Ex-East Leyden coach Jack Leese extols his former QB, Mike Shanahan

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Olympic gold medalist Dan Gable (left) and former Northwestern wrestling coach Ken Kraft join Jack Leese (right) at the 2014 Midlands Wrestling Tournament at NU. | For the Sun-Times


For the Sun-Times

Jack Leese asked his quarterback to pick up a handful of his teammates and come to his house to watch film of their most recent game.

The former East Leyden High School coach was not prepared for every player on the roster and team managers to walk through his front door. Leese had to scramble to find seats to accommodate so many unexpected visitors.

“Mike told them I said they had to be there, which wasn’t true,” Leese said, chuckling. “From that point on, all the kids came out every Sunday. That was the start of the dominance of East Leyden High School.”

“Mike” is Mike Shanahan, Leese’s former quarterback and a candidate to replace Marc Trestman as Bears coach.

Shanahan has interviewed with the 49ers, Raiders and Bills. His son, Kyle, resigned as Browns offensive coordinator Thursday and could end up working with his father.

Shanahan is most often linked geographically to Denver because he coached there for 14 years and won two Super Bowls with John Elway.

But his Chicago roots run deep.

“Chicago is a big part of Mike, there’s no doubt about it,” said Leese, 83, who retired after winning a state title in 1977. “He has a lot of friends here, and he knows who his friends are. A lot of people want to come back home. Mike went to Washington, but he never felt like that was home. This is home.”

Shanahan grew up in Schiller Park and Franklin Park, the son of Ed, an electrician, and Dorothy, who suffered from a serious arthritic condition.

He didn’t start at quarterback until his senior year in 1969, when Leese switched to a wishbone attack because he thought it gave his undersized players an advantage. Shanahan, who weighed all of 137 pounds, was his trigger man.

“We sandbagged the whole offense for the first game,” Leese recalled.

“The first game we used the T- formation and ran basic plays and won 8-6. Then the next game, we played a ranked Hinsdale South team, and Mike ran the wishbone and scored four touchdowns and gained 268 yards.”

Shanahan parlayed his lone season as a starter into a scholarship to Eastern Illinois, where his career ended in a spring scrimmage his junior year when he got speared in the side. His roommate was the late Mike Heimerdinger. The longtime NFL offensive coordinator, who worked under Shanahan in Denver, found him asleep on his bed and knew something was wrong. The ever-energetic Shanahan never took naps.

Paramedics rushed Shanahan to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a ruptured kidney. By the time his father arrived, a priest had administered last rites.

“Mike has had a lot of adversity in his life, unfortunately,” Leese said. “He was also involved in a motorcycle accident and his best friend was killed. When they had the funeral, Mike was in the hospital.”

Shanahan began his coaching odyssey as an assistant at his alma mater.

He returned to EIU in 1978. The Panthers had finished 1-10 the year before, and there was talk about dropping the program, but with Shanahan as offensive coordinator, the Panthers went 12-2 and won the Division II national championship by averaging 424 yards and 34 points.

If the Bears hire Shanahan, he could be reunited with Jay Cutler, who played under Shanahan for three years in Denver.

“He has a good relationship with Cutler, even though Cutler didn’t have a very good record with Mike,” Leese said. “But the defense let Mike down as much as anything in those last three years [in Denver] when he went 24-24.”

Leese said if the Bears choose his former quarterback, they will know exactly what they’re getting.

“No matter what decision he makes, it will be the right one for him,” he said. “He has to do what’s best for him. I know he gets antsy. But no matter where he goes, you know you’re going to get 100 percent from Mike. That’s the way he is. It’s all or nothing.”

Contact Neil Hayes at nhayes40@gmail.com or at neilhayeswriter.com.

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