It’s easy to look back on the John Franco Era at Tyrone with rose colored glasses and believe that he instantly turned around a dismal program. The assumption is wrong in a couple of ways.
First, the program was already on an upswing. In 1993, Tom Miller had guided Tyrone to a four-game winning streak to close the season and finish 5-5, the team’s first .500 season since 1988. Things were turning around and there was plenty of talent coming up through the pipeline, which made the decision to open the head coaching position following the 1993 season a rather controversial one.
On top of that, Franco didn’t bring instant success. His first Golden Eagle team in 1994 duplicated the 5-5 finish of a season earlier, and it actually sputtered to the finish line, dropping 3 of its last four games after a solid start. It was a team that suffered four shutouts and scored a single touchdown three other times.
But when Franco finally had a year to establish his vision for the program, when he had extended time to mold 40-plus kids into HIS players, things took off in a hurry. In 1995 Tyrone won the first of three straight District titles, and the machine that became Golden Eagle football was humming.
That was when you saw a dramatic change to the way football was played in the borough, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Records fell like leaves in autumn. Jarrod Anderson not only became the program’s first 1,000-yard passer, he did it twice. Marcus Owens not only took over the school’s all-time rushing records, he became the first player to run for 2,000 yards in a single season. After Owens broke a 70-year old single-season touchdown record in 1995, Mark Wyland broke it two season later.
Franco’s awareness of how he believed offense should be run, combined with his single-minded manner in conveying it to his players (and certainly with no shortage of talent) led to an offensive revolution.
And so it’s no surprise that the best offensive production came during the Franco Era. No matter what the measure – points in a season, rushing yards in a season, passing yards in a season, total yards in a season – the most productive teams offensively at Tyrone played from 1995 through 2011. The numbers are indisputable.
So it’s hard to go away from Franco guys when looking for the top offensive players for the All-Time Team. There were other talented players. There were other highly skilled athletes who could have done more in a system more conducive moving the ball in chunks. But the fact is it’s all conjecture. We know others had potential, but we also KNOW what the Franco guys did.
And that leads to what may be perceived as a flaw in the All-Time Team.
Clearly the skill positions have been dominated by John Franco-era players. If the shortcoming of the original All-Century team in 1999 was that it failed to include active players – thus excluding several players who were on the precipice of careers that would exceed most others – then the shortcoming of the new All-Time team is that it is laden with skill players who played in the John Franco system.
Certainly, that has its advantages. There were many things that made Franco a Hall of Fame coach, but one thing that stands out is that he wasn’t a “system coach.” He didn’t try to fit square pegs into round holes because he was enamored by the design of his own offensive system. Instead, Franco was a philosophy coach, and his philosophy was to get the ball to the best playmakers from wherever they could do the most damage. That kind of flexibility yields results, and the numbers speak for themselves.
So while the tight end position again includes a John Franco guy, it is also unique in that it is the first spot on the new All-Time team that goes outside of the Franco Era for a gem from the Chuck Hoover era.
In fairness, and to compile a roster that would in some ways resemble modern rosters that include not only starters but backups and package players on a depth chart, the tight end position on the All-Time Team includes starters and depth-package players.
The starters are two guys who, if you were going to go double-tight and shove the ball down a team’s throat, would bookend a line like few others – Johnny Shaffer and Bill Kimberling.
Kimberling personified leadership and team play, and he made perhaps the most famous catch in Tyrone football lore. More on that later. Shaffer, on the other hand, was like a wide receiver playing tight end, but without the drop in size or power you might expect from a hybrid player.
Let’s start with Kimberling. His senior season in 1987, when Kimberling was an all-Big 8 selection, he had 28 receptions for 384 yards and five touchdowns. Two of those touchdowns were game winners, two were in the playoffs, and another was in a game that gave Tyrone the Big 8 conference championship.
Say what you want about those 28 receptions. True, only one actual wide receiver caught a pass that season (Joe Steinbugl had 11 catches in 1987); true, a fullback, Shawn Johnson, was the team’s second-leading receiver; true, tight ends caught 35 of the team’s 75 receptions in 1987. But still, 28 catches is 28 catches, and if you make that many in a single high school season, you’re getting open.
There was a special connection between Kimberling and quarterback Bob Mertiff, and when things fell apart as they often do, Mert was looking for Number 80.
That was the case against Philipsburg-Osceola, a team that will be haunted twice by this particular position of the All-Time team, in that magical season of 1987. That group was the original “Cardiac Kids,” a unit that won three games when the clock read zeroes. They were legendary in their own time, and they won the school’s first District 6 championship when the Golden Eagles were still a Class 3A squad.
They began the season with a new coach in Chuck Hoover and started with losses to Bellwood-Antis and Huntingdon. But somewhere along the way they found their stride and went on a serious tear. By Week 7 the Eagles were 5-2 and knocking on the door of the program’s first Big 8 title. But they had to beat undefeated P-O in Tyrone on Homecoming.
It was a crazy game in ways that have nothing to do with an All-Time team, but that bear mentioning. The Eagles trailed 7-0 at the end of the first half when kicker and back-up quarterback John Supina had a field goal attempt blocked in the waning seconds. All he did was pick up the loose ball and toss it to Tom Getz for a score that tied the game. That was generally how things went in 1987, but it wasn’t even the play of the game against the Mounties.
Tyrone trailed 13-7 with 13 seconds left and started the game-winning drive at its own 28. Mertiff threw to Joe Steinbugl for 42 yards on one play, and then on the final play from the P-O 33 he heaved one to his buddy Kimberling in the end zone. The ball was tipped, Kimberling was knocked onto his back, and somehow he maintained concentration on the ball and made the touchdown reception.
Supina kicked the PAT and the rest is history. So yeah, tight ends like Bill Kimberling don’t come along too often.
Nor do tight ends like Johnny Shaffer, a special player who was a man among boys even as an underclassman.
During his senior season in 2008, Shaffer had 31 receptions, which is a record at Tyrone for tight ends, for 304 yards. You won’t find tight end numbers much better during any period of Tyrone football, but throw in this little nugget to sweeten the pot: Shaffer was 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. And he ran like a wide receiver – maybe not Eric Desch or Nick Patton fast, but fast enough that opposing coaches had serious matchup problems. Linebackers he could burn. Defensive backs he could pancake. So what do you do to stop him?
Apparently not much, as 31 catches suggests. When he was a junior in 2007 – a year when Shaffer made 14 catches for 171 yards – Philipsburg-Osceola did what you almost had to do: put two guys on him. Didn’t matter.
Midway through 2007, Tyrone was in its glory under Franco, having won 29 consecutive regular-season games to tie a school record. Then, at home against P-O, the Mounties were ready to snap that streak in two, up 13-7 with 2:30 left in the game. Like the game in 1987, Tyrone began its final drive rather deep in its own territory, starting at the 33. Play two of the drive was a halfback pass from Shayne Tate to Shaffer, who went up between two defenders and made a circus catch good for 27 yards to the Mounties’ 40.
The drive will forever be remembered by the last play – a 15-yard throwback from Tate to quarterback Levi Reihart that tied it with 15 seconds left before Shaffer kicked the game-winning PAT. But it started with Shaffer’s doctor-like hands on a tough reception. And the final score would not have been possible had Shaffer not drawn coverage to his side of the field – he was a player that commanded attention.
The win gave the Tyrone teams of the era sole possession of the longest winning streak in school history, which eventually ended at 35 games.
Shaffer ended his career with 45 receptions for 475 yards and four touchdowns. He was a ferocious and reliable blocker, and not surprisingly Tate and later Larry Glace had pretty successful running careers following his tail.
You need at least a couple more at this position for an all-time training camp to push the projected starters, and four come to mind immediately.
It would be hard to keep Tyler Beckwith out of the mix. He started for two seasons at tight end in the late 1990s and was the starter on Tyrone’s PIAA championship team in 1999, when he was second on the team with 15 receptions for 165 yards and three touchdowns. Judging by the numbers his teammates Jesse Jones and Josh Lucas produced running the ball, Beckwith could block a little bit, too. Andy Woomer was the starter the first time Tyrone played in the PIAA championship game in 1996, making nine grabs for 124 yards, and he deserves mention if only because he made one of the sickest catches in Tyrone history. On an all-or-nothing drive in the fourth quarter of the PIAA quarterfinals in 1996 against Wilmington, Woomer made a miraculous 1-handed, diving grab on third-and-long that kept in motion the game-winning scoring march. A third tight end in the mix is Pat Starzecky, an unheralded tight end from the Tom Miller era who in 1983 caught 23 passes for 202 yards. The 23 receptions put him in the mix numerically with the best tight ends to play at Tyrone, and his stats are even more impressive when you consider that his 202 yards represented one-third of the Eagles passing offense that season.
A final invitee is Luke Woomer, a player who looked every bit the part of the lean and angular tight end in two seasons as a starter in 2011 and 2012. Woomer had 12 receptions for 145 yards as a junior and made some of his biggest catches in the post-season during the Golden Eagles run to the state championship game. As a senior, he made 10 grabs for 143 yards and two more touchdowns.