Last Saturday I walked on the Lehigh University football field following the devastating loss to arch rival Lafayette 49-21. The Leopards had mercifully taken a knee inside the Lehigh 10 yardline on their last possession. As the players slowly streamed back out on the field from the locker room following the post-game coaches’ talk there was an unmistakable look in the eyes of the Lehigh players. It resembled the military’s “1,000 yard stare.” Shell shock. The Mountain Hawk players were in a funk. If you were a senior in The Rivalry game you would never get another shot at them. You would live with this loss for the rest of your life.

Ok, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just a football game, right? But win or lose there are lessons to be learned. The players in this game are unique when compared to players at the larger FBS school rivalries. Many of these players are not on scholarships, or they only have partial scholarships. Many already have their degrees and are in graduate school. A diploma from these two schools can literally be taken to the bank via the type of careers that will blossom from their undergraduate experiences. So win or lose, these FCS football players have a leg up on the challenges they will face later in life.

But walking among them out on the field I could still feel their pain. They are just not going to get this one back. At Lehigh and Lafayette they work their tails off just to get into this game. Lehigh was 2-8 going in and a “W” would have turned the season around. It would have been for life-long bragging rights. But in 2023 those rights belong 16 miles down the road in Easton, PA. Some good, old-fashioned hate lies in between that stretch of PA 22.

3-0 vs Lafayette is a wonderful thing …

I’m no stranger to it. I was in town for the 50th anniversary of our Lehigh Lambert Cup Championship team. The Lambert Cup honors supremacy of football teams in the East. We won it in 1973. We also were invited to the first-ever D-ll (there was no FCS back then) national championship playoff. At our reception that evening I shared with my old teammates what I witnessed down on the field; the 1,000 yard stare. With our own knowing looks we agreed that we were a very lucky group to have never experienced a loss to the dreaded Leopards. At a time when freshmen were not eligible to play varsity, we went 3-0 in our three shots at the Most Played Rivalry (159) in the history of college football. We know that’s special and we also know we are a gifted group of guys. It’s why we still get about 80-90% of the team to come back for a reunion. When we’re together we think we’re pretty hot stuff. And we are! We had a pretty hot coach too. His name is Fred Dunlap and he’s now 96 years old. Fred came back to Bethlehem Saturday too. Hell, why not? He still shoots his age four times a week on the golf course!

Just FYI, it doesn’t mean you can’t be hot stuff if you lost the game. But it does start you off in a hole. There was one guy walking around on the field for Lehigh who didn’t exactly have the 1,000 yard stare. He wasn’t happy at all, but he still seemed… optimistic? He was #17 Hank Shapiro. I had followed Hank’s career at LU because he was a Quarterback. But I had lost track of his status in the Lehigh Quarterback Room. The night before the game most of our reunion guys gathered at a local pub to kick off the anniversary. This included a teammate who had the displeasure of serving as my backup QB at Lehigh. His name is Joe Sterrett and he’s been Athletic Director at Lehigh for like 200 years. Ok, it’s been 35 so he’s seen a lot of Lehigh players come and go. He also never lost to Lafayette. He also was a winner of the MVP award his senior season. His blood runs brown and white.

The Consummate Team-First Guy

I asked Joe about Hank Shapiro and he got a little giddy. He doesn’t get giddy much. It’s not part of the type-cast for an AD not to mention the Dean of Athletics. But Joe got a gleam in his eye and said, “Hank Shapiro has never started a game in his four years at Lehigh, and still, Hank is the consummate team-first teammate.” Joe went on, “The reality is not everyone can play. That’s especially true at the QB position. (I thought, Joe should know, he sat his ass down behind me enough, but of course I didn’t say it. I mean, he did get me those sideline passes). Joe and I agreed that sometimes playing is a performance issue and sometimes it’s simply timing. So, I did some Hank research.

At Westfield (NJ) High, Hank had it all. He started as a sophomore in 2017 and won the New Jersey State Championship. Although, it was his to lose because Westfield had won it in the two prior years. But he didn’t fumble it. He successfully defended the title. His team would be part of a 37 game winning streak. In 2018-19 Hank would continue as QB1 and while they did not repeat as state champs they were pretty darn good. So was Hank. He finished at Westfield with career records for passing yards (5,255), competitions (427) and passing touchdowns (51). Coming out of Westfield Hank was 6’2” and 185 lbs. By his own admission he needed to hit the weight room, which may be why he wasn’t as highly recruited as his accomplishments might indicate.

Some Football Players Really are Student-Athletes!

He was, however, a very good student. Hank began to bracket the Patriot and Ivy Leagues for his target destination. He was looking for that balance of academics and athletics. At a summer camp in Chapel Hill, NC he met coach Scott Brisson who was the OC at Lehigh. At the time, Andy Coen was the LU head coach. Hank and Brisson developed a strong relationship that would result in Lehigh making an offer that was accepted by Hank in the summer of 2018 (his junior year). By the time Hank enrolled at LU, Andy Coen would step down for health reasons, but Scott Brisson was retained by the new head coach, Tom Gilmore. But mark that down as disruption number one in Hank’s football journey. Head coaching change. Coach Gilmore requested Hank to come in and throw some balls for him. Hank said later, “I get it. He wanted the ‘eye test’ for himself. I thought that was fair.” It all seemed to go ok.

In 2019 Hank had been hitting the weight room and was now up to 215 lbs. Hank and Westfield had another great season and made it to the State semi-final game. In 2020 Hank honors his commitment and enrolls at Lehigh. But in the spring of 2020 COVID hit. No prom for high school seniors. No access to the Lehigh Quarterback Room. All of his early Lehigh sessions are remote via Zoom. The Patriot League cancels its season in 2020. Mark that down as disruption number two to Hank’s career.

In Spring 2021 the Patriot League would play a three game schedule to replace the season lost in 2020. Kind of lame, but those were weird times for ballers in high school and college. The QB room at Lehigh at this time was Cross Wilkinson, a senior who transferred into LU from Toledo, Dante Perri who came in with Hank, and Hank. In that order. The team in the fall would go 3-8. But they beat Lafayette 17-10! No 1,000 yard stare on Lehigh’s side.

You Want to Make Tackles…?

Unfortunately, the 2022 season would go no better for Lehigh nor for Hank Shapiro. Dante Perri would continue to start at QB1 and a freshman, Brayton Silbor, was working his way up the depth chart. The team went 2-9 and lost to the bad guys in the Big Game 14-11. For a Quarterback there is no playing rotation, like say in the defensive line or at running back or wide receiver. It’s go or no go and Hank wasn’t going anywhere at QB. So he knocked on the coach’s door and said, “I wanna play special teams.” What? Yeah. He wants to cover punts and make tackles. That’s what he does. The guy loves football. He’s a baller.

Following the 2022 season, Tom Gilmore stepped down as LU head coach and in comes Kevin Cahill. Cahill came to South Mountain from Yale where he was OC and QB coach. Kevin was also a three year starter at Quarterback at Springfield College, where he earned two ECAC Player of the Year awards. He knows how to talk to Quarterbacks. To start the 2023 season he sat with Hank Shapiro and leveled with him that the freshman Silbor was the higher priority. To his credit, Hank told me, “It made perfect sense that the new coach would want the young QB to develop. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t argue the logic.” Mark this down as disruption number three to a college football career. Cahill countered and said, “I’m going to find a place for you here.” Hank would join the punt team and the extra point and field goal teams. The idea behind it was to execute fake punts and field goals with QB3 in the game.

And it worked! Sort of. Earlier this year vs Holy Cross, Cahill called Hank’s number on a 4th and 9 and Hank converted the fake punt for a 1st down! Against Bucknell off another fake Hank would hit his TE for a long TD pass only to be brought back for an illegal shift! Bummer. So Hank was finding ways to make a contribution. I can tell you, watching him on the sidelines at the Lafayette game he was a bounding ball of energy. Hustling in and out of special teams, carrying the headset and conferring with the coaches and helping QB1 Dante Perri any way he could. He was everywhere and doing everything he could to make a contribution.

Not Every Quarterback Gets in the Game

Not every quarterback gets in the game. Typically, there is only one. But there are three ways a Quarterback can respond: 1) He can whine, pout and otherwise be a negative influence. 2) He can hit the portal. 3) He can stay, get his degree and be as much of a positive contributor to the program and his teammates as possible. Hank Shapiro chose option three. “Being a backup is not easy. But my mentality was always be a team-first guy. Even if it wasn’t what I wanted, I took that approach to practice, to the weight room, and to Spring practice,” said Hank.

Coach Cahill has this to say about Hank, “Hank’s mindset was Team First from the moment we met him. Whatever the team needed Hank would step in and make the team better.” Cahill added, “There wasn’t a scout (team) rep he didn’t try to beat the defense, and let them know about it. He worked his way to be one of the key contributors on the Punt and FG Team, including a clutch fake punt against Holy Cross.”

Taking Advantage of Opportunities

Hank’s contributions didn’t stop with the Scout team or in the weight room. He became the Lehigh Football representative to the Lehigh University Student-Athlete Council, an organization that meets regularly with the Lehigh Administration. Ideas, issues and policies regarding student-athlete life are exchanged and discussed. Hank would present football issues and report back to the team with committee findings. Additionally, Hank represented the LU football team at the Patriot/Ivy League Mental Health Summit. This is a gathering of student athletes across all sports taking a holistic approach to discussing stress and the pressure of balancing academics and athletics at these fine institutions. The goal is to ensure an open forum exists for student athletes to communicate issues and seek help when appropriate. Hank helped communicate the key talking points from the Summit to the LU Athletic community and Coach Cahill had Hank make a summary presentation to the football team in summer camp.

So where does Hank Shapiro go from here? He has yet to start his first college football game, but already has his degree in Business & Economics with a major in Marketing. He also has something else: Two years of football eligibility (including his COVID extra year). His dad, Ken Shapiro, tells me that Hank seems to be driving for a career in corporate sales. Ken would know. You see, he was a big part of my team at Turner Broadcasting. Ken was also a pretty darn good Quarterback in High School. Coincidence? Nah… That’s why we call it The Quarterback Connection.

Still Has the Fire and Not the Stare

This week Hank Shapiro is filling out his transfer portal documents. He told me the sales career can wait. He wants those two more years of football. He enters the portal with the blessings of Coach Cahill, AD Joe Sterrett, and the entire LU football community. Oh, of course, there’s only one place he simply cannot land. Yup, 16 miles down the road. The most played rivalry in the history of college football does not tolerate strange bedfellows. Good luck Hank, and when the dust finally settles on your football career, come back for your Rivalry reunion. You’ve earned it.

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