Not everyone plays.
That’s the harsh reality in college football. Any college sport, really. Kids who dominated entire conferences in high school are suddenly fighting with 14 other high school superstars for five spots on an offensive line. And the weeding-out process continues in college, with Heisman winners failing to even get drafted. More than one million high school football players, 10,625 FBS scholarships, 256 NFL draft spots every year.
On that continuum, Shawn Afryl was the high school superstar who got one of those college scholarships but never found the starting lineup. We’re crass, so we say that they’re a “bust” or, if we’re attempting to be kind, that they “never panned out”, and we even go as far as to start to discuss who might fill their scholarship the minute they transfer. Fans have this insatiable thirst for victories, so maybe the next guy can crack the starting lineup. There’s always a next guy.
For those of us looking in from the outside, that was Shawn Afryl’s path. Graduated high school early and arrived in Champaign early. Redshirted his first year, and then didn’t play his redshirt freshman season. Then, a coaching change, with the line coach who brought him here moving on and a new scheme/position coach for his redshirt sophomore season. He did play, once, in the Charleston Southern game in 2012. I always watch for guys like Shawn during our FCS games. I want to see their reaction to their first “Afryl, get in there” moment. I hope it was amazing for Shawn.
After that 2012 season, a decision. He was still technically a “sophomore” in football terms that spring, but in school he was a senior, getting ready to graduate after seven semesters. With the new coaching staff recruiting players for their scheme, should he go to grad school and stick it out? Transfer? Go somewhere he could play? Afryl chose to graduate and leave, ending up at Winona State in Minnesota.
And that’s what he was doing last night. During an informal football practice with teammates at Winona State, Shawn Afryl collapsed and died during voluntary strength and conditioning drills. 22 years old, college graduate, the chance to play one more season of college football, and it’s gone. He’s gone.
For me, as it is for many of you I’m sure, his untimely death is an unfortunate time machine back to similar circumstances in our own lives. For me it was 1997 and my friend Mark who, just 383 days after I stood up in his wedding, collapsed and died playing sand volleyball. He was a college basketball player – he remains the all-time leading scorer at Division III Fontbonne University in St. Louis – and suddenly he was gone at age 25. The autopsy showed the cause to be hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM. Reggie Lewis, Hank Gathers, Gaines Adams, and many other athletes have died suddenly from HCM. Mark was happy, healthy, and in love, and then Mark was gone.
I had the privilege of giving the eulogy at Mark’s funeral, and in preparing for it, not knowing what to say, I gathered all of our friends together to get their words about Mark. Because of that experience, and because I couldn’t begin to do Shawn Afryl’s memory justice as a blogger who spoke with him only a few times, I decided to let his friends tell you about him.
You see, he might have only played that once, but that’s not how college football works. There are film rooms. There are pregame rituals with second-stringers leading the charge. There are late night chats about football and class and life, and it’s usually not the superstars handing out the wisdom. The Illini football team is a family, and they lost a family member yesterday, and I want his brothers to tell you about him. So using direct messages on Twitter (phone calls just didn’t feel right here), I asked several of his offensive line brethren to share their thoughts about him.
Like Alex Hill. Hill arrived in Champaign with Afryl as a member of the 2010 recruiting class. The 2010 offensive line recruiting class, to be exact. I asked him for his thoughts about Shawn.
“The best man I had the opportunity to meet. He never showed signs of being down and always had a happy spirit. We came here together in 2010 and he was one of the first friends I made. Seeing him gone honestly breaks my heart. But at least he got to do what he loves one more time, and that’s football.”
Michael Heitz, also a member of that 2010 class, said the same. “Great, super caring guy. Would do anything for you if you asked. One of the hardest workers I know.”
Simon Cvijanvoic was the fourth member of that 2010 offensive line class. His response: “Shawn was a great kid. He worked really hard and I saw the love for the game in him. It’s really sad to know he’s gone. He was a great friend.”
I also wanted to get the perspective of older Illini players who played with Afryl. So I asked Jeff Allen, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, and Corey Lewis, who just finished his career, if they could share a few thoughts. Responding via Twitter can be a bit abbreviated and maybe even awkward, but I thought that they were both quite eloquent.
Jeff Allen: “Shawn was a great teammate and friend. He was always willing to put in the work and never complained. Us playing together on the O-line created a bond that we all shared and that’s a true brotherhood. I’m truly saddened to hear this news.”
Corey Lewis: “Shawn was a great dude, man. He always thought about others before himself. Never a day where he pouted or walked around feeling sorry for himself. Truly a class act, and he brought energy and effort to the facility every day. Tough to see such a great teammate, friend, and O-line brother go.”
Did you catch that? “Never a day where he pouted or walked around feeling sorry for himself”. “Always willing to put in the work and never complained”. “Never showed signs of being down and always had a happy spirit.” “Brought energy to the facility every day.” We the fans sit around complaining that a certain player can’t crack the two-deep, or that they “disappoint” us when they finally start. And here’s a kid dealing with coaching changes, scheme changes, and an eventual transfer with a “happy spirit”. All of that hard work, very little payoff from the world’s perspective, but his teammates still speak of the inspiration they drew from his love of the game.
Sure, not everybody plays. But everyone contributes. And Shawn Afryl, it appears, gave more than most.