The opening kickoff of the Hartnell Community College football season was less than 24 hours away, and tensions were mounting in the Shaffer household. Sophomore defensive end-tight end Jeff Shaffer looked across the dinner table at sophomore outside linebacker-tight end Adam Shaffer and snarled, "Son, pass the bread already."
"All right, Dad," Adam mumbled through a mouthful of steak. "Just hold on a second."
Such exchanges were commonplace last year after Jeff, 40, and Adam, 19, became what are believed to be college football's first father-son teammates by signing up at Hartnell, a two-year college with 7,000 students that is located in the central California agricultural community of Salinas. If, as locals say, this city of 120,000 is "the salad bowl of the world"—because of the vast vegetable fields that surround it—then Adam and Jeff are the dressing, supplying a little extra zing on fall Saturday nights.
Everyone in town knows about the Shaffers. Adam, who is 6'1" and weighs 250 pounds, was recruited by Hartnell last year after an outstanding career at Salinas High. Jeff's story has more to do with serendipity.
Only eight players had returned for football when Gary Kollenborn was hired to coach the Hartnell Panthers before the 1995 season. He looked everywhere for local talent, including the stadium bleachers during practices. "I saw this large figure in the stands one day and asked, 'Who is that?' " Kollenborn says, recalling his first glimpse of Jeff's 6'3", 255-pound frame. "My defensive line coach, Mike Aaroe, said, 'That's Adam's dad, and he wants to play football.' "
That was all Kollenborn needed to hear. After a quick check with the Commission on Athletics, the governing body for California community colleges, which said it imposes no age limit on student-athletes, Kollenborn handed Jeff a maroon-and-gold Panthers jersey. "It was a dream come true," says Jeff, who hadn't played football in high school but had stayed fit by running and lifting weights. "Also, I just wanted to be close to Adam."
Wish granted. Jeff, whose teammates call him Pops, was placed at defensive tackle alongside Adam, who played defensive end last year. "Adam became like a dad to me, tutoring me all the time," Jeff says. "In games we'd be down in our stance, and he'd say, 'Be careful, Dad. It's a trap.' " Last year Adam was Hartnell's most consistent defender (36 tackles, 17 assists, two interceptions, one sack, one fumble recovery) and was named All-Coast Conference. Jeff was in on 13 tackles (10 solo) despite missing three games with a calf injury.
To become eligible, Jeff returned to the classroom for the first time since he graduated from Salinas High in 1974. He takes the required 12-unit class load at night; during the day he is a bill collector for the local water company. Jeff spent his first practices convincing his teenage teammates that he didn't belong in a rocking chair. "The first time he hit me, he really rocked me," says 6'1", 280-pound offensive tackle Cesar Chaidez. "Then he picked up our center and threw him five yards."
Jeff gives credit to Adam for helping him overcome a troubled past that was characterized, Jeff admits, by "a lot of partying." One night three years ago Jeff came home drunk and was confronted by his older son. (Adam has a younger brother, Dann, 18, who is a senior at Salinas High.) Adam told his dad that he didn't like seeing him in that condition, so they reached a mutual accord: no more drinking or swearing for either of them while they remained under the same roof. As a result, their bond was solidified. Adam and Jeff play video games together, work out together and double-date with mom Tami and Adam's fiancée, Becky Freitas. "He's my best friend," Adam says of his father.
This season the Panthers are looking to improve on last year's 2-7 record, and Adam is hoping to make the jump to Division I next year. He has drawn feelers from Arizona State and San Jose State.