It was 1969, and Joe Belluzzo, the Johnny Appleseed of Sonoma County football, was paying a visit to Madrone Elementary School in Rincon Valley.
“He rolled out a soccer ball in the middle of the field, and no one knew what that was,” recalled Don Shaffer, now 60. “If you want to play soccer,” Belluzzo told students, “you have to sign that sheet.”
“So that’s what we did,” Shaffer said Wednesday, speaking for himself and his brothers Dave and Dwayne. “And about 52 years later we haven’t stopped playing.”
Don was still getting used to the thought that one of his brothers was gone.
Dave Shaffer had died 11 days earlier while driving home from the field at Real Salt Lake-AZ, a soccer club in Mesa, Arizona, where he was program director and coached the U19 and U16 boys’ teams. “It came very suddenly,” Don said. “It was a heart condition. It wasn’t a car accident.”
Dave Shaffer was 59 years old. Before taking that job in Arizona, he spent seven years coaching in Tokyo, where he met and fell in love with his wife, Aki.
A talented forward with a dangerous left foot, Shaffer led Montgomery High School to three straight North Bay League championships and then earned All-Conference honors at Santa Rosa Junior College (1982-83) and Sonoma State (1988 -89).
He played professionally in Holland and Germany, in Atlanta and with the North Bay Breakers of the United Soccer League. But he left his deepest and most lasting impression on his hometown and county.
Each of Mary Munion’s football-loving sons accepted a torch from Joe Belluzzo. Don trained at Piner High and is now a referee; Dwayne has coached the UC Davis men’s team for the past quarter century. While they’ve all done more than their fair share to breed and popularize Jogo Bonito – the beautiful game, to borrow from Pele – Dave has arguably carried his torch the furthest.
After his playing career, he returned to Montgomery High from 1996 to 2004, winning three NCS titles and averaging a record of 161-49-14. He was twice voted California Coach of the Year. He has been named Redwood Empire Coach of the Year four times. He has had coaching stints at Cardinal Newman High School, Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University and numerous club and professional teams such as the Sonoma County Sol and the North Bay Breakers.
A bigger part of his legacy was the dramatic turnaround he made at Santa Rosa United Soccer Club. When he took over as director in the late 1990s, Shaffer transformed the club into a hugely successful dynamo.
His teams could hold their own against clubs in Chicago and Los Angeles – sprawling metropolitan areas with access to a million or more youth. Meanwhile, Santa Rosa United teams under Shaffer won regional and national titles “when we had 50,000 kids to fall back on — when Santa Rosa was kind of a neighborhood town,” Don said.
“David has put his life and soul into building this program,” he continued, speaking of Santa Rosa United. “When he was younger, maybe he was a bit over the top,” he recalls. “But that was the ’80s.”
His brother, he added, took a softer approach “14 or 15 years ago.”
“We worked side by side for many years,” said Luke Oberkirch, a high school teammate and Shaffer’s wingman who has remained one of his closest friends over the past four decades.
While they are “very similar” in their “sophisticated” coaching style, Oberkirch judged, Shaffer was a little “easier to deal with.” He was very funny, with the nicknames and the one-liners.”
“It was challenging, but it was fun. And kids learned,” said Oberkirch, whom Shaffer nicknamed Pepe while they were in Montgomery. A player from an opposing team vaguely resembled Oberkirch. This player’s name was Pepe. Ergo, Schaffer decreed, Oberkirch would henceforth be called Pepe.
Did it stick? “To this day, my own father doesn’t call me by my first name,” says Oberkirch. “He calls me Pepe.”
“The only thing bigger than your heart was your beautiful smile. You will be greatly missed,” one of dozens of grieving players, friends and parents wrote on the Real Salt Lake-AZ Facebook page.
“Will definitely miss his ghost,” added another. “He was a great coach, looking after the kids on and off the pitch. He wanted the boys to be good people.”
At the same time, he wanted them to win, Oberkirch noted. “It wasn’t his number one, but it was part of it. And that’s okay because that’s how we grew up.”
They won in Montgomery, at Santa Rosa Junior College, and played semi-pro football together.
Shaffer, he mused, was successful in developing players and giving them a place to “learn and have fun.”
His teams often won too. “So that’s a great way to define success if you ask me.”
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at or [email protected] or on Twitter @ausmurph88.