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Brothers bond Bengals' QB, coach Mikolaichik, Shaffner share painful past

It's as if the two were destined to be in each other's lives.

Buffalo State's hiring of Paul Shaffner as football coach in May 2004 was a good fit for Mike Mikolaichik. The quarterback's skills fit nicely into Shaffner's pro-style offense.

But when Shaffner went over personnel with the leftover coaching staff, he knew there would be something special about Mikolaichik and their relationship.

His staff told him that Mikolaichik possessed strong character. They told him of how, moments before Mikolaichik was to take the field for Buffalo State's homecoming game against Brockport his sophomore year, Mikolaichik found out his younger brother, Matthew, had died in a car accident the night before. Mikolaichik elected to play anyway.

The story hit close to home for Shaffner. For him, it was his senior year in high school and prom night. The Lancaster native was on the way back from a post-prom party at Letchworth State Park when he and his older brother, Robert, were involved in an accident. Robert did not survive.

"When I heard about Mike's story, that's a point in time when your opinions change on people," Shaffner said. "Those are very strong moments in a young man's life and having been through those moments and knowing what a young adult feels, it's very emotional. I'll be honest. I counted my blessings that I had a young man like that at the helm. Of course, we still needed to see if he could throw."

Mikolaichik proved he could throw. He could run the option, too. The Hilton native transferred to Buffalo State from Cortland after his freshman year. He didn't really like Cortland and wanted to be closer to home.

That first year was difficult. The team was suffering from a poor attitude, and a rift between the players and then-head coach Bob Swank was growing wider. Losses piled up.

Then came that Brockport game. Mikolaichik was set to play, pumped up for what's become a heated rivalry between the Bengals and Golden Eagles. Before the game, he saw his father with Swank. That's odd, he thought. Then members of the coaching staff told him he needed to go see Swank in his office. Now. That's odd, too. He would never see the head coach before they both got on the field just before kickoff.

Something was wrong.

"I saw my dad in tears and originally I thought something happened to my mom," Mikolaichik said. "He told me to sit and said there was an accident. And then he said your brother passed away last night. So I immediately dropped to my knees and just started crying. I tried to kind of comfort my dad. I held him for a second and he asked me what I wanted to do.

"My original thought was my family, but I also didn't want to leave the team. I was so close with these guys. I didn't want to leave them, and I know my brother, and he would have wanted me to play. He was one of my biggest supporters who came to every game. He kind of looked up to me. A lot of brothers fight but we had a great relationship. I knew he would want me to play. So I went back to the team."

He couldn't tell you one play from that game, another loss in a 2-8 season. He remembers at one point, in the third quarter, being off by himself. That's about it.

He got through the rest of the season, but it wasn't pretty. Mikolaichik lost weight during his initial stages of the grieving process.

Things got better when Shaffner was hired before the next season. The attitude of players and coaches turned positive. They were learning to believe in themselves. The team improved to 4-6.

This season, Buffalo State lost its opener to Ithaca, 38-21, but the offense looked better. Mikolaichik, now a senior, set a school record for most pass attempts in a game with 53 -- he completed 27 for 276 yards -- while also running for 47 yards. The Bengals outgained Wesley College in Week Two but they allowed points on turnovers and a blocked punt and lost, 45-9.

As much as Mikolaichik was able to grow on the field, more importantly he was able to find a kindred spirit in Shaffner.

"Having this opportunity to work with Mike has allowed me . . . to re-examine a lot of things about my life. I can't explain it, but Mike has helped me deal with my grief," Shaffner said.

"I told Mike this the first time. It will never go away. The pain will always, always be there. And it will be as strong today as it will be 10 or 20 years from now. You just want to find a way to live with it and deal with it."

"I came in one time with that question (does the pain go away) because I had trouble going home, and being at home is tough for me," Mikolaichik said. "He gets me through a lot of that and tells me things I can do to get through it: you know, go visit the grave. It's tough for me, but (Shaffner) said go there, talk to him, he'll listen."

"It's hard. You've got to break that ice," Shaffner said. "It's taken me a lot of years, but I think the biggest thing is having someone who is willing to sit and talk with you about it. . . . It's not like talking to mom and dad or to your friends."

Mikolaichik said it's hard for him to talk to his parents. He doesn't want to make them sad. Shaffner can relate.

"I still avoid it with my mother," Shaffner said. "But we just keep moving forward. Every day is a new day. Every day brings new challenges and we'll deal with it as they come."

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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