Jul 03, 2024, 06:24AM

All He Did Was Win

The career of Penn State quarterback John Shaffer, a winner at the game of life.

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College football history is littered with quarterbacks who led their teams to glory, yet somehow slipped through the cracks of our collective memory. Jason White, Gino Torretta, Shawn Jones, Turner Gill, and J.C. Watts each achieved remarkable success on the field, but rarely feature in discussions of all-time pigskin-slinging greats. Near the top of this list of unsung heroes, as ranked by how unsung they are, stands Nittany Lions signal-caller John Shaffer. His career was remarkable not for its flash or statistics, but for its quiet efficiency and, most importantly, its nearly-flawless record of success.

Shaffer's record as a starting quarterback was almost perfect: 66-1 across high school and college. At Penn State, he went 25-1 as a starter. His single loss came in the 1986 Orange Bowl against Oklahoma. But Shaffer bounced back, leading Penn State to a perfect 12-0 record the following season and a national championship in 1987. Yet in 2024, his name is largely forgotten, absent from discussions of college football's most notable former players.

Why? The answer reveals much about how we measure success, not just in sports, but in life.

Shaffer's path to Penn State began at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, a football powerhouse then led by future Notre Dame coach Gerry Faust. There, he led his team to a 13-0 record and a mythical national championship in his senior year. This foundation of winning and high expectations would serve him well in college.

At Penn State, Shaffer's style wasn't flashy. Like most quarterbacks who lined up under center for Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions, he didn't rack up impressive stats or make highlight-reel plays. In his senior season, he completed just 55.9 percent of his passes and threw for only 1510 yards. These numbers pale in comparison to today's college quarterbacks, many of whom routinely throw for 3000 or 4000 yards a season.

All Shaffer did was win, consistently and reliably. He understood his role within Penn State's run-first, run-always system and executed it nearly flawlessly. He minimized mistakes, throwing just four interceptions in his entire senior season. He managed games effectively, allowing Penn State's strong defense and running game to control the tempo.

This kind of performance—steady, reliable, unspectacular—doesn't capture our imagination. We're drawn to obvious displays of talent: the quarterback with the cannon arm, the entrepreneur with the revolutionary idea, the artist with the unique style. But often, the highest levels of performance come from those who understand their role within a system and execute it perfectly, even if their individual contributions don't stand out.

Consider the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, where Shaffer's Penn State faced off against Miami. On offense, it was a complete mismatch. Miami had the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, and a roster full of future NFL stars like All-Pro wide receivers Michael Irvin and Brian Blades. Penn State had two talented backs in D.J. Dozier (who’d play in the NFL and MLB, though not much in either league) and future Jets draft bust Blair Thomas. Oh, and John Shaffer. He turned up; he was there for it.

In the hands of the media, the game became a cultural touchstone, pitting Miami's brash, hip-hop swagger against Penn State's understated, pull-up-your-pants approach. It was style versus substance, flash versus fundamentals, camouflage jackets versus blue blazers. Miami arrived wearing military fatigues, talking trash, and exuding confidence. Penn State showed up in suits and ties, speaking respectfully and deflecting attention.

During the game itself, Shaffer's statistics were underwhelming: five completions on 16 attempts for 53 yards. Penn State's entire offense managed just 162 yards, compared to Miami's 445. Yet Penn State won, 14-10. Not because Shaffer outplayed Miami's stars, but because he and his team executed their game plan more effectively. They understood their roles and performed them well. While Testaverde threw five interceptions, Shaffer avoided crucial mistakes and let Penn State's defense control the game.

There's a broader lesson here. In many fields, we rely on imperfect proxies to evaluate talent and potential. GPAs for students. Interview performance for job candidates. KPIs for employees. Quarterly earnings for companies. But these metrics often miss the qualities that drive success: understanding of systems, ability to execute consistently, willingness to subjugate individual goals to team success.

Shaffer's post-football career reinforces this point. After graduation, he didn't even attempt to play in the NFL. Instead, he went directly into finance. He spent 17 years at Merrill Lynch, rising to head the firm's American credit sales division, where he led a team of 130 people. Later, he moved to Goldman Sachs for seven years, running leveraged finance and helping to direct credit sales.

This trajectory suggests that the qualities that made him a winning quarterback—decision-making under pressure, understanding complex systems, executing a defined role—translated well to business. It challenges our tendency to draw sharp distinctions between different domains of achievement. The fundamental qualities of high performance might be more universal than typically assumed.

So why, outside of State College, PA, isn't Shaffer remembered, much less celebrated? I think it comes down to a flawed understanding of greatness. We equate it with standing out, with statistical dominance, with obvious displays of rare talent. But true greatness often looks different. It's the person who understands their role perfectly and executes it flawlessly. The one who makes everyone around them better without seeking credit. The steady hand who never falters under pressure.

There's an important lesson here for anyone striving for success. Don't focus on being noticed. Focus on understanding your role and executing it as close to perfectly as you can. Find an environment that fits your particular skills and talents. Be willing to subjugate your ego to the needs of the team.

Do these things, and you may achieve a level of greatness that isn't showy or immediately obvious. You may not be celebrated or put on magazine covers. But you'll win. And in the end, that's what really matters.

In a world increasingly obsessed with personal branding and individual achievement, Shaffer's career is a reminder of a different kind of excellence. It's a greatness that doesn't announce itself, that doesn't demand the spotlight, but quietly and consistently delivers results. In the end, it's not about who gets the most attention or acclaim. It's about who wins. And by that measure, with that one little exception, all John Shaffer ever did was win.


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