Sean Shimel carried Big Valley Christian’s trademark sledgehammer as he charged onto the field ahead of the Lions on Friday night.
The Lions wanted Sean, the son of their late coach Larry Shimel, to lead them into their game against Valley Christian of Roseville. Larry Shimel collapsed while teaching a class at Modesto High on Wednesday morning and died of an apparent heart attack.
Though they were grief-stricken teenagers — the fresh sorrow etched onto their young faces — the 24-man team understood the task ahead. Sean, after all, was the extension of Larry.
Imagine the joint sorrow shared by both BVC and Modesto High. Consider the place no football team ever should visit. He taught them how to block and tackle one day, and he was gone the next.
Nevertheless, they would play, the Lions insisted, and their coach’s son would be there.
“I played football for my father three years ago,” Sean said. “There was no question that they would play tonight. I told them, ‘You better, or he’ll roll over in his grave.”
The memory of Larry Shimel, 58, hung over each person who attended a special ceremony preceding the kickoff. He contributed to Stanislaus District high school football as a coach for the better part of three decades.
But here, at Big Valley Christian, he was the only varsity football coach the school ever knew. He and fellow volunteers built the stadium, which parallels Pelandale Road.
So it was no surprise that many former players, coaches and friends from over the years gathered before the kickoff. Could there be a better location — beneath the Friday night lights — to remember one of the district’s brightest lights?
“There was no dark side to Larry,” said Becci Shimel, Larry’s wife and a BVC teacher for 34 years. “He did not have a dark side.”
Even the visiting Lions from Valley Christian crossed the field and joined in the ceremony. The packed grandstand hushed as it listened to Rick Countryman, senior pastor of Big Valley Grace Church and one of Shimel’s longtime friends.
“If you decided not to play tonight, Larry would have been ticked off,” he told the players standing before him. “He wanted you to grow up to be Godly men. … Trust me, the world needs more Larry Shimel’s.”
Countryman waved Shimel’s Bible, decorated with football laces, which he always carried with him on game night. He also dedicated a trophy, the Larry Shimel Champion for Christ Award, to be awarded annually to a BVC student.
Everywhere around the venue, people told their Larry Shimel stories. Some remembered him as a tough-minded linebacker for Grace Davis, others for his coaching days at Modesto High, others for his manic weightlifting, still others for his behind-the-scenes work in recent years for the Small Schools All-Star Football Game.
“Larry loved to win,” Countryman told the crowd, “and he was also a man of God.”
In 1990, Shimel’s Hughson Huskies — his “Wild Dogs” — received national recognition for their 9-6 win over Hilmar, which snapped the Yellowjackets’ 46-game winning streak. Football-wise, it was his banner achievement.
The passion he brought each day to the field, however, exceeded any number of wins and losses. Shimel attracted people, guided them and served as a walking example. His players got the message: If you lived each day like Shimel, chances are you were tracking right.
Coaches describe an interception, a lost fumble, a blocked punt or any against-the-grain moment as a “sudden change.” Well, his team just experienced the ultimate “sudden change,” the one not outlined in any playbook.
Shimel taught life-lessons, as all coaches do. Football prepares you for life, they say, even for such tragedy.
“Larry was the biggest example of this,” said Sharolyn Larson, BVC principal. “He always lived his faith. For me, it’s just like, ‘We’ll see you, Larry, in a little bit.’ ”
Cinnamon cookies, Shimel’s favorite, were served to the Big Valley Christian team after its 39-0 victory. Sean Shimel managed a grin, noting his dad would have liked that final score.
But the kind of cheering and backslapping that accompany such victories did not happen this time. The Lions, faces blank, had just completed a difficult and unforgettable task.
“We wanted to play this game because Coach gave us the strength to push through,” quarterback Noah Miedema said. “He wouldn’t have been proud of us if we didn’t give everything we could.”
No worries, Noah. You honored your coach.