The old theory about connections simply didn’t apply.
“It’s not what you know, but who you know,” may have been the difference for bankers, politicians and company presidents, but not for Don Shafer.
For the last three years, Shafer has learned the hard way that when it comes to a prospective employee’s qualifications, perhaps it is best not to view things in a cynical light. Who you know, or even who you’re related to, hardly seemed to matter, and while most people would rather have it that way given the choice, it didn’t help Shafer any.
The fact that the USC kicker’s father is an assistant coach for the Rams mattered little. Nor did the fact that Shafer has worked out with Rolf Benirschke of the San Diego Chargers.
All that mattered the last three years was the presence of Steve Jordan.
The position already had been filled. And despite Shafer’s impressive resume, he sat on the sidelines unemployed, with no alternative but to wait until there was an opening.
“Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” was the career advice he endured since arriving at USC in 1982.
“Sorry, you need more experience.”
Rather than look elsewhere for work, Shafer chose to patiently wait his turn, until the job market brightened.
Finally, last spring, Jordan left the organization, attempting to move up the corporate ladder into the professional ranks.
And Don Shafer shook hands with his boss, Ted Tollner, and officially was hired.
Now all he has to worry about is replacing a man who has meant a great deal to the company the past few years. Jordan set five school records and was the Trojans’ leading scorer the past three seasons. In his four years at USC, he made 51 of 76 field goals and 109 of 112 extra points.
But, from all indications, Shafer appears to have the qualifications necessary for the job. Of all of them, self-confidence may be the most telling.
“I think I’m capable, without question, of doing as well as Steve did,” he said. “All my confidence is there right now. The one test I have left is against Illinois.”
That will come Saturday, when USC opens its season on the road against the Fighting Illini.
How he performs this weekend could have a significant effect later.
“If he goes through and hits that first one against Illinois, he’ll be tough,” special teams coach Russ Purnell said. “He’ll be tough all year long, ‘cause he’ll be kicking with confidence. I’d love to see us go down the field, score a touchdown, and have him kick an extra point. Then, the next time, I’d like to go down and kick a field goal . . . get him four points on his first two kicks.”
After eight years as an assistant coach at San Diego State, Steve Shafer was hired as coach of the Rams’ defensive backs, and he moved his family up the freeway to Irvine, where they settled down.
Don attended Patrick Henry High School in San Diego, where he kicked 11 of 14 field goals his senior year (including a 48-yarder with three seconds left to win a game and put his team into the San Diego Section semifinals) and 16 of 16 extra points. He had almost always been around the sport of football. In 10th grade, he served as a ball boy at San Diego State.
Despite his background, the sport he had always chosen to pursue was soccer. It wasn’t until his senior year of high school that Shafer began to view kicking a football as anything more than a diversion until soccer began.
You might expect Shafer to have considered football as the sport around which the others revolve. Steve Shafer instead made certain that his son did not follow such a route unless he absolutely wanted to do so.
“I’ve had virtually no influence on what he has done as a football player,” Shafer says modestly, refusing to take any credit for his son’s success. “I knew he really enjoyed soccer, so I didn’t really want to push the issue.”
Don is relieved his father wasn’t one of those overzealous, Little League-type of parents who force their kids to play a sport and in the process, often make them miserable.
“I’m grateful for the way he approached it,” Don Shafer said. “He was surprised to see me play football. It was something I wanted to do. That’s one of the reasons I really enjoy kicking now.”
For the last three years, though, Shafer hardly was enjoying kicking, mostly because he wasn’t doing it. There never was a question in the coaches’ minds whose job it was, but at times, Shafer was bewildered about his status.
His freshman year (Jordan’s sophomore year), he was redshirted.
“It was easy enough to live with that,” he said. “When the second year came, I faced the fact that I wasn’t going to be doing any of the field goal kicking, ‘cause Steve was just too good.
“The third year, Steve had his senior year coming up and was in his prime as a kicker. That’s when it got kind of frustrating, and I lost a lot of confidence. Steve just ended up outkicking me again.”
He found his way into one game, the season opener against Utah State, which the Trojans won, 42-7. Shafer kicked USC’s 42nd point of the game.
That was it for 1984.
“They said they’d give me the opportunity to try and just do kickoffs,” he said. “I thought I deserved to kick a lot more, but it was just one of those things. Coach Tollner was under a lot of pressure (coming off a 4-6-1 season). He had more important things to worry about than seeing that I had the opportunity to kick.”
Still, the thought of another season of watching was getting old. And so was Shafer, as he watched another year of eligibility wither away.
“Coach Tollner always says everyone is a part of the team,” Shafer said. “Until last spring, I just felt like I was a name on a roster. It just eats your insides out seeing somebody else out there. I just couldn’t stand seeing somebody else out there kicking. It’s great to see the team win and everything, but when you’re not a part of it, it makes it kind of hard, especially when you feel you should be.”
A few weeks ago, the Trojans had an intrasquad scrimmage in front of about 1,000 fans at UC Irvine.
They weren’t there simply to kill a Saturday afternoon. They were there to see who was back for USC, and who was replacing those who weren’t back.
One guy drove up in a car with license plates that read: USC NUT. A cardinal banner with gold trim spelling out the words ORANGE COUNTY TROJAN CLUB hung from a tree a few yards from the field.
They watched with critical eyes.
And they didn’t miss Steve Jordan. Shafer kicked three field goals--of 43, 34 and 46 yards, with plenty to spare--and two extra points.
No longer was he merely a name on a roster.
“We all knew what Don could do,” Purnell said. “Now all of a sudden he’s getting an opportunity to show what he can do. Some people might be a little shocked, but he’s been good all along.”
He has good technique, a strong leg, a range of about 60 yards and consistency to go with it.
Sound like someone familiar?
“Nobody wants to hear, ‘We sure miss Steve Jordan,’ ” Purnell says. “Maybe someday they’ll say the next guy is following Don Shafer.”