Attendance limits force Neshannock football mother to experience ‘worst fear’ from afar

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Thursday, September 17, 2020 | 1:56 AM


Landon Shaffer’s parents were allotted one ticket for his high school football game, so his mother resorted to watching a video stream on her cell phone.

“You look for little identifying things because it’s so small to tell who’s who,” Veronica Shaffer said. “It’s hard to see.”

The first two plays were routine but not the third snap.

All she could tell was a Neshannock player was hurt, and the injury looked serious to the intensive care nurse. On her cell phone, she scanned the players huddled near their injured teammate, trying to find the black wrist wraps her son wears.

She couldn’t.

“I’m like, ‘I don’t see Landon! I don’t see Landon!’” she said.

A 250-person limit maintained by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has forced schools to restrict the number of spectators allowed in their stadiums. At Neshannock, every senior’s family received two game tickets and all others received one. In a year without a covid-19 pandemic, Veronica Shaffer would’ve been in the bleachers Friday night for the Lancers’ season opener against Laurel.

She quickly called husband Greg at the game.

“I’m like shaking,” she said. “I asked, ‘Is that Landon?’ He said ‘yes’ and hung up on me.”

Her husband was hustling onto the field.

Her son, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound junior lineman, had broken both the tibia and fibula in his lower leg, leaving his foot twisted awkwardly with bone puncturing the skin. Landon was rushed by ambulance to the helipad at UPMC Jameson in New Castle and flown to Children’s Hospital in Lawrenceville for emergency surgery.

He was released from the hospital Monday with a metal rod in his right leg.

“That’s just a prime example of why both parents should be there,” Neshannock coach Fred Mozzocio said. “I know Landon’s father was scurrying on his cell phone, trying to get his mother to meet them wherever they were taking them. Parents shouldn’t have to do that.”

Landon Shaffer is doing as well as can be expected after a traumatic injury, his mother said, and fears about potential infection or compartmental syndrome complications have waned. He has a six-month rehab ahead of him but might recover in time for track season. Doctors said football remains an option in the future.

At the time, Veronica Shaffer admits, she was terrified.

Now, her emotions include anger and frustration about the spectator limits.

Veronica and Greg Shaffer already were adamant that parents should be allowed to attend their children’s games. Now, they’re hopeful that sharing their story might convince folks to make it happen.

It’s strictly a matter of safety, they say.

Being in the stadium couldn’t have prevented Landon’s injury, but his mother wouldn’t have been miles away, in the dark about what was happening. And if she’d been there in the stands, Veronica Shaffer said, she could’ve at least comforted her son on the way to the hospital.

“I’m not an anxious person,” she said. “I’m a health care provider. I can handle anything. But I wasn’t allowed to be there with my son. Now you get anxious to leave him. I never left his side the entire time he was at the hospital. You never expect your worst fear to happen and then it does.

“It takes its toll on you.”

In the days leading up to this season, Greg Shaffer called the governor’s office, the PIAA, state legislators and the school, insisting they let all parents watch. The message: “Every child should be able to have their parents there in case of an emergency.”

Wolf has stood behind his limits as a public-health necessity. The virus can spread quickly in a large crowd, a point the governor has reiterated often. Wolf had previously prohibited all spectators from watching interscholastic sports but lifted his ban earlier this month.

However, the attendance limits remained. The 250-person total includes athletes, coaches, trainers, officials and other game-day workers, leaving little room for spectators at a football game.

Landon Shaffer was doing what makes him a standout, running to the football to make a tackle, when a teammate rolled into his leg. Shaffer is one of Neshannock’s top athletes and one of the best players in the conference, Mozzocio said. The two-way lineman was drawing interest from Youngstown State.

“His foot must have planted perfect,” Mozzocio said, calling the injury a freak accident. “It just snapped the leg in half. It’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen. It wasn’t how you’d think you’d get hurt on the football field.”

Landon Shaffer nearly had nobody in the stands that night. To fit under the 250-person limit, the school’s administration originally considered allotting a total of nine tickets for football parents — one for each senior’s family, Mozzocio said. The school wanted to also admit parents of band members and cheerleaders.

The plan concerned Mozzocio.

“I had this conversation with our superintendent early in the afternoon on Friday,” he said. “God forbid something would happen, we have to have a parent there. Thank God (the plan changed).”

A few hours before kickoff, the school chose to provide around 50 tickets to football parents. But to do that, they had to enter and exit in waves. Cheerleader and band parents entered for pregame and halftime, while football parents exited the stadium.

Landon has a younger brother on the football team, Aidan, but the tickets were allotted one per family, not one per player.

“I got up to get ready for work Friday morning and I literally cried for a half-hour getting ready,” Veronica Shaffer said. “I was just so uneasy about the whole thing.”

Veronica Shaffer and her husband both work in Ohio. High school stadiums there have 1,500 spectators or 15% of capacity, whichever is less. Both totals are far more than Pennsylvania allows.

There may be hope on the horizon for parents. Sitting on the governor’s desk is House Bill 2787, legislation that lets individual school boards ignore Wolf’s restrictions and set spectator limits of their own.

Wolf has indicated he’ll veto the bill. If so, the state House and Senate will need a two-thirds vote of its members to override the veto. But that relief won’t be an option for this week.

Separately, a federal judge on Monday ruled Wolf’s limits on gathering sizes unconstitutional. What that means for schools isn’t clear. Wolf said Wednesday that the Department of Education would issue updated guidance for interscholastic sport spectators this week.

For the Shaffers, it’s already taken too long. Neshannock has a home game Thursday night against Mohawk. Landon Shaffer wants to be there, his mother said, even if that requires a wheelchair.

Expect to see Veronica Shaffer there, too.

“We’re going to do everything we can,” she said. “There’s no way they’re going to keep me from being there again.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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