Coaches, teammates remember Afryl
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois football players and coaches woke up Tuesday morning to devastating news.
Former Illini offensive lineman Shawn Afryl died Monday night during a work-
out at Winona State University in Winona, Minn., the school announced Tuesday afternoon.
Afryl, who played at Illinois from 2010 until 2012, had transferred to the Division II school this summer and was planning on playing this fall for the Warriors.
“In the time Shawn was on campus, he showed a lot of people what a great fit he was going to be, not only for our football program but for our campus as well,” Winona State coach Tom Sawyer said. “He did an excellent job as a counselor during our team camps, and his leadership qualities and maturity were a valuable asset to our successful camps. He will be sorely missed.”
Afryl’s mother, Sue, said her son’s goal was to become a history teacher and coach at the high school level.
“My heart is aching,” Sue Afryl wrote in an online post Tuesday. “The pain is devastating. He had the biggest heart in the world and was a leader with kindness (in his) soul. He was, and is, my hero.”
The cause of Afryl’s death was not immediately known. Phone messages and emails left with Dr. Ross Reichard, Winona County’s medical examiner, and Dr. Peter Lin, Winona County’s assistant medical examiner, were not returned Tuesday.
Afryl, 22, redshirted the 2010 season at Illinois and did not see action in any games during the 2011 season. His lone appearance came in a win against Charleston Southern during the 2012 season.
“He was a great kid,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “He was a total team guy. He was an exceptional young man and very friendly. He was good friends with everybody.”
Hearing Afryl died during a workout left some of his former teammates reeling.
“I’ve seen Shawn get through some tough workouts during my time at Illinois and grind it out,” former Illinois offensive lineman Corey Lewis said. “It excited me to hear that he was trying to play football again, but it’s devastating to hear how it happened.”
Beckman said he first heard of Afryl’s death shortly after he arrived early Tuesday at his Memorial Stadium office.
“It’s going to hurt because it’s part of your family,” Beckman said. “That’s what we’re trying to build here. You have to respond and have to move forward and do the things that are necessary because you know that’s what Shawn would have wanted you to do. Shawn hadn’t been around us as much here lately, but I know he meant a lot to this team.”
Afryl, who played his high school football at Niles West, chose Illinois ahead of Indiana, Iowa and Purdue, among others, as part of Ron Zook’s recruiting class in 2010.
“Shawn was the face of the Niles West football program,” Niles West coach Scott Baum said. “He was what every coach wanted. He was a leader on the field, in the weight room and in the classroom. Everyone knew Shawn when he enrolled at Niles West because he was the big kid from the feeder program. He made the most of his time at Niles West, excelling on the football field and in the classroom. Shawn was our Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the football field, nobody wanted to be around him because he would either knock you down or tackle you, but when he walked the hallways of Niles West, everyone wanted to be around him because he was that guy. He was a true leader. Shawn will be missed.”
Former Illinois co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch recruited Afryl to Illinois.
“He was a really nice kid,” said Disch, who is now the defensive coordinator at North Carolina. “He loved his family and wanted to do them proud.”
Former Illinois tight end Evan Wilson was part of Afryl’s recruiting class at Illinois.
“It’s really shocking,” Wilson said. “You never know the Lord’s plans, but sometimes he takes the best of us a little too early. It’s tragic.”
Wilson said he’ll remember the 6-foot-3, 310-pound Afryl for his size and his good nature.
“He was just so big upper-bodywise that the first time I saw him, I didn’t know if he could fit through the door going sideways,” Wilson said. “Shawn was just a great guy. He was always a happy, go-lucky guy who always had a positive outlook.”
Lewis echoed Wilson’s sentiments.
“Never did he pout or complain,” Lewis said. “He just continued to work hard in trying to become a better football player. He knew he needed to stay ready. He was a great teammate and a great O-line brother. He never gave anybody a problem.”
Former Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase first met Afryl on his recruiting visit to Illinois before the two were teammates for three seasons.
“I remember how excited he was to get the opportunity to play at Illinois,” Scheelhaase said. “He was always a guy that everybody definitely enjoyed being around. It’s just one of those deals where you’re shocked and surprised, and you look back on and reflect on life because you never know how it’s going to happen. I’m just saddened.”