Before every Lehigh football game, Nick Shafnisky reads two letters.
One from his mom and one from his dad, written on his high school senior night. Normally, each player’s parents would write their son one letter together, but because Shafnisky’s parents have been divorced since he was 2 years old, he got one from each.
The letters keep Shafnisky grounded, reminding him of who he is and where he’s from. But most importantly, they talk about how proud his parents are of him and how much he’s grown over the years.
Now, he’s a senior quarterback and a captain for Lehigh going into what might be his final year of football — a sport he’s been playing almost his entire life.
And his parents have supported him through this journey. Despite being divorced, his parents are still on great terms. They live within walking distance of each other.
In fact, they literally live a cornfield away.
“My mom’s backyard is a cornfield, and at the bottom of it is my dad’s house,” Shafnisky said. “It’s funny, me and my sister used to joke around when we were kids about when we’d get mad at them, we’d just run down the cornfield and just be there for a day or two.”
As a toddler, Shafnisky’s first word was “ball.” It wasn’t “mom.” It wasn’t “dad.” And it wasn’t even “no.”
From his first words, it seemed destined that he’d be an athlete. Growing up, he played baseball, basketball, track and football. At almost any given time, he was a three-sport athlete.
But even though the first words he uttered weren’t “mom” or “dad,” his relationship with his parents helps define his athletic career.
Most times, missing one of their son’s sporting events wasn’t even an option to them.
The situation was so rare, Shafnisky could name the exact events his dad missed, such as a random summer league basketball game his sophomore year of high school and a Connie Mack summer baseball game that meant nothing. It was such a small number, he could count them on his hand.
“Sports triumphs (over) everything in life when it comes to me and my dad,” he said. “Just because for him it’s been a part of his life, and for me it’s been a part of my life. So together, that’s a huge thing we’ve always shared.”
But his closeness with his family doesn’t stop with his parents. Shafnisky said he’s close with his two sisters, one older and one younger.
His older sister helped buy his books for him this fall, and he wears a bracelet his younger sister made for him. Even though they’re all different, they still remain a big part of his life.
His close proximity to Lehigh allows these family relationships to remain strong even while he’s at college.
Shafnisky remembers his first game, a flag football game when he was 5 years old.
He was playing quarterback, even though it was a position he never really wanted to play. One play he was running down the sidelines, watching as his stepmom at the time was running frantically alongside him.
He’s constantly reminded of that field, which he drives by regularly because of how close it is to his house.
“I just remember, it’s crazy how long ago it’s been,” he said. “Not to be cocky, but I used to tear those fields up. I look at it now, and it’s crazy to look at where I am now.”
Some kids dream of playing in the NFL from an early age, but Shafnisky was never that way. His dad didn’t let him think like that. He instead wanted him to focus on what was in front of him.
That’s just how his father is. He wasn’t the pushy, stereotypical football dad that drives his son too hard. His father wanted him to work for it and to not get too big of an ego.
“You don’t want someone going into high school thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t need to study, I’m going to make millions playing football,’” said Dave Shafnisky, Nick’s father.
But by sophomore year of high school, Shafnisky started to realize he had a chance at Division I football after he was thrown into a game that Lehigh football coach Andy Coen happened to be watching. After he realized it was possible, he went to football camps all around the country. Naturally, his dad was beside him for every single one.
His mom was with him all the time, too, making sure he had the right equipment and everything else that he needed for sports. She said to this day she still texts him before every game to wish him good luck.
“His sisters say he’s the favorite, but he’s really not the favorite, it’s just because he’s my only boy,” Nick’s mother Diana Rohrbaugh said while laughing. “I would do anything and everything for Nick, let’s just leave it at that.”
Once he got to Lehigh, he knew beating rival Lafayette College was a key goal for the football team. The first two times ended in losses, including a defeat in front of almost 50,000 people in Yankee Stadium. That loss haunted him — he calls it the lowest moment of his football career.
He didn’t want to let everyone down again.
“I let us down, literally, in front of the whole nation since it was in Yankee Stadium,” he said. “When people speak of it, I’ll look the other way. I won’t even talk about it.”
Something had to change. The upcoming seniors took over, including tight end Chris Ruhl, who is now one of Shafnisky’s best friends. The team motto for that next season was something all too familiar to Shafnisky: “family.”
Shafnisky credits Ruhl as his biggest advocate for success and the person who taught him the most about leadership. To Shafnisky, Ruhl is as close as family as a teammate could get.
Ruhl would hang out with Shafnisky all the time going into Ruhl’s senior year, spending time with his family and going on Dave Shafnisky’s boat with them. They said they spent most days of that summer together.
“Family to Nick probably means more than to a lot of other people,” Ruhl said. “One of the things he does every summer during camp is he invites the entire offensive line over to his house for a barbecue to get to mingle with his family. It’s like they’re all one big family.”
During his junior year, Shafnisky was entering his third career game against Lafayette. After the letdown in New York the year before, he led the Hawks to a 49-35 victory at Goodman Stadium.
Almost immediately after the game, Shafnisky’s mom ran onto the field and embraced her son with a huge smile on her face, donning a jersey with “Shaf’s mom” across the back.
Soon after, more members of his family came down to celebrate with him. To those who know him, this was a normal sight.
“He’s found his ‘why,’” Ruhl said. “A lot of people don’t know quite why they play, but Nick has that ‘why.’” And that ‘why’ is that word ‘family’ and what it means to him.”