Nick O’Shea came home from football practice, and his driveway was filled with several police cars. He parked on the street.
“There were four police officers,” O’Shea said. “One of the officers asked me, ‘Where is your mom?’ I said, ‘I think at work; I don’t know.’ He said, ‘How old are you?’ And because I’m 17, he could tell me.”
His father, Dan O’Shea, had died of a heart attack on Oct. 10. He was 52.
“I didn’t start crying,” Nick said. “It didn’t seem real.”
After his mother, Lisa O’Shea, came home, Nick didn’t know what to do, so he called his football coach, Ron Bellamy, the head coach at West Bloomfield (Mich.).
“Send me your address,” Bellamy said.
Bellamy rushed to O’Shea’s house, along with two assistant coaches.
“The first night it wasn’t that tough because it was surreal,” O’Shea said.
“Coach Bell was like, ‘We are here for you. You don’t have to go to school tomorrow. You don’t have to practice. You don’t have to play Friday. You don’t have to play the rest of the season. We are here for you. Whatever you need.’”
One of the assistant coaches called my son, Nick.
Nick O’Shea and my son are best friends and teammates. Nick O’Shea is the kicker, my son is the holder.
A few minutes later, my son came downstairs, took the remote out of my hand, turned off the TV and sat down, looking almost blank, like all the blood had rushed out of his face.
“Nick O’Shea’s dad died,” my son said.
It felt like I had been punched in the gut.
Over the last few years, we had spent several nights in the stands, watching our sons play football. But Dan was the first to admit that he didn’t really know the nuances of football. He was a soccer guy. He played at Oakland University and was a long-time travel soccer coach.
My son headed out the door. Several members of the football team headed over to O’Shea’s house, which only seemed natural. The O’Shea house is like a magnet for teenagers, a place where the proverbial door is always open and everyone is always welcome.
After midnight, my son came home, still looking stunned.
“How is Nick?” I asked.
“Pretty messed up,” my son said.
So was my son.
“Nobody grieves the same way,” I said.
‘I’ve never gone through this’
The next morning, Bellamy met O’Shea in the parking lot at the high school and walked him into the building so he wouldn’t get bombarded by students.
The school brought in grief counselors because Dan O’Shea was beloved by so many kids. About 20 players were pulled out of class. They spent the day grieving and crying and staring into space and rubbing tears from their eyes.
“I wasn’t eating and coach Bell forced me to eat,” O’Shea said. “He offered to pick me up and bring him to his house, if I needed to get away. He offered to let me sleep over at his house. He was really cool about everything. He never tried act like he knew what I was going through. He said, ‘I’ve never gone through this.’ ”
All week, my son came home from practice and described how the team was dealing with it. How the coaches and players were growing incredibly close. How they were supporting Nick and helping him, just hanging out with him. And how they were coming up with contingency plans, in case Nick changed his mind and didn’t want to play Friday night.
“You guys are handling this so freaking well,” I texted Bellamy.
“I love these kids,” Bellamy texted back. “I hurt when they hurt.”
‘Great coach, an even better man’
Great coaches can inspire and cajole, comfort and support. They can influence lives in profound ways, far beyond what happens on the field. And Dan O’Shea was one of those coaches. He coached travel soccer for years. Over the past few days, his Facebook page filled with beautiful tributes from former players.
“A great coach, an even better man, and a wonderful role model for our boys and so many kids. We are very sad. Rest in Peace Coach.”
Dan O’Shea was known for being humble. For connecting with kids in a genuine way. For having an amazing sense of humor.
“Dan O’Shea was simply one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met in soccer. Privileged to have known him and had my son coached by him. Such a positive force in the world. He will be missed.”
Dan O’Shea had a way of making every player feel important, no matter if he was a superstar or the last kid on the bench.
“Dan’s humble nature and his ability to make others feel important made him so very likable by all who met him. Dan had great love for his family and friends. He was a devoted husband to his high school sweetheart, Lisa, and the proud father of Jess, 19, and Nick, 17. Dan’s passion for life and family was matched by his great passion for the game of soccer, which he shared with family and friends. He contributed to the game of soccer as a player, coach, and administrator, and made lifelong friends along the way.”
Dan and Lisa met while working at a Little Caesars pizza place, dated for nine years and were married for 24. Everybody says the same thing about them: they were meant for each other, two soccer players who were soulmates.
“RIP Coach Dan!! Your impact on these young men and the many others before them will last a lifetime.”
Several hundred attended his memorial service on Monday night, the room overflowing with former soccer players and soccer coaches and Nick’s football coaches, teammates and all of their friends and family and neighbors, who cried and laughed and told hilarious stories, raising their glasses and toasting this man.
“How Blessed they were to have Dan as their coach. How Blessed we are as parents that he helped shape the young men they’ve become.”
‘Dad wanted me to play’
Late Friday afternoon, just three days after his father died, Nick O’Shea stood on the sideline, warming up before West Bloomfield played at Southfield. The conference title was on the line. So was a playoff berth.
Lisa O’Shea sat in the stands, surrounded by a couple dozen family members and friends, including former soccer players and coaches.
On the first series, a drive stalled and Nick O’Shea went out for the field goal. It felt like the most important kick I’ve ever seen in my life.
Nick nailed it, a 34-yarder, as his mother smiled, and I teared up, and West Bloomfield’s student section, better known as “The Swamp,” began to sing like they were at a European soccer match.
O-SHEA! O-SHEA! O-SHEA!
O’Shea had the game of his life. He kicked two field goals (including a 41-yarder), converted eight straight extra-point attempts, booted a couple of punts that pinned Southfield deep, crushed a bunch of kickoffs into the end zone and even had a touchdown-saving tackle, as the Lakers rolled to a 62-37 win, earning a berth in the playoffs and a share of the Oakland Activities Association Red Division title.
After each kick, Bellamy walked onto the field and greeted O’Shea, whispering in his ear.
“It was tough at first, but I think I played better because my mind wasn’t on football,” Nick said. “I didn’t worry about the game at all that week and that’s because of Bell. I didn’t feel pressure to play. I wanted to play. A lot of people thought I shouldn’t play, to be honest. I knew my dad wanted me to play.”
As the game ended, the students sang:
O-SHEA! O-SHEA! O-SHEA!
Band of brothers
After a celebration, the Lakers took a knee on the field.
“Probably the most important thing we talk about and stress is brotherhood,” Bellamy said. “We don’t just say it. Our actions have to show it.”
The players went silent.
At the back, Nick O’Shea was on his knee, his shoulder pads off.
“It’s unfortunate, this week, that Nick O’Shea lost his father,” Bellamy said. “I can’t relate. But the love we have for him is infectious. Nick is a kid who would give anything for his team. The love and support you gave him this week is unreal. It’s unreal. Words can’t describe it.”
All week, kids took turns going over to O’Shea’s house, hanging out with him.
“I know Nick is a heck of a player,” Bellamy said. “For the kid to come out here with the adversity, after the tragic loss of his father, to play the way he did, I have never in my life seen anything like it. Never.”
That’s a powerful statement, considering Bellamy was a wide receiver at Michigan and played in the NFL.
“Where you at Nick?” Bellamy said. “Come here.”
Bellamy wrapped his arms around O’Shea.
“I told you guys,” Bellamy said. “He had an opportunity to stay at home and grieve with his family. But he thought it was appropriate to be with his other family. That’s us.”
Bellamy kept his arms wrapped around O’Shea.
“I love you guys and I’m proud of you guys for having his back and making him feel so strong as possible during these tough times for his family,” Bellamy said. “So kudos to you guys. I love you so much.”
Bellamy stood in front of the team and his coaching staff stood behind him.
Together, they did something powerful and profound last week. These coaches took this group of teenagers and guided them through unbelievable grief, kept them together, kept them focused, helping and comforting. This wasn’t about football. It was about something far more important.
“You got anything to say?” Bellamy asked, slapping O’Shea on the chest.
O’Shea shook his head.
Bellamy lifted a football in the air.
“Hey Nick,” Bellamy said. “We are going to sign this football. You got the game ball today, baby.”
He tossed the ball to O’Shea.
“Yeah!” the team screamed and clapped.
Nick O’Shea stood up and walked over to his mother, after the worst week of their lives.
There were hugs and smiles and blank stares, still stunned.
The players walked slowly across the field, heading toward the buses, changed in ways they don’t even understand yet. It’s going to last a lifetime.
Great parenting — and coaching
On Friday night, the Lakers will end their season at home. On senior night. The night when players and their parents walk onto the field together.
But that game will be special for another reason.
Before the season, Nick O’Shea announced a project to raise money to battle childhood cancer, asking people to donate for every point he scored. “I am making my season count by turning my athletic accomplishments into lifesaving research dollars!” he wrote on a webpage.
He was hoping to score 50 points, and he’s already at 59.
On Friday night, that fundraiser is going to go to a different level. O’Shea and two other students are holding a fundraiser for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, a national childhood cancer foundation dedicated to raising funds for research into new treatments and cures for all children battling cancer.
“On Friday, we are going to bring in a kid who is part of Alex’s Lemonade Stand,” O’Shea said. “He’ll do the coin toss at the beginning of the game. He’s going to lead the team out of the tunnel. He’ll get a jersey. All of the players are getting shirts for free. We are selling shirts at school to raise money, whoever buys one gets in the game for free.”
This 17-year-old kid, still grieving the loss of his father, is trying to raise money to help others. If you ask me, it’s the result of great parenting.
And great coaching.