| Special to Detroit Free Press
For the longest time, Tony Scheffler’s life revolved around football.
He was a terrific two-time All-MAC tight end at Western Michigan, finishing fourth for the John Mackey Award (given to the top college tight end in the country).
The Denver Broncos then picked him in the second round in the 2006 draft. Scheffler, 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, had four valuable seasons with the Broncos before a trade to the Detroit Lions. Overall, he had a productive eight years in the NFL, catching 258 passes for 3,207 yards and 22 touchdowns before his career ended on Oct. 22, 2013, when the Lions released him after he suffered his third concussion in four years.
Suddenly his life as an NFL player was over, and he desperately searched for his second act.
“I got done playing and kind of found myself in a dark spot,” he said. “I didn’t have much to do and kind of wandered around for a couple of years aimlessly and didn’t really know what my post football career was going to be. And that was hard.”
He needed something in his life to replace his career in the NFL.
That is understandable, but he settled on this?
The Chelsea girls basketball team was in the middle of a tight game and Scheffler was living and dying with each possession.
He stood on the sidelines, dressed neatly in a sports coat. He shook his head and politely said something each time an official made an inexplicable call. He encouraged his players after silly turnovers and applauded when one of them made an extra pass that led to a lay-up.
Yes, Scheffler, 38, is a rookie again, but this time, he’s the first-year varsity girls basketball coach at Chelsea, which is 6-2 overall, 5-0 in the SEC White heading into Thursday’s game at Pinckney.
To understand how Scheffler, an All-State Dream Team member in both football and baseball, chose to coach girls basketball, you need some background on the greatest athlete in Chelsea history.
Despite his success in football and baseball — he played both at WMU — Scheffler is a basketball junkie.
He was a regular at Eastern Michigan games when Earl Boykins and Derrick Dial ruled the Mid-American Conference. In elementary school, he attended Ben Braun’s basketball camp at EMU and the memory of the time he was stuck in an elevator causing him to be late to a session still haunts him.
And growing up, he never missed a Chelsea basketball game.
“I saw Albert White, from Inkster, beat Chelsea,” he said. “I saw Travis Conlan, from Lake Shore, beat Chelsea. I saw Shane Battier. Chris Webber played for Detroit Country Day. I grew up going to Magic Roundball games at the Palace.
“Actually got to meet Kobe Bryant. Got his autograph at one of those games. Basketball was always my No. 1. You can tell I have a passion for it.”
Scheffler earned all-state honorable mention honors in basketball and still owns Chelsea’s records for career scoring and assists. He played on one of the school’s two regional championship teams and lost to eventual 2000 Class B champion Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in the quarterfinals.
He always knew his second career had to have something to do with athletics.
“I finally decided sports was what my whole life had been,” he said, “and I needed to find myself back in that realm.”
But high school girls basketball?
‘Didn’t he play in the NFL?’
The uncle and godfather of his wife, Richelle, was Tom Zolinski, the former girls basketball coach at Freeland who died suddenly prior to last season.
In his 12-year career, Zolinski coached Freeland to a 244-50 record with 11 district titles, three finals fours and a championship game appearance.
“I started going to his games and had an awesome relationship with him,” said Scheffler, who paused and became emotional when speaking about Zolinski. “My wife just adores him. I just fell in love with the way he coached, his attitude towards his players, who were an extension of his family.”
As time wore on, Scheffler could see himself coaching girls basketball like that. It helps that four of his five young children are girls.
“I thought, man, if I could do something like this, have an effect on kids and win, and compete with these kids,” he said wistfully. “Freeland’s a lot like Chelsea in terms of history of the girls program, in terms of the quality of the kid — smart, hard-working, small town kids.”
That led Scheffler to begin attending Chelsea girls games and reacquainting himself with girls varsity coach Todd Blomquist, who was the boys varsity assistant when Scheffler was a sophomore.
“Everybody looks at him as a football player, but I knew right away he loved basketball,” Blomquist said. “If you ask him, if he had a choice which route he could have gone he’d have chosen basketball.”
All Scheffler needed was a way to actually begin coaching, and Blomquist found it.
“One of the moms said she needed a middle school coach for our sixth-grade girls travel team,” he said. “I told her I had the perfect guy, and we started talking a lot more basketball.”
Three years ago, Blomquist needed a varsity assistant and asked Scheffler to join him.
The move was met with skepticism from some of the players, who initially thought Blomquist had lost his mind.
One of the captains texted him: “Didn’t he play in the NFL?”
That didn’t make a difference to Blomquist, who responded: “Yes he did, but basketball has been a love of his for a long time. Just let this play out, I think it will be OK.”
It turned out to be better than just OK.
Senior Jessica Emmert literally grew up with the program. As a fourth grader, she was the ball girl for the varsity and was a sophomore on the varsity when Scheffler joined Blomquist’s staff.
“He brought something to the program that I hadn’t seen before,” she said. “When Scheff came, an energy came over everyone. It was all about defense and it was transferred through everyone’s play. It was crazy to see that.
“It was cool to see his passion and his heart that he had once in high school and he transferred it to us. The love for the game that he had came through to us.”
In Scheffler’s first season as Blomquist’s assistant, the team was 24-2 and won the regional. Scheffler was hooked.
“Here’s probably the greatest athlete to ever come out of Chelsea and he chose to coach girls,” Blomquist said. “I think that says a lot about him. He doesn’t think there’s any difference in coaching girls than coaching boys. On top of that he’s got four girls himself, so he better be able to coach girls.”
A year later, Blomquist ended his successful 20-year career coaching the girls and there was a groundswell of support for Scheffler to become the head coach.
“He had done such a good job as our lead assistant and our girls basketball community was very vocal in that they really wanted him, and our girls really wanted him, to be the coach,” said Chelsea athletic director Brad Bush, who was Scheffler’s football coach. “He had devoted himself to becoming a basketball coach. He was somebody I could see over the course of the last few years, develop great relationships with our kids.”
Scheffler knew his appointment would be met with some uncertainty in the community. Girls could be left wondering: “Why is a former NFL player coaching them?”
“I say this every day to them: Most sports are pretty similar,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff a wide receiver does against a cornerback that a point guard does against an opposing guard, as far as one-on-one and skill moves.”
If we run, he runs
Over his many years in athletics Scheffler learned that coaching in any sport and at any level is about so much more than X’s and O’s. It is about relationships.
To that end, Scheffler has truly been able to make a direct connection with his players, who look up to their coach (even beyond his being a foot taller than many of them).
One of the ways he connects with them is his joining them for suicide sprints up and down the court.
“It’s funny, we’ll do some conditioning, and he’ll hop in it with us,” Emmert said. “That makes us feel good to do it as an entire program. We’ll be doing the suicides, three in a row, and he’ll be out of breath and he’ll try to slow us down so he can catch his breath.”
Then there are times he will sub himself into a scrimmage and become just one of the players.
“That’s one of our favorite parts,” said senior Andrea Kowalski. “In practice, he gets up and down the court with us. He’s hyping us up. He’s on one of the teams. He’s just in it with us and I think that’s really special because not a lot of coaches will do that.”
Perhaps the biggest sign that Scheffler is fully invested in this coaching gig occurred when Chelsea lost its first game.
Scheffler was thoroughly crushed.
“You know, I had a lot of losses as a player,” he said. “I played for the Lions, I went 1-10 at Western Michigan, saw Gary Darnell get fired. That loss, my first as a head coach, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. It’s just different when you’re in charge, with all of the second guessing and all that stuff.
“I was always so hard on myself as a player and that’s probably how I got to where I did. I think I’ll be the same way as a coach, which isn’t very fun.”
But this is fun. His coaching is fun for him as well as the players, who realize he is no longer known to them as a former NFL player.
“He’s had his football days so he’s moved on,” Emmert said. “So it’s interesting to see how it’s for the love of the game and it’s for us. He’s not here for any other reason, just to give us love and have fun with everything we do.”
It turns out, it didn’t take Scheffler long to come to the conclusion that he has a lot more than four daughters.
“I’m around all these girls all year,” he said. “They’re so dedicated, they’ve basically become part of our family.”
It turns out that this is exactly what Scheffler was looking for — what he needed — when his football career came to a close.
He wanted to come home to Chelsea and be a part of the community of coaches who helped raise him.
“There’s so many awesome people in this community who give so much of their time to the kids,” he said. “Man, I jumped in with them, and I have no regrets. I feel like I kind of have been put here to maybe give back a little bit and just continue on this tradition that’s so strong.
“It seems like everything to this point has been picture-perfect storybook, almost, in my route here. It’s been a blast.”
Mick McCabe is a former longtime columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1. Save $10 on his new book, “Mick McCabe’s Golden Yearbook: 50 Great Years of Michigan’s Best High School Players, Teams & Memories,” by ordering right now at McCabe.PictorialBook.com.