Football Writers Association of America 2010 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Joe Rexrode, Lansing State Journal

EAST LANSING – Lorene Shinsky delivered her son, John, to an orphanage when he was 8 years old.

Edmund Shinsky had just died of a heart attack, robbing Lorene of a husband, John of a father and the household of an employed steelworker.

John then started a fire in their small house in a rough neighborhood in Lorain, Ohio. Trouble was already finding him, so off Lorene sent him to Parmadale Orphanage in Parma, with a toothbrush and a bag of clothes.

Joe Rexrode
Lansing State Journal
Age: 37
College: Michigan State
Background: I've been the Michigan State football and basketball beat writer at the State Journal since January 2003, but I covered those beats as far back as the mid- 1990s for the college newspaper, The State News. Nothing like a little Nick Saban to give a young journalist some humility and a fear of loud noises. I was a parttime reporter at the State Journal for the 1999-2000 year, helping cover Saban's 9-2 breakthrough at MSU and bolt for LSU, followed by Tom Izzo's national championship basketball team. I then spent two years on the news copy desk before switching to the sports desk, then taking over for retiring mentor Jack Ebling on the beats. I've also covered the NBA finals, NFL football, NASCAR, professional golf, college women's basketball and high school sports over the years. I wrote a 2006 book on the history of Michigan State football and have won 15 writing awards, including APSE and Best of Gannett honorable mentions in 2004 for a feature on John L. Smith's wife and her battle with cancer; and an Associated Press of Michigan first place in 2008 for a five-day series on MSU's athletic budget struggles. I am married (Katie) with two sons (Jack and Brennan) and a pending daughter to be named later.

It was 1959. In 1983, having renewed contact with Lorene, John invited her to East Lansing to watch him receive his doctorate in education and special education from Michigan State. He bought her a brand-new outfit for the ceremony.

Lorene returned to Ohio on a Sunday night, and John called her. He wanted her to know she would be financially secure if anything happened to him.

The next day, John got a call from a coroner in Ohio. Lorene was dead at 53 of a brain aneurysm.

"I had to bury her," Shinsky said of his mother, "in the same outfit."

Some people experience life-changing moments. Shinsky's life has been a string of them. He has used each one to build toward the fulfillment of a 40-year mission – opening his own orphanage.

That will happen in September in Matamoros, Mexico, where by multiple twists of fate Shinsky and his wife, Cindy, have been drawn to address the plight of children in the crudest of conditions.

Some live in garbage dumps. Many have been abused. One 9-year-old girl was tied to the axel of a car by her parents and left to die.

Asked to describe the worst case, Shinsky declined because he didn't want to repeat it and because "you can't write it anyway," he said.

On Saturday, at halftime of MSU's spring football game at Spartan Stadium, Shinsky will set out on a 2,000-mile bike trek to Matamoros to help raise $500,000 he needs to finish the orphanage and get it running. He's already raised about $800,000.

He'll be accompanied on bikes by two of his closest friends, MSU football teammates in the early 1970s – Joe DeLamielleure, who went on to become an NFL Hall of Famer, and Eljay Bowron, who went on to become the head of the Secret Service.

They remember Shinsky as a freshman at MSU, declaring in 123 East Wilson Hall that he would some day build a place for children.

"Forty years later, we're riding on a bike to this guy's orphanage," DeLamielleure said. "Do you know how unbelievable that is to me? It's like make believe.

"If you knew John as a freshman in college, you wouldn't believe what he is now. He's a miracle. No one can explain what John is."

He is an orphan, an educator, a doctor and a cancer survivor. He is regarded as one of the toughest football players to come through MSU.

Mostly, he's a man who has no doubts about why he's here.


It was pretty simple at Parmadale.

"The toughest kid ruled," Shinsky said.

Structure and discipline were part of the deal, too, and Shinsky needed them. He got a two-parent family and a nice home in Lyndhurst at age 12, when Bob and Martina Weiss became his foster parents.

Football coach Bill Gutbrod and others at Cleveland St. Joseph High worked with Shinsky, who was admittedly "an animal" as a teenager. His intensity, brute strength and size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds at age 16) made him a highly sought football prospect.

He picked Duffy Daugherty and Michigan State over Michigan and its first-year coach, Bo Schembechler. Ohio State, Notre Dame and many others were in pursuit.

Shinsky took a sideswipe hit to his left knee as a senior, though, and he had to have cartilage removed. That knee would plague him, require surgery each year at MSU and ultimately cost him a pro career.

Education would be Shinsky's ticket. A high school diploma was the first step and a major one. On his graduation day, a woman approached him, said "Congratulations," and rushed away.

It was Lorene, nearly 10 years after their last contact.

Shinsky didn't have a chance to say anything, but he vowed to find her.


At MSU, Shinsky quickly identified himself as the toughest kid in the neighborhood.

"He was crazy," said DeLamielleure, an offensive guard who would go on to become an All-Pro with the Buffalo Bills. "We battled every day in practice. If I could go to practice and block John Shinsky, I could block anyone."

"Let me tell you, there was not a tougher player," George Perles, MSU's defensive line coach at the time, said of Shinsky. "If John's legs hadn't gone out on him, he would have played a lot of pro ball. Pound for pound – and that's saying a lot because he was a big guy – he was the toughest I ever coached. He didn't know how to quit."

In his summers, Shinsky ran free camps for children with disabilities. He has always identified with them, he said, because "individuals with disabilities are always striving to be part of something or part of someone, and I know how that feels."

Also in college, Shinsky reconnected with his mother. He bought her a phone, invited her to East Lansing for a game. They formed a relationship.

Soon after Shinsky graduated from MSU with an education degree, he married his college sweetheart, Pat, a union that would last 19 years.

He looked at pro ball, even though he knew several knee surgeries and a back surgery that kept him out of the 1971 season would scare away the NFL.

But the Chicago Fire of the brand-new World Football League came with a $50,000 contract. Shinsky was about to sign – then he read the fine print. Any more knee injuries would be considered a "pre-existing condition" and cost him his salary.

He took a $6,000-a-year job teaching special education at Walter French Junior High.

"One of the best decisions I've ever made," he said.


Shinsky soon settled into 20 years as director of special education for the Lansing School District. He was in charge of about 3,500 children with various disabilities.

Having kids of his own "was not in the cards," he said, but in a way he had thousands. DeLamielleure and his wife, Gerri, decided to adopt two Korean boys after having four children of their own.

The second, Matthew, was adopted at 4 years old and arrived with issues. It took years of Shinsky's help to solve them.

"He tested me every day of his life," DeLamielleure said of Matthew, now a 26-year-old father and ship builder. "Without John's help, this kid would have been a lost soul. He would have been in jail."

Shinsky gained master's and doctorate degrees from MSU, then tragically lost his mother. At her funeral, he spoke with his maternal grandmother, Marie Cesare, for the first time since he was a young boy.

She gave him another jolt – Lorene had been adopted at 2 years old.

Shinsky and Cesare were not biologically related. Yet in the same conversation, he told her that if she ever needed help or a place to say, he'd be there.

A decade later, Cesare took him up on that and lived the last four years of her life under his care.


The orphanage is called The City of Children of Matamoros, Mexico, or Cuidad De Los Ninos. Six of 12 planned buildings are completed, and 40 children can be accommodated, with a final goal of 140.

Shinsky has seen things he won't repeat, but he wants to do more than save children from poverty, abuse and garbage dumps. He wants to invest in them.

Education, vocational training and spirituality will be key parts of this facility.

"They will be equipped to be leaders in society," he said. "It's about empowering them, and we'll expect them to take advantage of the gifts bestowed on them."

It all happened so quickly. A college student sitting next to Shinsky on a plane named Brian Berg told him about a run-down orphanage in Matamoros, at which Berg was volunteering.

Shinsky and Cindy, who were married in 2000, immersed themselves. They bought some land, helped the orphanage build nine buildings, whipped up $150,000 between their own money and donations.

Soon after the project was done, in 2003, Shinsky got a call from a prominent developer in Matamoros, Ramiro Gonzalez.

He wanted to donate 17 acres of land if Shinsky would build an orphanage from scratch.

"To me it was fate -- I thought we were done in Mexico," Shinsky said.

"As soon as John got that call he said, ‘This is what we were meant to do,'" said Cindy, associate superintendent of special education for the Clinton County Regional Educational Service Agency. "And he's right. This is what we were meant to do."


The Shinskys have had a lot of help on this, from the MSU community, friends and former teammates such as Kellie Dean, pro bono architects in Mexico and an 82- year-old Texas man named Damon Noland who volunteered to help with much of the construction.

Shinsky's neck cancer played a role as well. He was diagnosed in 2007, had a tumor removed and endured 33 painful radiation treatments and two sessions of chemotherapy.

He couldn't talk for three weeks. He couldn't taste for three months. Cindy stepped into a more active role and formed the orphanage's fund-raising committee.

Shinsky redoubled his efforts when he regained his strength – and there was little doubt from those close to him that he would regain his strength.

"What it said to me was, I need to get in gear, get things in order," said Shinsky, who remains cancer free despite having an 80 percent chance of recurrence in the first year after treatment. "I hate to say it, and I never thought I'd say this, but it was a blessing to the orphanage for me to have cancer."

Now the orphanage is almost complete, after a lifetime of turning points and decades of dreaming. Shinsky is doing this because he is certain he wouldn't be here without his own move from the streets of Lorain to Parmadale.

He is doing this because of the call from Gonzalez that made him believe it's his fate.

And he is doing this because of a call he placed while a student at MSU, to Lorene Shinsky on a phone he had just bought for her. He had to ask the question.

"Why did you give me up?" he said.

"Because I loved you more than I loved myself," she said.

"The meaning behind that is unbelievable," Shinsky said, looking back 40 years later on the biggest moment of all and the woman who saved his life. "You talk about unconditional love for somebody. That, to me, is a role model. Unselfish, unconditional love. That is why I have to give back. That is why I'm doing this."


Comment by the judge, Gene Duffey: Well told, poignant story. The writer made you feel close to the situation with good attention to details. Good quotes from Joe DeLamielleure and George Perles.

• Second place: Mark Anderson, Las Vegas Review-Journal
• Third place: Chris Low,
• Honorable mention: Matt Fortuna, The Daily Collegian; Scott Cacciola, The Memphis Commercial Appeal; Joseph Person, The State