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Coaching, not watching, from sidelines

An instructor teaches the fundamentals of fitness, sports and never giving up.

By Michael Maharrey, Times Staff Writer
Published February 13, 2008


ST. PETERSBURG - Coach Brian Shaffer glides easily among the kindergarten students in his 10 a.m. class.

The fine motor skills lesson involves children touching their fingers together on Shaffer's command.

"Thumb to pointer," he instructs.

He pauses to help a little girl. She looks into his eyes and smiles.

Shaffer doesn't have to stoop to get down to his students' level.

His wheelchair puts him eye to eye with the kids he teaches.

Shaffer, 54, is a quadriplegic, the result of an accident he suffered diving into a backyard pool when he was 18. He cannot walk and has only limited use of his arms and hands, but despite his disability, he teaches physical education to 235 preschool through eighth grade students at St. Raphael Catholic School.

He also coaches basketball, volleyball, soccer, flag football, and track and field.

Shaffer said he wants people to know that they can overcome their limitations.

"One of my goals is to be as open as I can with my disability," he said. "You can see what a devastating injury does to the body, but just because it happens, it's not the end of your life," he said.

Shaffer didn't always feel that way. He said it took him about 10 years to work through the stages of denial, anger and grief.

"I finally had to realize, I'm not going to get out of this chair, and I have to go on."

His coaching career began as a volunteer at St. Paul Catholic School, where his son was a student. He noticed that St. Raphael seemed to struggle in athletics. One day he asked the athletic director if they were looking for a coach. They hired him on the spot.

That was 17 years ago.

Shaffer said he never thought his disability was an issue in coaching and teaching. He's learned to communicate to kids in a way that helps them visualize how to do a task.

"Obviously I don't kick the ball. I don't shoot the ball. But I can tell you how to do it and teach you how to succeed at a goal," he said.

Shaffer uses athletics to communicate life lessons to his students.

"I cut kids from the after-school teams. Sometimes you have to realize that you can't get into everything. Not everyone makes it," he said. "Sometimes failure is the best teacher."

Shaffer refuses to use an electric wheelchair because he likes the fact that he can get himself around. He also said it serves as a motivator for his students.

"Look, I'm doing this," he said. "If I can push myself around all day long, you can run half a mile."

Valerie Wostbrock, the principal at St. Raphael, calls Shaffer inspirational.

"He shows that just because you have a handicap, you are not handicapped," she said.

Wostbrock said Shaffer's physical condition was never an issue.

"He has not allowed his accident to limit him in what he's doing," she said. "There's no poor me. No woe is me. He's a real trouper."

Shaffer's can-do attitude extends beyond the gym. He modified a boat and operates it himself. He also played darts competitively. Since he lacks the arm strength to throw the darts, he shoots them through a blow tube.

"I don't ever wake up in the morning and think, I'm really glad I'm in a wheelchair, but I'm happy. I have a good life," Shaffer said.

Michael Maharrey can be reached at or 893-8779.

[Last modified February 12, 2008, 23:11:24]

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