By JOHN WHITE
Back on Aug. 26, 2017, my late father and I attended the Tribute to Toby Shea banquet at St. Joseph Educational Center in Warren. It was a terrific event organized to honor the long-time and highly-successful Warren Area High School football coach, who passed away at age 87 Friday.
Two thoughts crossed my mind as I enjoyed the evening:
1. There was an amazing amount of football talent at the sold-out dinner, headlined by former Penn State all-American and NFL player Ed O’Neil.
2. I was arguably the worst football player in the room.
I don’t make point No. 2 to poke fun at my lack of football skills. My point is Mr. Shea was a coach dedicated to helping ALL his players, not just his standouts. While I did very little to help his team win games – we were 24-5 during my three seasons – he went above and beyond to push me and all my teammates in the proper direction. At times that came with a pat on the back, others with the proverbial kick in the pants.
I was blessed to know Mr. Shea for much longer than most of his players. My father and Toby grew up together as friends in Clarendon, raising an occasional ruckus for the local constabulary – who just happened to be Mr. Shea’s father.
I was the kid who walked the family dog up the hill to watch some of the first day of football practice every August. Mr. Shea loved dogs nearly as much as football and always came over to make a fuss.
When it became time to leave the dog at home and put on a uniform, my real education began.
Former Warren Dragons can recite hundreds of sayings and thousands of stories about Mr. Shea and his fellow coaches. But most of it boiled down to a simple concept: Work harder and be better prepared than your opponent.
I actually started my journalism career with what used to be a pretty good local newspaper while still a member of the WAHS football team. Mr. Shea quickly hung the nickname “Grantland” on me after famous American sportswriter Grantland Rice, a moniker he used to address me for nearly five decades. He would encourage my efforts, quiz me on facts and critique my work on an almost daily basis in the halls of the high school.
As years passed and I eventually was named Sports Editor, our relationship became more professional. I covered games he coached and there were times he was not happy with what I put in print. But we always had respectful discussions and moved forward.
I remember the sad day I had to write the story about his retirement from coaching and we spoke many times for articles during his time as a school board director. During those years it was not uncommon for Mr. Shea to give me a quick call to tell me he enjoyed something I wrote.
More recently, I had the privilege to help coach WAHS girls’ basketball teams that included two of his granddaughters. Like most grandparents, he loved to watch the girls compete and rarely missed a game.
And I didn’t miss the opportunity to pepper him with questions about how to handle coaching situations. Our success in many ways has been copied from the template he used back in his time prowling the sidelines. Hard work and preparation still pay big dividends at the end of the day.
This is a short list of the ways Toby Shea helped and encouraged me over the course of his lifetime. You need to multiply this by hundreds to measure the impact he has had on the lives of young people here in Warren County.
Truly, by any standard, a life very well lived.
Godspeed, John “Toby” Shea. We can’t thank you enough.