To nearly everyone who knows Eddie Shannon, he was the right person, born at the right time in the right place.
A Godsend, many call him.
Shannon was the vehicle used to heal the wounds of racism and form a bridge that would turn the Manatee County area in the right direction.
What he also did during his time as head football coach and teacher at Lincoln High School was enable his students and players to make the most of their lives in a society initially geared to stop them.
Standing 5-foot-3, Shannon was a giant of a man.
He imposed fear when needed and brought love and caring at the moments when those emotions were badly needed.
Shannon was a brilliant football coach who lost two games in his seven years running the Lincoln program, and he was a man well-respected in the community.
Now, 94, Shannon has been showered with accolades, but his greatest gift are his people skills, which he used in 1969 to quell a potential riot that was erupting at Manatee High School during the first year of integration in Manatee County.
“To play for him you had to have a good work ethic and stick with what you were doing and do it to the best of your ability. I carried that with me into life,” said James Green, a wide receiver and 1963 Lincoln graduate.
“At first I didn’t understand how important he was to the transition (at Manatee),” former long time Manatee High teacher and coach Mike Knowles said. “He gave up being the man (head coach at Lincoln) to come and be an assistant and really made an impact. He also helped thousands of white kids.”
Ray Bellamy, who was recommended by Shannon to become the first African-American to play college football in the Southeastern United States, said his former coach was a mentor, friend and father figure wrapped into one.
“There were nights me and my siblings would come home from school, and there was no food in the house because our parents were away working the fields. Coach Shannon made sure we always had a meal,” Bellamy said.
As much as he was loved, Shannon was also feared. But, in the 1950s and 60s, dealing with high school students was far different than today.
Eddie Shannon and the board he used to make sure things were right were notorious at Lincoln. For those who played for Shannon at Lincoln, he was in their life 24 hours a day. Shannon would ride by the houses of his players at night to make sure they were home and had their school work finished.
“I carried a board with me everywhere and if needed we would go down to the bathroom and I would touch you up a little bit. Usually the next day the teacher would say you improved,” Shannon said. “Life was easy for me here because most of the parents knew me and knew what I stood for.
“My whole thing was you go to class, do your lessons and go home and listen to your parents. If a parent called me and said you acted up, my board was on your behind. During those days, parents spanked their kids, but nowadays parents can’t do that.
Ray Bellamy said Shannon was a perfectionist, noting the day before a game the team had to run through all the plays perfectly or they would be running laps and doing other things that took the fun out of football.
“We made sure to get it right because no one wanted to go through those extra drills and work,” said Bellamy who saved one of those days by making a one-handed catch at the end of a practice.
Shannon coached and taught for a combined 34 years at Lincoln and Manatee High, but his presence was never more important than in 1969 when he was teaching at Manatee during the first year of integration.
He gave up the prestige of being a head coach and went to Manatee as an assistant because he felt his former players needed him there to help smooth a transition that was turbulent at the time.
Shannon coached history-makers that included Ray Bellamy and Henry Lawrence, the most successful professional football player from Manatee County, and Willie Lee Jones, who along with another player broke the color barrier at the University of Tampa.
But that day in 1969 transcended everything for him.
“Coach Shannon brought peace to Manatee High that day when the crazies were out there with guns. People would’ve been hurt if not for Shannon and Lawrence,” said Ed Dick, the University of Miami booster who played an instrumental role in Bellamy signing with the Hurricanes.
“I was home sick that day when the principal called me and said I need to get over there. I told him I had the flu and he said bring the flu with you,” Shannon recalled.
When Shannon arrived a lot of students starting yelling ‘coach Shannon is here,’ raising hope that the man most capable of quelling the disturbance was on campus.
Shannon’s calm demeanor and display of understanding from both sides caught in this racial turmoil calmed tensions ready to explode. He had a philosophy that seemed so simple it was hard to accept but it was what the students wanted to hear.
“I told them they’ve got to learn how to work together and understand each other. Most blacks had never been with whites, and most whites had never been with blacks,” Shannon said. “I treat them all the same. I tell them I’d treat them that way whether they’re white, black or in Technicolor. Integration changed a whole lot of things. When you was all black, you were one thing. And when you were all white, you were one thing. Black had never been with white and white had never been with black, so the kids had to make an adjustment and it was just as hard on them as it was the teacher. Adjustments had to be made between the kids and the teachers.”
In 1996 Shannon carried the Olympic Torch leading up to the summer games. In 2001 the Palmetto Youth Center was renamed “The Eddie Shannon Youth Center and in 2004 he earned the key to the city in Palmetto. He was the 2009 Manatee County “Hometown Hero” and has won the Omega Phi Si Alumnus of the Year from Florida A&M eight times.
In 2010 Shannon was elected into the FHSAA Hall of Fame. He was the first full-time athletic trainer at Florida A&M, serving in the role from 1950 to 1953 following his graduation from FAMU in 1950. Shannon played football for Jake Gaither at FAMU from 1946-50 following a stint in the military.
About this series
This fall marks the 50th anniversary of Ray Bellamy’s recruitment by and signing with the University of Miami, breaking the color barrier for African-American athletes in the Southeast.
To commemorate the anniversary, the Bradenton Herald is publishing “Lincoln’s Legends & Legacy,” a recurring series of articles throughout July on some of the top athletes from Lincoln High School, the pre-integration era high school for African-American students in Manatee County. Upcoming subjects include:
Willie Lee Jones