Tom Shawhan has been successful at coaching, but not retiring from it
By CHRIS ARDIS of yourvalleyvoice.com
McALLEN - When Tom Shawhan accepted a scholarship to play football and to wrestle at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he saw it as a chance to enjoy, for four more years, the sports he loved. Then, with his bachelor's in pre-med, he would leave the pads and the mats behind for medical school. But life has a funny way of leading us down a different path than the one we planned.
Shortly after entering UNO, Tom's dual-sport scholarship was amended to a single sport, football, because the coach wanted this defensive end to focus only on the gridiron. That wasn't the only path that was diverted. During the summer between his sophomore and junior year, Tom coached a basketball team of fourth through sixth graders for a Christian league at the YMCA.
"I realized I loved coaching," Tom said. He loved it so much that he returned to UNO and changed his major from pre-med to physical education.
Shortly after he graduated from college, Tom went to watch the Omaha Mustangs, the city's first semi-pro football team, practice. The team's coach approached him and asked, "Would you like to play for us?" Tom tried out and made the team. (The team is now the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League.) It was a summer football league, and Tom played with the team for two years.
Now a college graduate, Tom worked as a substitute teacher for one semester. Then he got a call from Lawton Bronson Consolidated School District in Iowa. Lawton, Iowa has a population of roughly 1,000 and Bronson, 300.
"Three days a week, I would teach p.e. to seventh through twelfth graders," Tom said, "and two days a week I'd teach kinder through sixth. I coached football, wrestling and track at the high school and drove the team bus."
Tom later moved to South Sioux City High School in Nebraska. There, he met Coach David Lee. When Coach Lee left to South Sioux City to become a principal, Tom assumed the position of head coach.
Tom and his wife, Donna, missed Omaha, so they headed home. Tom became head coach at Omaha Bryan High School. He didn't stay long at Bryan. Deciding he needed to take a break from teaching and coaching, Tom took a job as manager at a McDonald's.
"The entire year he was at McDonald's," Donna said, "former players kept going in there and asking him, 'When are you coming back?'" Tom knew he couldn't stay out of coaching for long.
Millard North High School hired Tom to teach and coach. There, he was re-united with David Lee, who had also returned to coaching. "One night, I was talking to David," Tom said, "and he told me, 'If you're gonna coach, you've gotta coach in Texas. That's where it's at.'"
Tom said David had attended various coaching clinics and met coaches from Texas. David couldn't believe the stories he would hear. "Football was king in Texas," Tom said.
Two high schools in Texas had openings at the time, one in Seguin and the other in Mission. David interviewed first with Mission. He called Tom and told him he wanted him to head down to see the community.
"It was mid-February," Tom said, "a Friday morning. Six feet of snow on the ground, ice, and 35 degrees below zero wind chill. I flew into the airport in Brownsville. As I was leaving the airplane, I looked out the door. Off in the distance, I saw a lone palm tree swaying in the 72 degree weather. I knew no matter what, I was coming down here."
Later, Tom went to the original Taco Olé on Tom Landry. He got on the phone and called Donna. "Mexican food, palm trees, 72 degrees," he told her. Good-bye Omaha.
"We met with Roy Garcia, the athletic director," Tom said. "We looked at the facilities. The stadium looked like a college stadium to us." The pay in Texas was much higher, too.
David accepted the head coaching job at Mission High School, and Tom signed on his defensive coordinator.
After a year, Tom took an assistant coaching job at Harlingen High School under legendary coach Charlie Williams, where he stayed for three years. Then he followed Coach Williams to PSJA. After three years there, Tom returned to Harlingen and took the head coaching position at the ninth and tenth grade campus.
"Mike Uribe, who is now the head coach at Mercedes, Jason Walker, a football and wrestling coach at McHi, and Rocky James, head coach for Rio Hondo, were all players there," Tom said. Three seemed to be Tom's number. After three seasons in Harlingen, Donna told him she wanted some stability in their lives.
"She was tired of the 'Coaching Shuffle,'" Tom said, "We bought a house in McAllen, and I got a job teaching and coaching at Lincoln Junior High under Alex Leal. I love that guy." While at Lincoln, Tom created the district's first "B" team to allow more kids to have the opportunity to play football in junior high.
"We had 120 kids come out for the team," Tom said, "and these kids deserved to play."
Tom left Lincoln to accept a coaching position at Memorial under Pete Vela. After three years, he transferred to McHi, where he stayed for 17 years, coaching for one year with Joe Pedraza and for 16 with current McHi coach, Tony Harris.
"I was Tony's assistant for one year and the defensive coordinator for 15," Tom said. While at McHi, Tom started the district's first wrestling team. "The first year, it was a wrestling club," Tom said. "The following year, McAllen ISD started it as a sport." Because high school wrestling was new to the Valley, many students didn't know what to expect.
"One student came up to me that first year," Tom said, "and he asked me, 'Coach, what mask am I gonna wear?'" obviously confusing it with Lucha Libre.
In 2008, Tom decided to end his coaching journey. "I've always loved to coach," he said. "But when teaching became overly administrative, I realized 35 years of it was enough."
Tom retired. He felt a new sense of freedom being out of the classroom, but he felt a lingering void.
"I missed the kids," he said. "Coaching has always been fun because of the people you meet and the kids you coach."
One day last fall while working at Security Self Storage in McAllen, Tom met Schuyler Anderson, the head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Magic and a former arena football player. They struck up a conversation about the sport they both love. About four weeks later and after several more discussions, Schuyler asked Tom to become the line coach for the Magic.
"I was looking for guys I could not only trust but who were knowledgeable of the game and had experience," Schuyler said. "I realized Tom was of strong character, a man of leadership. He has the same philosophy as I do of wanting to win and doing it the right way. It's been a real blessing to me to have Steve (Steve Jondreau, assistant coach for the Magic) and Tom."
It's been a blessing for Tom, too. "When the opportunity arose, I dove in," Tom said. "I've been very happy with Schuyler and the Magic. It's been a chance to coach again with a very good coach. It's a great experience."
Tom has one big hope off the field.
"I'm hoping I can give to my grandkids (He has five.) something I've learned in my life," he said. "I think that's the greatest legacy I can leave...something from sports. It's been my life, my married life and my family's life. Sports, to me, gives a well-rounded view of the world."
Tom is back on the field, albeit a different one. The Rio Grande Valley Magic is an arena football team owned by Chad Dittman. The indoor field is half the size of an outdoor field. There are eight players on the team rather than 11, and bumper pads cover every inch of the "sidelines." Players either jump over the wall to get on the field or exit through a bumper-covered door. It's like playing football in a hockey rink. The game is fast because of the shortened field, and the clock runs continuously during the 15-minute quarters (unless a penalty is called) until the final minute.
The home field for the RGV Magic is State Farm Arena in Hidalgo. They have four more home games in the 2012 season: May 21, June 4, June 16 and June 29.
Coach Tom Shawhan is thrilled to be coaching again, influencing the lives of another group of young men. He still remembers players he coached 35 years ago. Many of those players will never forget him.
One is Alex Wyckoff, a graduate of McHi who joined the wrestling team Tom started. Alex will graduate from UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas in June. After a one-year internship in Houston, Dr. Alex Wyckoff will complete his residency in radiology at the University of North Carolina Medical School. Alex tracked Tom down and sent him the book, The Art of War, which Tom often quoted for his wrestlers, along with a beautiful letter.
Alex wrote: ...As part of my application for residency, one of my advisors who was going to write me a letter of recommendation wanted me to write about something in my life that has contributed to who I am today. I wrote about you. I don't think I ever told you what a positive impact you had on my life-maybe I didn't realize it at the time...I respected you so much, the way you were so passionate about getting the wrestling program started. You put everything you had into that sport...Coach Shawhan, you have made me a better, stronger, and more capable person. One of the biggest regrets is quitting wrestling. At the time, I did not have the passion I do now. You had planted the seed, but it took time to grow...But I try not to have any regrets. I am so happy with where I have ended up. I have you to thank...
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Lone Star Football League Stories from May 18, 2012
- Tom Shawhan has been successful at coaching, but not retiring from it - Rio Grande Valley Magic
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