A New York State of Mind - Part 2
The Genealogy of a Discus Record
Missed Part 1? Find It Here
Sean Ward Farrell was born May 25th, 1960, in Southampton, NY, on the “East End” of Long Island. He grew up in Westhampton and was a three-sport athlete at Westhampton Beach High School, home of the Hurricanes, an apt name for one connected to the winds and the throws. His dad, Donald, who played football as an end at Columbia, was Chief of Surgery at Central Suffolk Hospital in nearby Riverhead; his mother, Alys Jane (AJ), owned a shop in town called The Sea Shell for almost thirty years and was involved in many local and civic causes. Older brother Lee went on to play football at Syracuse University.
By the time Sean entered high school, he had developed competitiveness to the extreme. As a big, athletic kid at 6’3” and well over 220 lbs, Sean was an All-Long Island nose guard and fullback on the football team. Newsday wrote that “Farrell was usually double and triple teamed on defense.” He also earned MVP honors as a junior on the basketball team, and really enjoyed his spring seasons as a discus thrower and shot-putter on the track team. In 1977, his junior year, Sean’s discus prowess really got noticed when he placed first in the NY State Championships with a throw of 180’-3.” He was fortunate to receive guidance from assistant track coach, John Hanff, himself a former discus thrower.
Sean was recruited for football by some of the major college programs, and by the spring of his senior year was committed to paying big-time football at Penn State. However, he was still concentrating on the throwing events for the Hurricanes and focused on finishing off his final season with a successful run. He had added about thirty pounds in muscle mass and his discus throws were showing the result of that. He was aware of Ken Dietz’s NY State discus record of a little more than 186 feet, which had been set in 1967, having surpassed that of Olympian Al Oerter from 1954. In 1978, Oerter, still competing at age 42, was in the midst of his comeback for an attempted 5th gold medal and was training for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.
On a windy, cool day in mid-April, at the Bay Shore Invitational track meet, Sean Farrell stunned the crowd, coaches and participants with a huge throw of 194’-10” to surpass the old NY State mark by over 8 feet. He then captured first in the shot put as well with a heave of 59’- 3.” So, the torch had been passed. Sean had returned the record to Long Island, where Al Oerter had first possessed it 24 years earlier.
Just like Ken Dietz, Sean was featured in the 4/24/1978 edition of Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd,” for breaking the eleven- year old record. He wasn’t quite finished with his high school discus career, however.
Later in June, Sean was invited to the prestigious Golden West Invitational prep meet in Sacramento, California, his first experience on the national level. He showed that he could rise up in the most competitive of environments and struck discus lightning once again with a throw of 195’- 5.” Having secured a third place finish against the best in the country, the All-American proved that New York State could hold its own. He was the first to break his own record at the state level, and he did this over a two-month interval.
Sean went off to Penn State and became the football team’s first three-year starter at guard since the 1950’s. He had bulked up to 263, could bench-press 520 pounds and became the Nittany Lions’ offensive captain. He was the most decorated offensive lineman in the country his senior year and was a finalist for the Outland and Lombardi Trophies. He was a two-time All-American and Head coach Joe Paterno remarked on his work ethic, “Sean always wants to be the one who lifts the most weights or makes the key block.”
Farrell did not give up on his discus career as he competed for Penn State in his first two years there. With the heavier collegiate disk, he launched a throw at the 1980 Penn relays of 175’-1”, which today is 7th best all-time at PSU and was third best at the time.
In a 12/31/1981 article in the New York Times, Roy S. Johnson wrote of Sean Farrell: “He is an athlete who must suppress his ego in the trenches, where his main rewards are physical. But he does not thrive on the physical aspects. ‘You do have people who go off the deep end with it and play the animal part,’ Farrell said. ‘I am not that way. I never really knew how good I was until it started coming out in the papers. And even then those things sometimes get blown out of proportion and the guy fails. I hope that doesn’t happen to me.’”
Let’s pause and reflect for a moment on that Al Oerter-like humility.
As Farrell’s professional football fortunes were looming closer, he shocked NFL scouts by running the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds. But Sean possessed other qualities that enamored him to the pros. Paterno said, “Those qualities are all in his head.” From high school thru college, Sean was always part of winning teams and, of course, exhibited a “team first” attitude. While he was at Penn State, the football program went 39-9, placed in the final top ten national rankings three times, and won 3 out of 4 bowl games. He was prepared to step right in and play at the professional level on day one.
Sean was drafted at number 17 in the first round of the 1982 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Upon joining the Bucs, the environment was totally foreign from what he was used to. Starting with a draft day mix-up that Sean’s name was associated with (which has been covered elsewhere), the trappings of collegiate Happy Valley became a distant memory. Still, “It was a very good team I joined in ’82 as a rookie,” Sean said. “But after that, from that ’82 draft and then Doug (Williams) departure, it all went downhill completely, and fast.’’ Rising above it all, Sean was selected to the 1982 NFL All-Rookie team.
The Buc’s tight-fisted, fiscally-controlled, nit-picky, penny ante operation was overseen by owner Hugh Culverhouse. The team facility in Tampa was on par with a good high school program. The practice field was adjacent to the departure end of Tampa International Airport with all of the jets doing their “rev-ups” during practice. Players that were awarded game balls during the season would be “dinged 40 or 50 bucks from their paycheck that week,” Sean recounted. He added, ”You’d get orange sweat suits that looked like prison jumpsuits and they’d bill you for those, too. There was no food at the facility so pre-practice we’d drive over to a Wendy’s with our pads on and hands taped just so we could eat something. Even the Coke machine near the locker room, you had to have the 35 cents to buy a Coke. All true stories.’’ Owner Culverhouse was pleased that his team was considered one of the NFL’s most profitable franchises even though Tampa Bay was called the “Sad Sack Bucs.”
Sean liked and respected his coaches and teammates all through his tenure in Tampa and the feeling was mutual. Management was another story. After the 1986 season, Sean had had enough and expressed his desire “to get the hell out of Tampa Bay.” In his five seasons with the Bucs, the team won only 17 games. They went 2-14 three times, including Sean’s last two seasons. This, while he endured one shoulder and two knee surgeries. Incredibly, Sean Farrell was chosen 1st Team All-Pro in 1984.
Sean was traded to the New England Patriots for three draft picks and started at guard for three seasons. In his last, the Pat’s endured a ten-game losing streak and finished 5 - 11. In a cost-cutting move, Sean was put on waivers and quickly picked up by Denver, where he played for two seasons. In 1992, he spent his final year in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks.
Upon his NFL retirement, with the New York State high school discus record still in his possession, it is only conjecture when I write that Sean Farrell may have longed for the day when he had the sun on his shoulders, a discus in his hand and could lean into one more throw; without reliance on ownership, management, coaches, or other players that would negatively impact his performance. It would be wonderful to just focus on his own effort and the tale of the tape to throw a little bit further than the last time. That would be the measure of the man.
Sean had prepared for life after football. In the 1984 off-season, he began his career as a financial advisor, working for various firms on the east coast during and after his time in the NFL. Later, he would return to the Tampa area in the same capacity, but with an additional mission.
In 1986, Sean’s last year with the Buc’s, Gay Culverhouse, daughter of the owner, joined the team as a senior executive. She had earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in special education from Columbia University. With that background, having little to do with football operations, she was called an NFL “misfit.” With whispering behind her back that she was just the owner’s daughter, Dr. Culverhouse became the Buccaneers’ vice president for community relations and eventually president in 1991. She resigned her position in 1994 when her father died, and the team was sold off to new owners. She dropped off the radar for 15 years.
In May 2008, former Buccaneers lineman (1987-1992) Tom McHale, an All-Ivy, All-American from Cornell, died from an accidental drug overdose. McHale was just 45, but his brain was found to have C.T.E., which frequently leads to early onset of dementia. It was one of the early NFL cases. Gay Culverhouse was inspired to come back to the community and compassionately reach out to her Buccaneer veterans to assess this debilitating problem. Every former player she contacted had some form of physical impairment and a high proportion had significant loss of cognitive ability. She set up medical evaluations and testing for her former players and provided financial assistance out of her own pocket.
In October, 2009, suffering from myelofibrosis, a painful, terminal, bone marrow disease, Gay testified before the House Judiciary Committee on football brain injuries and provided an inside, and highly critical, look at concussion management during her NFL tenure. A month later, she formalized her efforts by creating the nonprofit Gay Culverhouse Players’ Outreach Program. Sean Farrell, who had moved back to the Tampa area with Merrill Lynch, had been assisting Gay in helping his NFL and Tampa Bay brethren. Sean was named Vice President of the program and eventually would become Chairperson for the organization.
In 2011, Culverhouse published her pioneering book, Throwaway Players: The Concussion Crisis, from Pee Wee Football to the NFL. Her Players’ Outreach Program became Retired Player Assistance, Inc. (“helping to secure benefits for all pro players”), and she served, until recently, as the Director, Corporate President and Co-Chair. Gay Culverhouse confounded her doctors and continued to fight for her cause more than twelve years past her original life expectancy. She died this past July, 2020, of complications from myelofibrosis.
Sean Farrell keeps a low profile these days, but still remains active as a manager in the investment business on the east coast. In 2002, he was inducted into the Westhampton Beach Wall of Fame for his football accomplishments and, equally, for his All-American throwing career and New York State discus record. This was before he began his untiring work and dedication to bring the C.T.E. issue to light and joined forces with the daughter of the despised owner of his former team. This should provide some keen insight into Sean’s oversized humility and considerable humanity. It’s equally important to note that after Sean left the Buc’s for the Patriots in 1987, the player who replaced him at left guard in Tampa Bay was a rookie from Cornell named Tom McHale. Like Sean, Tom was also a high school discus and shot put thrower at Gaithersburg HS in Maryland.
So, we come to the end of this part of “the discus men of New York State.” The shared “DNA” between Al Oerter, Ken Dietz and Sean Farrell, in addition to the state record, can be best summed up by stealing a quote from the film Gladiator: “Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity.” That is the measure of these men.
Would Sean Farrell’s NY State Discus Record remain on the books, or would the legacy of the throws move on and forward to someone new? That, my friends, will be revealed in the next installment of “A New York State of Mind - Part 3, The Genealogy of a Discus Record.”
A preview to our next episode with a quote from Star Wars:
Obi-wan: “That boy is our last hope.”
Yoda: “No. There is another.”
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