For Caleb Shaffer, Oklahoma is the latest stop on a fascinating life’s journey

For Caleb Shaffer, Oklahoma is the latest stop on a fascinating life’s journey

The transfer offensive lineman has made a deep impression on Brent Venables and the Sooners in a matter of months. Now he’s got a role in OU’s starting rotation.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Oct 23, 2023, 11:00am CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Oct 23, 2023, 11:00am CDT

NORMAN — Caleb Shaffer didn’t transfer to Oklahoma to be a backup. Chuck Martin, the 10th-year head football coach at Miami (Ohio) University, is confident of that.

“I think Caleb wanted to move up and be a starter,” he said of the Sooners offensive lineman who appeared sparingly over OU’s initial six games this fall. “That’s what every kid wants.” 

But Martin is confident of another thing, too, because he knows Caleb Shaffer.

“Caleb is going to make the best of any situation,” he said.

Martin came to understand the talented offensive lineman with an ever-active mind while Shaffer started 35 games at Miami from 2019-22. 

Martin studied Shaffer’s desire to achieve. He witnessed the pressure the Shaffer puts on himself to do it. And he saw the diligence the 6-foot-5, 344-pound blocker brought with him to practice, film study and the weight room, perpetually preparing for the next opportunity.

Shaffer was ready on Oct. 7 when his name got called on the Sooners’ game-winning drive against Texas. On Saturday, opportunity knocked again.

Selected as one five captains in Week 8, Shaffer made his  first OU start during the Sooners’ 31-29 win over UCF, stepping in at right guard for the injured McKade Mettauer. 

On the field for 44 of a possible 79 snaps and splitting time with fellow guard Savion Byrd, it marked another milestone in the football career of the lineman from Carmel, Indiana. With Mettauer’s status still unclear, Shaffer could factor into OU’s plan on the offensive line again at Kansas in Week 9.

To the 83,476 at Owen Field, Saturday could have looked like Shaffer’s football mountaintop; the pinnacle of his climb to the top of major college football. 

Speaking from his perch in Oxford, Ohio, Martin holds a different view. 

For Shaffer, the man who has made a deep impression on Brent Venables and the Sooners in a matter of months, this is only the latest step in a fascinating life’s journey that’s just getting started.

“When the story is written about Caleb Shaffer, there will only be a small chapter on football,” Martin said. “When it’s all said and done, it’ll be a helluva book with a ton of accomplishments.”

Oklahoma Sooners offensive lineman Caleb Shaffer speaks to media during a press conference in Norman, Okla., Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.Ou Sooners Football

Sooners offensive lineman Caleb Shaffer has made a deep impression on Brent Venables and the Sooners with his perspective and his approach to the game. (Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman/USA TODAY Network)

‘He’s just different than most guys I’ve coached’

Shaffer’s old head coach used to take him to eat Chinese food when his mind needed a break. 

Last week, his new head coach gushed about a transfer who arrived in January, found a role and settled seamlessly into his program culture.

“He has an amazing perspective,” Venables said. “He’s thankful for everything and it starts probably when he leaves his apartment in the morning.”

It’s a mindset Shaffer molded over four years at Miami. Ahead of Saturday’s start, Shaffer offered an insight into the perspective he found on his path from freshman starter to his emergence as one of the RedHawks’ most versatile and reliable blockers. 

“It was four years of failing my way to the top. Learn, mess up. Learn, mess up. Get up and just keep attacking it every day,” he said. 

“Coming here to OU the standard (feels like something) you can’t reach … but you’ve just got to keep coming in here every day and doing everything you can to be your best.” 

Shaffer carries a certain poise with him. 

The Sooners have seen it since he stepped onto campus in the offseason. Upon settling in Norman, Shaffer set out to meet everyone in the team facility. Not just teammates; he wanted to know the athletic trainers, nutritionists and everyone else who makes the program go, too.   

“He’s just different than most guys I’ve coached,” Martin said. “He’s a very unique person.”

Martin figured that out the moment he began recruiting one of the team captains at Carmel High School.

Shaffer was a first-team all-conference honoree on the Greyhounds’ offensive line. He set the school record for pancake blocks as a junior, then helped lead Carmel to the Indiana 6A state title game in his senior season.

By the fall of 2018, Shaffer was a three-star prospect and the 19th-ranked recruit in the state. 

With 10 scholarship offers including the likes of Purdue, Central Michigan, Bowling Green and Toledo, he settled on Miami and committed four of his formative years to the quaint campus in southwestern, Ohio, starting in the fall of 2019.

“Being at Miami — it gave me the foundation to just show up every day and work,” Shaffer said.

Pressure to succeed

Shaffer happens to be an appreciator of history. Miami had tons of it. 

President George Washington signed the Act of Congress that granted the land the university has existed on since 1869. The poet Robert Frost is said to have called it “The most beautiful campus that ever there was,”. There’s 22 conference title trophies sitting in the RedHawks’ trophy case.

Martin added a “big, talented kid,” when Shaffer joined the program and he found fast footing operating at both guard spots in his freshman season.

Shaffer played in 12 games and started the last seven during his debut campaign in 2019, then rotated at guard and tackle across three starts in the Covid-shortened 2020 season. He allowed one sack on 757 snaps in 13 starts at left guard in his junior year.

Shaffer added 12 more starts last fall. Altogether, across four seasons, 41 games and 2,258 snaps, the stumbling block that tripped Shaffer most frequently was the exceedingly high bar he set for himself — “four years of failing my way to the top,”  — in a sport that doesn’t allow anyone to be perfect.

He always put pressure on himself,” Martin said. ”That’s a great thing; it’s what makes him special … but Shaff’s biggest thing was finding the balance between not caring enough and not caring too much.”

Martin eventually developed a sense for when the load was beginning to weigh on Shaffer. 

That’s when he’d take Shaffer and his son Max for their monthly trip to Mimian, a family-owned Chinese restaurant in Oxford. They’d all eat together under one, simple stipulation.

“The only rule we had was you couldn’t talk about football,” Martin said. “We’d get away and talk about life.”

The meals and the conversations that carried them immersed Martin in the offensive lineman who always told him he was much more than just a football player, even on the days the sport loomed over Shaffer most. 

“Caleb is an incredibly well-rounded person,” Martin said. “He was like that when I met him in high school. He’s a much deeper thinker than most of us.”

Miami (Oh) Redhawks head coach Chuck Martin runs onto the field before the NCAA football game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Miami RedHawks at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

Miami (Ohio) head coach Chuck Martin came to understand Caleb Shaffer, the football player and the person, in their four years together with the RedHawks.(Carter Skaggs/The Enquirer/USA TODAY Network)

Finding balance

Meals at Mimian gave Shaffer balance at Miami. He’s finding it in other places in Norman this fall.

For one, Shaffer has almost eliminated social media from his phone since mid-September. He says he only checks in once or twice a week. He’s learning new stretching routines and following guided meditations, too.

On Shaffer’s night stand right now is “Five Families,” Selwyn Raab’s New York Times bestseller that chronicles America’s most powerful mafia empires. OU’s right guard sees analogs in John Gotti and Al Capone, a pair of history’s most infamous organized crime bosses.

“They weren’t the best guys, naturally,” Shaffer explains. 

“A lot of these guys grew up in New York as immigrants with next to nothing. They made a decision when they were little: My situation’s not going to stay like this. I can change my situation.”

In March, Shaffer stated that he only intends to spend one season at OU. Sometimes he thinks about what he’ll do after football. 

Martin wonders, too.

Shaffer holds a degree in sports management and a minor in general business from Miami. He’s thought about becoming a sports agent or an NFL scout; “I just want to find a job that’s able to utilize my gifts — relationship building, connecting with others,” Shaffer said.

Growing up, he told people he wanted to become an author. Shaffer had bylines in his high school newspaper.

Martin says his admiration for Shaffer lies with the person first, then the football player who blossomed at Miami before joining the Sooners. 

Of his former offensive lineman, Martin is confident of at least one other thing. 

“If you have a company and you want to make your company better, you hire Caleb Shaffer,” he said. “Your company is better the day he walks in the door.”

“I don’t know if he’s going to be Mother Teresa or a Fortune 500 CEO. He could be either and he wants to do both.”

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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