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Oct 16, 2018 12:39 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Finding His Way: Mariners Quarterback Shawn Stelling Deals With Personal Tragedy While Preparing For Next Phase On The Field

Southampton senior Shawn Stelling with his mom, Dawn Stelling, at the Olde Town Animal Hospital, where she is a veterinarian.
Oct 16, 2018 4:50 PM

December 11, 2017, was a big day for Shawn Stelling.

The quarterback for the Southampton High School football team, he was planning on attending a showcase in New Jersey that would be packed with college scouts. For a junior with big dreams of continuing his football career beyond high school, it was a chance to show why he had been tapped as the Mariners’ starting signal-caller in his freshman year. The plan was to get on a bus with his private quarterback coach, James Brady, and several other area football players also making the trip.

Those plans were thrown into disarray in the worst possible way.

Two days earlier, his parents, Dr. Dawn Stelling and Robert Stelling, were involved in a plane crash in San Diego. They were in California for a veterinary conference, and were passengers in a six-seat single-engine plane that crashed shortly after takeoff.

Dr. Stelling was injured but survived the crash, but her husband was killed. Dr. Stelling was still hospitalized when she had to call and give the news to her children that their father had died.

Absorbing the shock of the news, Shawn, the oldest of her three children, told her that he couldn’t go to the showcase on Monday.

“I said, ‘Okay, I can’t make you,’” Dr. Stelling recalled in an interview last week, sitting next to Shawn in her office at the Olde Town Animal Hospital in Southampton, where she works as a veterinarian. “When we spoke the next day, he said, ‘I’m going to go.’ That took a lot of guts. His dad hadn’t been dead for 48 hours, and his mom was still in the hospital in California—but he was brave enough to go.”

Dr. Stelling’s voice wavered slightly while she spoke, as her son sat stoically beside her. But she did not need to pause while telling the story, and she did not cry.

“I said, ‘Shawn, I know your dad is there, so just go out there and do what you love. I know he’s not where we want him to be, but he’s with you.’”

No one at the showcase or on the bus knew what Shawn was dealing with, aside from his coach, Shawn said.

He performed well at the showcase and, coupled with another consistent showing in what has been an up-and-down season for the Mariners this year—they are 2-5 in Division IV with one game left to play—he’s put himself in a position to nab a spot on a college team.

College scouts have been interested in Shawn because of his size—he stands well over 6 feet tall and has the prototypical quarterback build—and the prowess he has shown as a four-year starter under center. But Dr. Stelling said that in the past year, her son has put another set of skills on display.

“You can teach a kid to throw a ball, but to have heart like that …” She paused. “We gave him the tools, but that’s all him. You either have it or you don’t. And he has that in spades.”

Shawn carries himself with a kind of understated confidence, given that he holds the ultimate high school male popularity mantle—starting QB—with the stature and All-American looks to match. He is described by coaches and teachers with adjectives every parent hopes will be applied to their child: earnest, conscientious, intelligent, likable, mature, hardworking.

Dressed in a Mariners football T-shirt, and with a gold cross necklace dangling over the word “Southampton,” he spoke softly but clearly about his determination to play in the showcase shortly after his father’s death.

“I just felt like it was something he would have wanted me to go through with,” he said. “I went and did it, and felt good about how I performed.” He added, “I felt like he was watching while I was out there.”


Starting Young

A future as a star athlete wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion for Shawn. His father was not a “sports guy,” according to Dr. Stelling. In Southampton, Mr. Stelling was known mainly for his role as a manager of the Peconic Beach Club, which was owned by his parents for years before being turned over to him, and for teaching many children there how to sail.

But Shawn was always steered toward sports by others around him, mainly because he was always the biggest kid around.

“People kept trying to get him into [PAL youth football] because he’s so big, and the year we finally signed him up, in second or third grade, people were like, ‘Oh, thank God, Shawn Stelling is finally signing up!’” Dr. Stelling recalled, with a laugh. “In the beginning, they don’t really know what they’re doing, but you could see the progression as the years went on.”

Because of his size, Shawn played on the offensive line in his first year. But after the starting quarterback went out with an injury and he filled in, the rest was history.

Dr. Stelling said she recalled watching PAL games where Shawn would make his way into the end zone with a gang of tacklers attached to him, trying to bring him down.

When he made it on the varsity squad as a freshman and was asked to take over as quarterback in the middle of his first year, Dr. Stelling said that she and her husband were initially nervous, worried how his teammates would react to having a freshman in that coveted role. There were growing pains, including an injury during his sophomore year that sidelined him for a while.

The Mariners football program has struggled to repeat the success it had in the early 2000s, with its last playoff berth coming in 2005. Through it all, Dr. Stelling said, Shawn persevered.

“He never got upset. If anything, he got mad at himself,” she said. “He felt he could have done something better. He wanted to do whatever he could to make himself better.”

There were highlights, however, including beating rival Hampton Bays this year to win the coveted Mayor’s Cup trophy, which the Baymen had claimed in the last two meetings between the teams. And Shawn was also joined on the team this year by his younger brother, Ryan, a freshman who has played left tackle this season. Their sister, Summer, a sophomore, is an athlete as well, playing on the Lady Mariners volleyball team.


Growing Up Fast

The ability to adjust is a skill every good athlete has to cultivate, and that became an acute necessity for Shawn as he went into his senior season. He headed back to the football field for preseason workouts in August with his life turned upside down, but both he and his mother say that the routine of being on a team has been therapeutic.

“To see the two boys playing together is amazing,” Dr. Stelling said, referring to her sons. “It makes me smile all the time, which not a lot does. It’s really special.”

Dr. Stelling said that she has witnessed an already tight bond between her children become even tighter.

“They have each other’s backs, the three of them,” she said. “This horrible tragedy, if anything, has made us even tighter, and we were a tight family to begin with.”

She described her oldest son as “the tough one,” and said Ryan is “the softer of the two,” but pointed out that he has shown himself to be a scrappy and capable player as a freshman on varsity. Shawn said he’s also been bolstered by the support of his teammates, particularly right guard Matt Donovan, his best friend.

People in the school and larger Southampton community have been supportive as well, including AP literature teacher Dr. Barry Raebeck. He had Shawn as a student when he was a sophomore and had been helping him with the college application process starting in his junior year, work he continued to do, for free, as Shawn entered his senior year.

“His attitude is remarkable,” Dr. Raebeck said. “He’s so persistent and resilient. And I admire Dawn so much. She’s been a bulwark of strength for her family.

“I think the college thing has been a welcome distraction,” he continued. “And also an opportunity to look toward the future. Shawn does have a very bright future because of his athletic ability, and he’s also an A student, and a great person.”

Dr. Raebeck has been helpful in other ways as well. He understands loss, having watched his mother die from breast cancer when he was a teenager. “It gives you credibility when you’re talking to a student,” he said. “You can say, ‘I actually do know what you’re going through. I also know you can get through this.’ As bad as it can be, you get through those first days, and then the first year, and then life goes on.”

Like Dr. Raebeck, Southampton varsity head football coach Bruce Muro has been impressed by Shawn’s strength.

“His maturity is amazing,” he said. “He’s always wanted to persevere, that’s for sure, and he brings that to the field every day.

“He has a toughness about him,” Muro continued. “Unfortunately, he’s had to grow up fast. But football is an outlet, and sports is an outlet for a lot of kids. It’s a good distraction, for all of us.”


Finding His Way

Shawn is still in the middle of the college selection process, but he has drawn interest from several Division III programs, and his strong academic record will help him as well. He plans on majoring in sports marketing, and his mother said she hopes that football and his passion for the sport can be a catalyst to find a career he’s passionate about.

Dr. Stelling admitted that she will greatly miss her son when he goes off to college in a year, but said the feelings of sadness will be mixed with pride as well.

“I always said to his dad that the day he went to college, we weren’t going to have enough tissues,” she said. “You can double or triple that now.

“When we were looking at colleges, I said I didn’t want him to feel that he had to be close to take care of us or me. That’s not his job. Our goal as parents was to give him his wings to fly, and that’s still the deal we have. He knows, and he’s all right with that.

“We’ll miss him, but he’ll be back, and he’s going to find what he’s supposed to find for himself.”

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You are an inspiration Shawn Stelling. Continue to make your parents proud, your Dad is with you always.
By marybmary (54), east hampton on Oct 16, 18 3:40 PM
Shawn you are an asset to SHS, Southampton community and your family. WE all wish you the very best!
By Red Flag (51), HamptonBays on Oct 17, 18 9:51 PM