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Nick Shafnisky Is Pushing Hard to Get To Play at the Next Level in Football

"Don't take anything for granted, just keep pushing."

Those are the words of QB Nick Shafnisky, told to The Whitehall-Coplay Press all the way back in 2013, about his preparation as a high school athlete.

And they seem to summarize the Whitehall, PA native perfectly, then as now.

Dubbed the "Male Athlete of the Year" by that publication, the article goes on about Shaf's many exploits at Whitehall high school - leading the Zephyr football team to a co-Lehigh Valley Conference title, becoming the first player ever in that conference to rush and pass for over 1,000 yards, and earning the league's co-MVP award as well.

He also was a member of the Zephyrs playoff basketball team, and for good measure also helped set a record for the 4x100 relay team as well.

At Whitehall, and at Lehigh, coaches pushed him, but it was his own hard work that helped make him the best athlete he could be.

This weekend, Shaf, like every eligible college football player, will be hoping that he hears his name called in the NFL Draft somewhere, whatever day, whatever round.  If his name isn't called, he'll be hoping to get a call from an NFL team to get signed for a training camp.

One thing he won't do, however, is stop pushing.  

Every step of his high school and college career has been defined by his hard work on developing himself to become the best player he can be.  

And in his quest for the NFL, he's doing so by developing a part of his game that he hadn't played since high school - he's trying out to be a versatile safety, wide receiver, or special teams player.

It's a difficult thing to do.  But it would be foolish to count him out, because history has shown when that happens, that's when Nick Shafnisky succeeds the most.

The scene was Patriot League Media Day, 2015, and Shaf had had an offseason he wanted to throw in the trash.

The prior season was a disaster, by Lehigh standards: a 3-8 record was bad, sure, but the final, terrible blow was a loss in Yankee Stadium to the Mountain Hawks' biggest Rivals, Lafayette, 27-7.

It was supposed to have been Shafnisky's biggest stage, a moment of glory to show a nationally-televised crowd what he can do, a stage to show off the work he had done to become a starting college football quarterback.  Instead, he struggled, and the team struggled, and it was a malaise and a gloom that carried over to the fans through the whole offseason.

Lehigh fans wondered whether they should start over - with a new head coach, a new staff, and a new quarterback.

That August day, Shafnisky had to answer for that, and like every other athletic test in his life, he met that challenge.

"I love having people either be there for me or count me out," he said that day.  "Personally, I love it all.  I love haters.  I was just saying to my dad - the more people are talking bad about you, the more people you have to prove wrong.  I love proving people wrong, and making my coaches from high school proud.

"We want to show that the 3-8 team you guys saw last year is not what Lehigh's about, and it's not what Lehigh football is about.  When they announced that we were picked fifth, LB Colton Caslow and I just looked at each other, and said, 'We'll see.'  Everyone has a different chip on their shoulder to prove everyone wrong."

And he did.  

Shafnisky refused to be defined by that one moment.  It was a moment that could have easily caused people to quit (and did).  

Instead, he worked harder, and developed into a championship-winning quarterback, coming very close his junior year to push the Mountain Hawks over the finish line, and ultimately help delivering the prize in 2016.

"My mom read all that stuff," Shaf told me this week.  "I've never read a forum, but she let me know all that stuff, the hate.  I have no hate for anybody - everyone's a critic until you start winning, and then everyone's your biggest fan.  I ended my Patriot League career with a Patriot League championship - I got a ring.  And that's all I really care about."

Shaf is the rare sort of athlete that is gifted with very good physical abilities and has a work ethic to match.  The only question is where best to exploit that combination on the football field.

In terms of Shafnisky, you can look at his career numbers and see a very good Patriot League level quarterback, an athlete who won the Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year over a guy, Fordham RB Chase Edmonds, that could be an NFL draft pick next year.  

What a lot of people don't see, however, is a guy whose superlative work ethic has got him here. 

Shafnisky's coaches at Whitehall were impressed by his work ethic as a junior, working "so hard off the field to get himself bigger, stronger, faster, and to get himself where he wanted to be," his coach Brian Gilbert at Whitehall said.

Head coach Andy Coen has also said so about his time at Lehigh.

"At Whitehall, we saw already that he was a dynamic guy who even played defense and he was all over the field," Coen told Keith Groller of The Morning Call. "We were hard on him, I mean really hard.  But he's confident now and he's confident for the right reasons.  He's had tremendous development."

Before becoming the starting quarterback at Whitehall, Nick played some defensive back as a sophomore, just to get onto the field.  

At Lehigh, Nick was recruited to be a quarterback, but showcased many Lehigh fans his versatility as a runner on many occasions.  (If there was an issue, it was that he never seemed to shy away from contact - when he would take off with the ball, he would run into other defensive backs to try to knock them over, something that made me cringe from the press box many a time.)

After his sophomore year, there was no guarantee that Shafnisky would be the starting quarterback for the following two years, and as soon as talented QB Brad Mayes entered the picture, he almost immediately started challenging Nick for the starting spot.

But Shaf never took his starting job for granted, and simply did what he does best - met the challenge, and pushed himself harder and harder until he succeeded, with the full support of his mother and father, who have worked hard as well to support him in his quest for the next level.

Shafnisky has now been applying that same work ethic to get an opportunity to play professional football.

"I'm kind of going into this as a utility player, an athlete, a position as a safety, wide receiver, or special teams guy who can hold, long snap, or a fourth-string emergency quarterback," he told me.  "A team can save two or three roster spots on one guy."

In the Patriot League, Shaf's size, athletic ability and leadership was ideal for the quarterback position, a league where an athletic, hard-working 6'1, 215 lb player can excel.  But in the professional ranks, Shaf's measurements play out better as a defensive back or even a wide receiver, so in order to achieve his dream of the NFL, he's adapted.

"I think I understand the game to an optimal level," he told me.  "I don't think people break it down as fast as I do.  I think I'm agile, quick enough, and my hands are great.  It's all going it come down to being tough enough."

Things started to happen for Shafnisky after the Lehigh/Lafayette game at Easton, where an NFL scout saw him play and forwarded his name for consideration.  Shaf said that he has several NFL teams who have contacted his agent wondering about availability in the late rounds of the draft or as an free agent signed to an NFL camp.

Though he has been working out as a defensive back, one NFL team called Shafnisky's agent and asked about his ability to possibly line up as a receiver, opening up the possibility of him getting signed as a developmental project along the lines of a Terrelle Pryor or a Braxton Miller.

"I'm hoping a team sees that I'm a different kind of mind," he said.  "I've got a different kind of work ethic, a methodical way, and a skill set that not a lot people have, that not as many people are as versatile as I am."

Shafnisky didn't field a pro day at Lehigh, but picked different pro days at schools around the area, like Bucknell and Villanova, to put himself in front of NFL evaluators.

"You want to go where the coaches are," he said.  "You want to go where you can talk to some of the coaches, not just scouts.  The biggest one I went to was Villanova.  That's when I really showcased myself.  I threw a little bit, and they liked my arm and athleticism, but what they said they liked the most was my hips, my hands, and my quick feet when they were putting me through DB drills."

Shafnisky had gone 40 minutes off campus to privately train for his combine events and get his body into pro shape, and worked on-campus informally with Lehigh assistant coach A.J. Reisig, as well as CB Quentin Jones and S Sam McCloskey, to get prepared for the combine and pro day workouts as a defensive back.

Now, after showcasing his measurables, it's a game of highlighting what makes him a great athlete, a lot of maintenance of his shape - and a lot of phone calls.

"I love this whole process," he said.  "I love not knowing what's about to happen.  And it's all a credit to me and my family and what Lehigh has given me.  Out of 32 teams I'm hoping one team says, let's take a shot on this kid."

What is clear is when Shaf gets signed, he will not be outworked.  He's not shy about doing whatever it takes to make the team better, and if he's blessed with the chance to grow professionally as a defensive back, wide receiver or special teams maven, he'll do it, as he's done it at every step of his high school and college football career.

"My shot is here, and I never want to look back," he said.

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