By Steve Ruman
The East High football program received an extreme and noticeable makeover during the offseason.
For starters, Rick Shepas was hired to serve as the Deputy Chief of Athletics for the Youngstown City School District. A Cardinal Mooney graduate, Shepas previously coached high school football at Poland, Seneca Valley and Massillon, then collegiately at Waynesburg (Pa.) University.
Shepas immediately brought in Youngstown native and former Youngstown Christian coach Brian Marrow to take over the football program. Marrow replaced Jerron Jenkins, who went 1-9 last season in his lone year in charge.
Then came perhaps the most visible change of all. East is once again the home of the Golden Bears, a mascot the school recognized from 1926 until its closure in 1998.
When the school was reopened in 2007, it adopted the Panthers nickname.
Bringing the Golden Bear out of hibernation was met with widespread community approval when the school district announced the change at an Aug. 1 press conference.
Yet for all the glaring changes, it’s the non-headline-making alterations which Shepas, Marrow and the players hope will ultimately impact the culture of East High Golden Bears football.
“We’re stirring the pot, we’re turning the wheels and giving an identity to our schools, our students and our community,” Shepas said. “Make no mistake about it, this isn’t just about school colors or reaching back into the history books. These changes are about developing pride in who we are. It’s about our future.
“This is the leaders of Youngstown Schools saying, ‘We care, we want the youth of Youngstown to be the benefactors of a plan which brings us all together as one.’ Our message goes far beyond sports, but if we can help spread our message through our student-athletes, then it’s a great start.”
Marrow echoed the comments made by his boss, noting that “beyond wins and losses, sports are a great learning tool for our youth.” Marrow himself is a product of the Youngstown School System. He graduated from South in 1980, and began his coaching career at Wilson.
“The changes I want to see are the changes that happen beyond the football field, beyond high school,” Marrow said. “I want all of Youngstown to be proud when they see a kid wearing that Golden Bears uniform.
“Our mission is to develop unity and pride, and you do that in part by molding young men into productive, hard-working, honest citizens.”
A LOOK BACK
In its heyday, the Youngstown City Series was one of the state’s most recognized conferences. The Youngstown-based league originated in 1925, and at one time included six Youngstown City Schools — East, North, South, Chaney, Wilson and Rayen.
Eventually, a decreasing population took its toll on Youngstown, and the YCS. North closed its doors in 1980, and a decade later South did the same. Wilson and Rayen followed, and in 2011 athletics were eliminated from Chaney.
The original East High football program enjoyed success in its final season in 1997. The Golden Bears finished 8-3 (3-0 in league play) and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. When East reopened in 2007, the Panthers went 8-2. However, since ‘08, the Panthers were just 23-67.
“There was a time when the City Series grabbed the attention of every football fan in the state,” Marrow said. “Kids who grew up in Youngstown, they wanted to play for South or East or Wilson. They couldn’t wait to wear the school colors, to represent their community.
“Football, Youngstown football, it was king.”
During Marrow’s three years at South, the Warriors went 25-5-1, including a 10-0 record during his senior season of 1979.
Marrow earned a full scholarship to Wisconsin, where he was a three-year starter as a defensive back for the Badgers. In 1983 he served as a tri-captain and earned All-Big Ten Honorable Mention. He capped his career by being invited to play in the Blue-Gray Classic.
Marrow signed as a free agent with the San Francisco 49ers in 1984. In 1985, he joined the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, where he started for two years.
Shepas also enjoyed a decorated career, both as a player and a coach. At Youngstown State, Shepas finished his career second in school history with 150 career receptions and 2,263 career receiving yards. He was a captain and all-conference receiver on the 1986 YSU team. He is a member of the YSU Athletics Hall Of Fame.
Shepas’ first head coaching stint at Poland resulted in three straight conference titles, a regional championship and a 27-7 record.
A LOOK AHEAD
Both Shepas and Marrow have plenty of leverage when it comes to high school athletics.
So why dive into a situation which, on the surface, offers more challenges than it does opportunities?
Shepas said he “one-hundred percent believes there is a bright future in [Youngstown] city athletic programs,” and is convinced that his goals of “reaching the end game beyond wins and losses” are shared by school administrators.
“To me, athletics have always served as a driver, a means by which our youth can become better students, better people,” Shepas said. “Our goal is to develop these student-athletes into productive citizens. Give them an opportunity to attend college or find the right career path.
“I realized early on that football can be a great learning tool. It’s up to us as adults to provide the best resources, the best tools, the best environment to our athletes in order to bring out the best in them.”
And Shepas doesn’t shy away from sharing his belief that the Youngstown that he grew up in can still thrive from a football standpoint.
“I always believed that the Mahoning Valley was the center of the universe, and Youngstown was the center of the Mahoning Valley,” Shepas said. “I still hold onto that belief, which is what brought me to where I am today.”
For Marrow, coaching has never been a profession as much as it has been a vocation. A deeply religious man, Marrow insists that he never once sought out a coaching job, but rather “God sought me out through other people.”
“The first time I ever coached, it was a little league team and my pastor kept telling me, ‘These city kids need you,’” Marrow said. “I was told the same thing this summer by Rick and others at East. They all shared the same beliefs that football is a learning tool for a bigger picture and a bigger goal.”
And while Marrow acknowledges that today’s student-athletes “are worlds different” than those he grew up with, he also sees a lot of the same traits.
“Look, when I grew up just about kid on my block came from a two-parent home,” Marrow said. “We didn’t have the technology we have today. Kids didn’t have as many temptations, as many options. Today, kids are being pulled in so many directions, they are dealing with so much added pressure.
“But the thing is, I realized right away that these kids at East, they want to learn. They truly want to be disciplined. They want someone to guide them in the right direction. And they are willing to work hard for what they want, or they wouldn’t be on that practice field all summer long.”
In addition to working closely with today’s high school athletes, Marrow believes it is vital to reach out to the next generation of Golden Bears. Then without hesitation, he rattles off a long list of names — among them Anthony Smith, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Maurice Clarett, Lynn Bowden, L.J. Scott, Shaun Lane and Kurtis Drummond.
“These guys all either grew up in Youngstown or they lived in Youngstown while playing elsewhere in high school,” Marrow said. “There is no excuse for us losing Youngstown kids to neighboring communities. None.
“We have to give our kids a reason to want to wear an East Golden Bears uniform. We have to show them and their families that we are totally committed to them and their future.”
East senior running back/defensive back Mike Lawrence and senior defensive end/wide receiver Ilijah Donley believe Marrow is on the right path.
“Growing up here, when I was playing peewee ball I was always told that I should go to Mooney or Hubbard,” Lawrence said. “People always say that going to East is wasting your talent. Well, we are out to prove them wrong.
“This summer I think we turned the corner. There is a lot more discipline and hard work. We have a new identity and a new coach. It just seems like this senior class is going to be the class to show others that Youngstown and East are back.”
Donley, who has been playing football in Youngstown since the age of 4, said he always believed he and his teammates possessed playoff-caliber talent, “but needed something to bring it all together” in order to make winning football at East become a reality.
“We have that ‘it’ factor now,” Donley said. “We believe in ourselves, we believe in each other. Us seniors, we’re not out here just to have fun or we’re not out here for ourselves. We’re teaching the underclassmen. We’re trying to be leaders. We want East to win this year and when we’re gone.”
As for dropping the Panthers nickname which has been a part of their identity throughout their high school careers?
Neither Lawrence or Donley are fazed that they are now Golden Bears.
“It’s not a big deal, it’s what most of the community wanted and I’m cool with that,” Donley said. “I kind of like that we’re the first class to go back to the old name.”
Lawrence responded in a way which would help Marrow validate his return to coaching.
“It’s not really about being a Panther or a Golden Bear. I’m playing for Youngstown,” Lawrence said. “When we’re out there playing another team, I want the fans to know we’re Youngstown East.”
The Golden Bears kick off their season Friday night by hosting Boardman. A week later, the Bears welcome Ursuline.