BRADENTON -- Eddie Shannon will turn 90 on March 7 and he just might have the best birthday party of his life.
The diminutive giant received big news Tuesday when he learned he was voted into the Florida High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
Many will tell you it was long overdue. Shannon kind of feels that way but he won’t say it, at least not publicly. It’s not his way of doing things.
Still, he couldn’t hide his excitement after receiving the news.
“I feel good; it’s a long time coming. I am happy about it,” Shannon said. “I never thought I would make it, but so many people played a role in it. I want to thank Mike Knowles the most. He got things going.”
The 5-foot-3 giant of a man goes into the hall as a coach/contributor, stemming from the combined 34 years he spent coaching football and teaching at the old Lincoln Memorial High School and then Manatee High School.
He officially retired from teaching and coaching at Manatee in 1987 but says, “I never retired from the team.”
Shannon lost just two games in his seven years as the Lincoln head football coach before integration closed the school in 1969 and students went to Manatee and Palmetto.
Shannon coached some of the area’s greats, including Ray Bellamy, who broke a color barrier when he went to Miami and became the first African-American to play football at a major college in the South. He coached Henry Lawrence, Manatee County’s greatest professional football player who spent 13 years in the NFL and earned three Super Bowl rings.
Aside from all the accolades on the field, Shannon’s greatest achievement might have come in 1969, when he became the unofficial peacemaker during the turbulence that shook Manatee High during its first year of integration.
“I wrote a letter recommending him. He deserves it because of all the things he did to promote peace and harmony, and the way he coached kids to be respectful,” said Ed Dick, who recruited Bellamy for Miami. “He brought peace to Manatee High when the crazies were out there with guns. People would’ve been hurt if Shannon and Lawrence had not calmed things down.”
Shannon put in 15 years at Lincoln and 19 at Manatee. In his typical, modest ways, he said he is thankful to the kids at Manatee of both races who chose to listen to him.
People still talk about a day in 1969 when there was a near-riot at Manatee High and Eddie was home sick with the flu. He got a call from the principal because it was thought only Shannon could stop the chaos. He did.
“I lost my color when they called me,” Shannon recalled. “I was the go-between and the whole thing, in a nutshell, is that kids had to find out they could do things together.”
Shannon’s list of laurels is long.
He was the personal trainer to tennis great Althea Gibson. He carried the Olympic Torch before the 1996 Olympics, and in 2004 he received the Manatee County Distinguished Citizen Award.
“I don’t know how to compare going into the Hall of Fame to the other things, but I know it’s great and it’s a good feeling. You can’t compare them because everything is different,” he said.
Knowles, a longtime Manatee High coach and FHSAA hall of famer, started the ball rolling with the nominating process. The candidacy picked up steam with people from all walks of life in the Manatee County community, including several judges and high-ranking public figures joining the movement.
“What he has done for kids in Manatee County from all walks of life is incredible,” Knowles said. “I took up this because of all the things I kept hearing from people in the black community and outside of it. He certainly deserves it.”
Shannon, who will be inducted during ceremonies in April, is the third Manatee County resident to go into the FHSAA Hall of Fame, joining Knowles and former Manatee High principal and head football coach Wheeler Leeth, who went in as an administrator.
“I am very excited for Eddie and his family, and the whole Lincoln Memorial community,” Knowles said. “It’s a great thing. The state has done a good job of recognizing those who worked hard, are good people and loved kids. Eddie Shannon is a perfect example of that kind of person.”