Mt. Pleasant junior Casey Shaffer plays on despite death of his mother; ‘She would have wanted me to’

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Thursday, September 2, 2021 | 6:29 PM


As he surged through the line and wrapped up a Burrell ball carrier for his first tackle of the game — and season — Casey Shaffer could hear a familiar cheer.

It was faint, but it rang so true in his ears — and in his heart.

His mother had died about three hours before kickoff, yet Shaffer swore he could hear her voice, wanted to hear her voice, as he played on.

“She always yelled for me,” the Mt. Pleasant junior linebacker said. “She watched me play football since I was little.”

But she wasn’t there last Friday night when Mt. Pleasant hosted the season opener.

Somehow, her son was, in full uniform ready to do his part as a starter on defense on what was the longest and toughest day of his life.

Fans were allowed back at WPIAL stadiums again, in full force, but Mt. Pleasant had at least one empty seat.

Leyna Shaffer, 43, died in UPMC Montefiore from liver complications, her son said.

He chose to play because, “She would have wanted me to.”

Mt. Pleasant handled Burrell, 40-7, to get some early footing on the new season.

“We wanted a field goal to make it 43 (points),” Casey Shaffer said.

“We figured he was going to miss time, and that was OK,” Mt. Pleasant coach Jason Fazekas said. “When we heard what happened (Friday), I called him and said, ‘It’s up to you.’ ”

Fazekas meant it was Shaffer’s decision whether to play in the season opener or stay home.

“He said, ‘I want to come,’ ” Fazekas said. “I was amazed.”

Soft spoken but armed with an edge, Shaffer, who said he doesn’t like to cry in front of people, said football has been an escape during a tough time. He has tried to be there for his father, Doug, and brother, Cody.

“The last couple weeks we knew she was getting bad,” he said. “Her kidneys weren’t working. They put her in a hospice room. My dad and brother were there when she passed. I don’t like to miss any time. I didn’t like missing three or four practices. I really like football. You make memories that you never forget.

“My mom was so strong. She had been fighting a lot. She fought this for four or five years.”

His close friend and teammates could not believe Shaffer opted to play. It seemed too soon, too emotional a time to take the field again.

“If it were me, I’m not playing,” senior defensive back Conor Johnson said. “We were shocked to see him want to play. People were worried about him being out there and his mind wandering. But I swear, he played the best game I have ever seen him play.”

Junior linebacker Jacob Baker also did his best to support his friend.

“They are my second family,” Baker said of the Shaffers. “I have always been around Casey and his mom. She was a second mom to me. I just wanted to be there for Casey.”

Baker took his friend out to dinner last week.

Mt. Pleasant won behind a dominant running game and sound, to-the-ball defense.

“Our kids helped him,” Fazekas said. “I am really proud of how they put him on their back and played their hearts out for him.”

On Monday, Mt. Pleasant’s senior captains arranged for the team to attend the viewing together, as a unit.

“We gave everything we had for Casey and Leyna,” Johnson said. “It was just like, what does he need? What can we do for him?

“He had no clue we were going to show up as a team. He smiled when he saw us.”

Baker said Shaffer would have done the same thing for his teammates if they were in a similar situation.

“He has the biggest heart,” he said. “When I broke my leg freshman year, he cried for me on the sidelines. We just want him to know we will do anything for him.”

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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