By Chris Mackowiak
Sports at the end of the day is a competition on a field. However, sports possess the power to connect people and develop lifelong friendships and relationships. They have the power to lift us when we are down, to honor those we love, and to allow us to find our purpose and ‘home.’
At Sea Gull Stadium the last two seasons, the Salisbury University football team defense has helped to pave the way to a 2015 New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) title and an ECAC Legacy Bowl win in 2016. One player at the center of that defense is junior free safety Shane Gaines.
Gaines came into Salisbury for his first season in 2015. Since then, he is a featured voice and athlete in the Sea Gull’s secondary. The safety tallied 109 total tackles, three interceptions and 13 pass break-ups over the course of his Salisbury career.
While his production on-the-field speaks volumes, it is his voice and character that is a magnitude louder off the field.
Gaines started his recent journey from Owings Mills (Md.) where he was an all-county and all-state player. The safety had his eyes set on NCAA Division II Shepherd University for his collegiate football, but after a season, he transferred over as a redshirt freshman to Millersville University still in search of the right fit. That is where SU head football coach Sherman Wood came into play.
“Shane has gone through a lot. Period. From where he lives, family situation, even schools because he was at Shepherd College, and things didn’t work out there. Then, he was at Millersville. He was kinda traveling a bit trying to find his home,” Wood said.
“I received a call from one of the coaches at Millersville. He said ‘this kid can play, and this kid wants to go home near his family.’ And that was Shane Gaines. I didn’t know that much about him, but I put a lot of faith and trust in that coach,” Wood continued.
Now entering his 19th season as the face of Salisbury’s football program, Wood was immediately struck by the safety’s personality.
“When I met Shane, what a positive, energetic person he was. The conversation the coach had with me compared to the person I saw, I said ‘You sure this is the same kid? I thought this kid was kind of in a bad place or something.’ You would never know anything was wrong because of his character and personality,” Wood said.
From there, Gaines was swept into the fold and an eventual starting position with Salisbury for the 2015-16 season. Along with his cemented role with the team came friendships with teammates and a strong connection with SU football defensive coordinator Rob Disbennett.
After his long journey to SU, the safety returns to the starting lineup as a junior this 2017 season, but fans may notice something different about the hard-hitting safety: the color purple?
In the team’s first game at Albright College, Gaines will debut a pair of purple gloves while on the field. Most people would say that purple is not exactly the best color match to the classic Salisbury maroon and gold.
However, it is the reasoning behind these gloves that makes the 2017 season mean that much more.
“My season is for my sister who passed away in January earlier this year. She died from sickle cell, and I kind of wanted to continue to address the sickle cell awareness,” Gaines said.
Her name was Kimberly Brown, passing away at the young age of 25. She had two sons, Gaines’ nephews, Davante and Mason who are aged three and nine years old. Brown was a high school graduate who worked various jobs to keep going, but sickle cell disease (SCD) began to take over a large portion of her life.
“Her sickness kept her in the hospital. She couldn’t really keep her job. She was in the hospital probably two weeks out of every month,” Gaines said.
According to the Mayo Clinic, SCD is an inherited form of anemia in which red blood cells become rigid and sticky in a sickle or crescent shape. This shape inhibits the normal flow of oxygen through the blood stream and instead can slow or block blood flow at times. There is currently no cure for the disease.
Despite her numerous visits to the hospital, Brown went the extra mile to support her brother, finding ways to catch his Salisbury football games online.
“She didn’t really get to catch that much of me playing because she was always in the hospital. But, she was always a big supporter watching the games on her phone. She was actually getting kinda better until the last time, so she had real big hopes of coming to this season’s games,” Gaines said.
Brown’s support of Gaines was always strong with the two siblings having a very close bond over the years. Gaines has displayed strength in times of hardship in the past. It may be something that runs in the family.
“If you met her, you would never know that she was dealing with stuff like that because she was always so full of laughter, always joking around and having fun,” Gaines said.
No matter what phased Brown in her condition, she continued that same positive outlook in her life. Gaines shows that same resiliency to keep moving forward today within his life and when on the field.
This season he will honor that resiliency and love of his sister on-the-field. Come the first home football game vs. William Patterson, the safety will walk into Sea Gull Stadium with a new color.
Maroon is the symbolic color of sickle-cell awareness. Since the Sea Gulls already wear the maroon and gold, Gaines wanted to take things a step further to honor his late sister.
“So I took it a little bit deeper because she was real close to me. So I was like ‘what’s something that’s deep that I could wear to continue to admire her during my playing.’ So I thought of her favorite color. So I’m gonna wear purple,” Gaines said. “I put it on and I was like ‘this doesn’t look too bad.”
One of Gaines closest friends on and off-the-field is fellow sophomore defensive back John Steele, wearing No. 42 this fall. Steele notes various other ways Gaines is quietly honoring his sister this season including a purple tie in his roster photo and a pendant around his neck with a picture of Brown inside so she is always with him on and off-the-field.
“This season he’s a different player because of his sister. He feels like he owes it to her,” Steele said.
Coach D and the SU football family
Initially hearing the news about his sister was pure shock for Gaines. It started with a call from his Dad.
“When it first happened, it was a shock to me because I saw her in the hospital like two days before, and everything was normal,” Gaines said.
Still evaluating the moment, Gaines turned to his immediate support system, the SU football family.
“When [my dad] told me, first thing I did was call Coach [Disbennett] because I didn’t know who else to call. Coach D and I have a really tight relationship. And then I called one of my close friends and teammates John Steele,” Gaines said.
Steele and Gaines have grown close over their time in the Salisbury football program. In their times of hardship, the two defensive backs turn to each other for support. This moment was much of the same.
Steele remembers earlier in the day when he and Gaines spent their usual workout routine together. There were laughs and smiles, but things were much different suddenly when Steele received that call from Gaines at near midnight that night.
“He didn’t even know how to feel. He’s like ‘it seems so surreal.’ Me being a friend, I just was like ‘Shane, are you sure you’re ok?’ He just wasn’t really reacting to it. I guess it didn’t need him,” Steele said.
Being there for his grieving friend, Steele let Gaines know that everyone was there for him. The two connected again towards the early morning hours when Gaines could not sleep. They talked on the phone as Shane worked through the tough situation.
The next morning, the two went through their normal workout routine. To Steele, it was the same Gaines as always.
“I just wanted to make sure he was okay because some people just hold that stuff inside of them and it ends up just breaking them, but with Shane being the person he is, nothing can really break Shane. So, he always finds a way to turn negatives into positives,” Steele said.
It was a meeting later with coach Disbennett, or ‘coach D’ as he is known, that really brought things into perspective for both defensive backs. Disbennett is an assistant head coach and the defensive coordinator for Salisbury. With those positions, he gets to know the defensive players very well.
At the meeting which Steele was in attendance for, Gaines went through the situation with one of his close friends and a mentor in ‘Coach D.’
“Coach D is like a father-figure. He’s probably the greatest coach I’ve ever had. He has a love-hate relationship. You don’t really hate him, but it’s all tough love from Coach D. He wants everyone to be the best player they can possibly be. He doesn’t want you to have any regrets on yourself. He wants you to be able to say that you left everything out there,” Steele said.
“A person that’s been here for 20-some odd years. A person that’s seen it all, has gone through a lot. He grasps Shane just like we all have. It means a lot when you don’t have a consistent father-figure in your life on a consistent basis,” Wood said of coach Disbennett.
Steele says that during that moment was the first time he ever saw Gaines cry. It was a moment where everything in the last day caught up to the free safety. The strength and football poise could pause for now.
“Coach D knows how to shut the football portion of it off, the tough love, and he knows how to care for us players,” Steele said.
Steele recounts that the meeting was one of the moments that Gaines decided to dedicate this 2017 season to Brown. He decided he would put everything and an all effort out there for her.
Later, Gaines received countless texts and phone calls of support from his teammates. Coach Wood called later in the day too to be there for his player and friend.
“Everyone goes to Coach Wood with their personal problems because he definitely gives you that feeling that you can come to him with that stuff. He definitely asks people if they mind if he tells the team,” Gaines said.
“After that happens, you can definitely feel the energy in the room and you can just feel everybody treating you differently in a good way. They’re just coming to you, texting you, calling you, and telling you can come hangout anytime; really showing that they are good friends and teammates first.”
With those moments, the Salisbury University football team rallies around and supports one another, coaches and players alike. It is something that has become sewn into the maroon and gold uniforms they wear onto the field.
“I think his football family really kept him afloat. I really do. Obviously, our staff, Coach D, myself, and the rest of his family really kept him sane, to keep him going and think positive,” Wood said.
While Gaines has a few other close friends on the team, this sequence with Shane struck a chord with Steele. Steele lost his best friend in a similar situation earlier into last season. It was a moment for Steele where he looked to his football support system, the Sea Gull family.
After Gaines found out about Steele’s loss, he took his friend and teammate out to eat to distract him from the terrible circumstances. Steele tried to return that friendship this time around.
“That was his way of helping me through my hard time. He got me through my hard time. That’s why I was able to assist him as easily as I did because of what he was for me,” Steele said.
Resiliency and Pushing ahead
There is one common theme when anyone talks about Gaines. They are impressed with his ability to stay positive and keeping moving forward despite the odds and the obstacles against him.
Steele and his other teammates see this drive and Gaines’ new focus in 2017 as a potential rallying cry across the team.
“Because Shane is playing like that, everyone feels like we have to match his intensity. Shane has always been someone who has helped everyone. I feel like people would feel bad if he was playing his hardest and they like slacked,” Steele said.
“He is very open, cares about people. He does just try to move forward and think positive. He’s not gonna let anything hinder his goal which is to receive a college degree,” Wood said.
That perseverance is a theme throughout his life. One that he shares with his sister that he will continue to embrace headed into the 2017 football season, wearing purple. Gaines will have Steele, his other close friend and senior safety Dakarai Ellis, and his entire team and coaching staff alongside him through thick and thin and the troubles that life throws at us each day.
Sickle-cell disease continues to affect many people. Per a 2016 article by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while it is unknown how many Americans are currently diagnosed with sickle-cell disease, approximately 100,000 have it. The disease generally appears in one out of 365 African-American or Black births. Gaines encourages people to stay aware about the issue.
“Continue to stay up on it and do research on it and show awareness for it and any other type of diseases that could harm somebody,” Gaines said.
While humanity continues to fight life-threating illnesses like sickle-cell, Gaines continues to display that positive attitude and drive that Kimberly Brown showed during her fight.
“There’s something I can’t explain. There’s a drive that he has that’s making him go through all these issues and hurdles that I don’t think anyone can explain. Only he inside knows why he’s just continued to go north and south in terms of a straight arrow to accomplish his goals,” Wood said.
“He trusts Coach D, he trusts myself, and he trusts John and the rest of those guys. Those are intangibles that really drive him to continue to do what he needs to do.”
And maybe that is the key to deciphering this 2017 Salisbury University football team, their trust and chemistry with one another. When life throws a blitz at one of them, the rest of the team is right there with them to bat it down. The familial culture of this football program has transcended the years, but it clearly remains strong into the future as the team presses forward.
Sometimes football and sports in general mean more than a touchdown. They unite us and guide us in our times of defeat so that we may win again come next day.