Despite defection of teammates, Jeannette’s Justin Shank determined to give his all

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Wednesday, August 18, 2021 | 5:53 PM


Justin Shank often asks himself, “Why me?”

Fresh off a WPIAL Class A championship and PIAA runner-up finish as a two-way lineman, the Jeannette senior watched helplessly as teammate after teammate transferred to other schools.

“I felt betrayed,” Shank said. “We had all talked about winning another championship with everyone coming back. We thought we could still blow some teams out and have a blast doing it. But they all left me. I’m thinking, is this my fault? Did I jump offsides or something?”

The lone returning starter from a team that would have been a favorite to win the WPIAL and make another PIAA run, Shank is primed play every snap if he has to in a season of unknowns.

He wants a senior season worth framing, and he doesn’t want the departures to rain on his parade.

It’s not a stretch to say Shank is the preseason favorite to be the team’s MVP.

“He’s a leader,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said. “He has been working really hard. He is the kind of kid every coach would like to have. There isn’t a mean bone in his body — until he gets on the field.”

Jeannette lost nine transfers, while other players decided not to play this season. Graduation also siphoned key players from what looked like a tank full of high-octane premium.

“Tyler’s the last one I got,” Shank said of senior teammate Tyler Horn, who is competing for the starting quarterback spot. “We know we have to be leaders for our younger guys.”

A 6-foot-1, 280-pound offensive guard and defensive tackle, Shank wears his uniform proudly, along with the chip that sits firmly on his shoulder. A recent tweet proved the latter: “No offers. No stars. Not ranked. But I will continue to show these coaches I am college football material.”

Shank just seems like a Jeannette kid, with his blue-collar approach and fearless demeanor that Hall likes to see in his players. These are qualities with which most Jeannette players come pre-programmed.

“I am from Jeannette so I want to play for my school,” Shank said. “I don’t know what all these others guys didn’t. I played midgets with them, and we won two championships together.”

But Shank almost didn’t don the Jayhawk red and blue for other reasons. He quit the team as a freshman — “Took off my helmet and pads, dropped them on the field and walked off,” he said — but returned as a sophomore.

He is glad he did. He admits football has rescued him from some dark places.

“I remember telling him, ‘If you don’t want to be here, don’t waste our time, and we won’t waste yours,’ ” Hall said. “He worked his way into a starting role as a junior and made all-conference.”

In June, Shank lost his grandmother, Jane Shank, who was 89.

Again, he had doubts about playing, especially with so many defections and his dear friend gone.

“I found her when she died,” Shank said of his grandmother. “We had been visiting her but knew she might be close to passing. We had her birthday early. Three days before she died. She meant everything to me. To be honest, I lost my motivation.”

But he quickly gained it back as he had a greater reason to play.

Shank said he will play his final high school season for his grandmother. He believes she would have wanted it that way.

“I remember awhile back she came out of her coma and I was sitting there and she said, go to school,” Shank said. “I left school to go be with her. She always cheered me on. She watched all my games. She bought me school clothes, shoes, whatever.

“She told me she wasn’t going to pass until my graduation.”

During a summer workout, Shank is sure he saw Jane at a practice, at least for a flash.

“I look up after a play,” he said. “It’s a hot day. And I just see her standing there in front of me. It hit me pretty hard. I had to leave the field. I went in the locker room and bawled by eyes out.”

The Shank name has been part of the Jeannette program for years. His brother, Jake, played through 2013, and his uncle, Jimmy, was a lineman on the 1983 WPIAL championship team that will be inducted into the Jayhawk Athletic Hall of Fame this year.

His uncles, Roger and Chris, were team managers.

“We always say my uncle Jimmy had his own personal manager,” Justin Shank said. “My uncle Chris.”

Shank sometimes helps Hall with odd jobs in the summer months.

“We might do some painting or move some logs or something like that,” Hall said. “He likes to work. I pay him, but he is willing to help out.”

Shank will do the heavy lifting this season as downtrodden Jeannette tries to stay competitive with a roster that was hovering around 25 players during camp.

“We’re going to play hard, I know that,” Shank said. “We want to make the playoffs again. Who knows? Maybe we will. Maybe it won’t be as hard as people think. We just want to show out in coach Hall’s final year.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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