a new job as a security captain at the state penitentary after the Super Bowl.

This latest upheaval, of course, is nothing compared to the one he experienced after being sent to the gulf in October 1990. He had spent 17 years in the reserves after seven years of active duty. "We didn't think we'd ever have to pay the piper," he said.

But then came Saddam Hussein. Conway was an "augmentee," a reserve selected to fill an active slot. A quarter-century before, he spent nearly a year -- "11 months, 23 days" -- in Vietnam. He was a sergeant involved in actual combat but, at the age of 20, too young to be unnerved.

This time was different.

This time he was second oldest in a unit of 275.

"I was a lot more frightened," he said. "I kept comparing Saudi with Vietnam. I kept expecting things to happen that didn't. In Vietnam the danger was real. In Saudi Arabia and Iraq it was more imagined. You sat around and wondered what could happen."

For three months Conway's unit stored ammunition. It issued the ammunition in early January, and the war began the middle of that month. All Conway's unit could do was wait for the soldiers to fire their guns. Little did anyone know this was more a war of airplanes dropping bombs.

"When the war started, we had nothing to do," Conway said. "We had to wait for them to shoot the ammunition. And they didn't shoot it. All we supplied was an Apache helicopter unit. They were the only ones in the division that made contact."

Eventually, Conway's unit followed Allied troops into Iraq, embarking on a 24-hour convoy the eve of the Super Bowl, then working through the game. He learned the details from a newspaper a few weeks later, saw a videotape in Iraq a few weeks after that.

The war ended on Feb. 28. Conway returned home April 16 -- not surprisingly, a changed man. "I had time to think about how I wanted to relate to my children, my spouse," he said. "I pretty much established a game plan, and I'm following it. I'm taking time to say things I want without putting them off."

He started that in the desert, sending letters to each member of his family, knowing he might never see them again. The week of the Super Bowl, Carlton said he was thinking about his father constantly. Not knowing what else to do, he mailed Conway a large package of Bills souvenirs.

The story, of course, has the happiest of endings. Two weeks ago, Carlton put the Bills in the Super Bowl by scoring the only touchdown of the AFC championship game on an interception return. Conway was watching on television at home, exploding with joy.

"I saw it. It was him," Conway said. "All we could do was scream and holler. You dream about this. It was rolling right in front of you. It was like you had a lottery ticket in front of you, and all of a sudden, the numbers popped up."

A year ago, who would have thought?

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