Few people have fit the term “sports personality” better than Don Shea.
Shea, who died Monday at 77, was a former sportscaster and sportswriter. He hosted N.C. State coaches’ shows. More recently he has been emcee of the annual Triangle Pigskin Preview, often tossing out thought-provoking questions that produced interesting answers from the football coaches at the season kickoff banquet.
“Always likable, always positive, that was Don,” former N.C. State basketball coach Les Robinson said Tuesday.
Shea, a San Francisco native, spent 17 years at WTVD-TV 11 in Durham as sports director, making a name for himself in the Triangle. “How do you spell sports? D-O-N S-H-E-A” became part of the local sports lexicon, although Shea, with a big smile, liked to quip that some people probably varied that spelling.
Shea was in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1983 when the N.C. State basketball team finished off its inspiring, if improbable, run to the national championship. Shea was one of those intrigued by the Wolfpack’s energetic, charismatic coach, Jim Valvano.
A few years later, Shea and Valvano were working together. After leaving WTVD, Shea began a 25-year relationship with N.C. State athletics, hosting the coaching shows, doing interviews, producing features.
With Valvano, it was easy. Valvano, always the entertainer, at times would let Shea kick off the show, then grab the microphone and take it from there.
Derek Shea, Don’s youngest son, remembers going to Wolfpack games with his older brother, Kyle. Or as Derek put it, “Going to work with Dad.”
“We’d go to the games, then go over to WRAL where they filmed the coach’s show after the game,” Derek Shea said. “Then you might be in Jim Valvano’s car as he drove you around the neighborhood.”
After Valvano’s departure from N.C. State in 1990, Robinson was hired as coach. He wondered if Shea, who had worked so closely with Valvano, could make the transition to a new coach, a new boss.
“Didn’t miss a beat,” Robinson said. “He was always loyal to me. For our shows, he sold the advertising, did the whole thing. Just a tireless worker.”
David “Crockett” Long wasn’t a coach or college athlete but became one of Shea’s best friends.
Long, executive vice president of Long Beverage in Raleigh, said he was a diminutive safety playing for Durham’s Jordan High and had been pounded a few times in a loss to Chapel Hill. But after the game, Shea sought him out – not one of the game heroes – for an interview for WTVD.
“I was 17 years old, and that was 43 years ago,” Long said Tuesday. “That’s how long our friendship lasted, and he touched a lot of peoples’ lives, not just mine.
“Don never met a man he didn’t like, and I don’t think there was a man who didn’t like him. He never met a stranger. He’d go out of his way to help people.”
Shea spent years working as a spokesman for the Duke Children’s Classic, which raised money for Duke Children’s Hospital. He served on the board of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
Shea also was a co-chairman of the Jim Valvano Kids Classic, which benefits the pediatric programs at Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center. Valvano participated in the first event, then titled the Kids Classic, and helped promote it.
After Valvano died of cancer in 1993, the golf event changed its name to the Jim Valvano Kids Classic.
“That touched my heart, that Don felt so close to Jim and wanted to raise money in his honor,” Pam Valvano Strasser, the wife of the late coach, said Tuesday. “I think Don was very proud that he was doing something for his friend.
“They were close. They worked together with JTV Enterprises after Don left ’TVD. Don handled a lot of business things for Jim. The two were so different, but they were so close.”
Jim Valvano once told a golf story about Shea, who was a high-handicapper. Playing at Cary’s MacGregor Downs Country Club, Valvano said Shea doggedly was using a 3-iron off the tees. On the first three holes, Valvano said Shea twice topped drives and shanked the other into the trees.
Valvano said he told Shea to put the 3-iron away, to think about using a driver. “So Don says, ‘Oh, no, I can’t hit a wood,’ ” Valvano said, noting the group didn’t stop laughing for several holes.
Derek Shea said his father first came to North Carolina as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division stationed at Fort Bragg. After leaving the service, he spent a year as a sportswriter at the Durham Herald-Sun before moving to WTVD.
Derek said his mother died a few years ago and he then became closer to his dad. He said they often had weekend lunches in Chapel Hill and did again this past Saturday.
“We talked every day,” Derek said. “He was always a private person but had opened up to me a little bit more about things.”
Derek said when his father did not call Sunday after the Super Bowl, he sensed something was wrong. He believes he may have died of heart-related issues.
“He was my dad, and he was my best friend,” Derek Shea said. “He had a great sense of humor, and I’m sure that’s where I got mine from. He was always a positive influence. I’ll miss him. We’ll all miss him.”
In addition to his two sons, Shea is survived by a brother, Joseph, from California. A visitation will be held Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Walker’s Funeral Home in Chapel Hill. A funeral will be held at 1 p.m. at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Durham, with burial to follow at Maplewood Cemetery in Durham.