Dave Shaffer, beloved soccer coach and evangelist for the sport, dies at 59
The year was 1969, and Joe Belluzzo, the Johnny Appleseed of soccer in Sonoma County, paid a call to Madrone Elementary School in Rincon Valley.
“He rolled a soccer ball out in the middle of the field, and nobody knew what it was,” recalled Don Shaffer, now 60. “If you want to play soccer,” Belluzzo told the students, “you need to sign up on this sheet.”
“So that’s what we did,” said Shaffer on Wednesday, speaking for himself and his brothers Dave and Dwayne. “And, some 52 years later, we haven’t stopped playing.”
Don was still getting used to the idea that one of his brothers was gone.
Dave Shaffer had died 11 days earlier, driving home from the pitch at Real Salt Lake-AZ, a soccer club in Mesa, Ariz., where he was a program director and coached the boys U19 and U16 teams. “It was very sudden,” said Don. “It was a heart condition. It was not a car accident.”
Dave Shaffer was 59. Before taking that job in Arizona, he’d spent seven years coaching in Tokyo, where he’d met and fallen in love with his wife, Aki.
A talented striker with a dangerous left foot, Shaffer led Montgomery High School to three straight North Bay League Championships, then went on to earn All-Conference honors at Santa Rosa Junior College (1982-83) and Sonoma State (1988-89).
He played professionally in Holland and Germany, in Atlanta, and with the North Bay Breakers of the United Soccer League. But he made his deepest, most lasting impact in his hometown and county.
Each of Mary Munion’s soccer-crazed sons took a torch from Joe Belluzzo. Don coached at Piner High, and now referees; Dwayne has coached the men’s team at UC-Davis for the last quarter century. While they’ve all done more than their share to grow and popularize o jogo bonito — the beautiful game, to borrow from Pele — Dave, arguably, carried his torch the farthest.
Following his playing career, he returned to Montgomery High from 1996 to 2004, capturing three NCS titles and posting a record of 161-49-14. Twice he was voted California Coach of the Year. He was named Redwood Empire Coach of the Year four times. He had coaching stints at Cardinal Newman High School, Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University, and with numerous club and pro teams such as the Sonoma County Sol and North Bay Breakers.
A larger piece of his legacy was the dramatic turnaround he performed at the Santa Rosa United Soccer Club. Moribund and mediocre when he took over as its director in the late 1990s, Shaffer turned the club into an overachieving dynamo.
His teams more than held their own against clubs from Chicago and Los Angeles — sprawling metropolises with access to a million or more youth. Meanwhile, Santa Rosa United teams under Shaffer were winning regional and national titles, “when we had 50,000 kids to draw on — when Santa Rosa was still a neighborhood kind of city,” said Don.
“David put his life and soul into building that program,” he continued, speaking of Santa Rosa United. “When he was younger he might have been a little over the top,” he recalled. “But it was the ‘80s.”
His brother, he added, adopted a softer approach “14 or 15 years ago.”
“We worked together, side by side, for many years,” said Luke Oberkirch, a high school teammate and wingman of Shaffer’s who remained one of his closest friends over the last four decades.
While they were “very similar” in their “demanding” coaching styles, Oberkirch judged, Shaffer had a slightly “easier way about him. He was very funny, with the nicknames and the one-liners.”
“He was demanding, but he made it fun. And kids learned,” said Oberkirch, whom Shaffer tagged with the nickname Pepe when they were at Montgomery. A player on an opposing team vaguely resembled Oberkirch. That player’s name was Pepe. Ergo, Shaffer decreed, Oberkirch would henceforth be known as Pepe.
Did it stick? “To this day my own father doesn’t call me by my first name,” said Oberkirch. “He calls me Pepe.”
“The only thing bigger than your heart was your wonderful laugh. You are missed immensely,” wrote one the dozens of grieving players, friends and parents on the Real Salt Lake-AZ Facebook page.
“Will miss his spirit for sure,” added another. “He was a great coach who cared about the kids on and off the pitch. He wanted the boys to be good humans.”
At the same time, he wanted them to win, Oberkirch noted. “It wasn’t his number one thing, but it was part of it. And that’s OK, because that’s how we grew up.”
They won at Montgomery, at Santa Rosa Junior College, and playing semipro soccer together.
Shaffer, he reflected, was successful at developing players, and at providing a place where they could “learn and have fun.”
His teams also tended to win a lot. “So that’s a great way to define success, if you ask me.”
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ausmurph88.
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