Lester J. Sheary '33 (Football, Basketball, Baseball)
Before Lester Sheary coached two future NBA Hall of Famers, he was a star football and basketball player at Catholic University. The student who penned these words about him for the 1933 Cardinal yearbook had it right:
“We have no advance information regarding his activities in the future, but it is certain that the qualities of leadership and dogged perseverance to a cause, plus his thoroughly likeable personality, will assure for him a definite and certain place in the scheme of things.”
Sheary, better known as “Buster,” came to CUA from St. Peter’s High School in Worcester, Mass., in 1929. His leadership skills were apparent from the beginning as he was selected captain of the freshman football and basketball teams. Once he moved up to varsity under new head coach Dutch Bergman, he and classmates Tommy Whelan and Jan Jankowski eventually formed one of the most formidable backfields in college football and Cardinal history. All three are CUA Hall of Famers.
In addition to playing fullback and linebacker, Sheary punted and kicked extra points, and won the team’s inaugural Most Valuable Player Award in 1930. Bergman, also the school’s athletic director, summed up why he established the honor:
“The award is to be presented annually to the most valuable player. The medal is not only indicative of ability, but is significant of loyalty, cooperation, unselfishness, courage and devotion to a cause. It entails playing the game according to the rules, observing the finer spirit of sportsmanship, fighting with an unconquerable spirit, and realizing with every act that the deed is the measure of the man.”
In 1931, after an opening loss to Boston College, the Cards won their final eight games and added three more victories the next season for a school-record 11-game winning streak. Sheary, primarily a blocker for Whelan and Jankowski, complemented Whelan’s dazzling open-field runs with plunges on short-yardage situations.
In a 25-6 victory over St. Francis (Pa.), Sheary, according to CUA’s student newspaper, The Tower,, “did the ‘iron man stunt’ by playing the whole game, giving one of the finest exhibitions ever seen in the District. He was in every play, backing up the line on the defense and taking a few turns at hitting the line when a few yards were needed by the Cardinals.”
Bergman selected Sheary to captain the Cards in a charity football game against Alabama at Washington’s Griffith Stadium on Dec. 12, 1931. The 9-1 Crimson Tide actually played three games that day – each consisting of two, 10-minute halves – against George Washington, CUA and Georgetown. The Cardinals lost their game, 7-0. Proceeds from the exhibition benefited the unemployed struggling during the Great Depression.
Sheary, also nicknamed “The Ripper,” was chosen captain of the 1932 squad by his teammates. The club finished 6-1-1, giving up just 21 points and recording five shutouts. One of its biggest victories was a 19-0 win over what is now known as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the three-time reigning Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association champion.
Following the game, The Tower was singing Sheary’s praise:
“To Captain ‘Bus’ Sheary we must attribute a vast amount of glory as a prominent defensive factor throughout the afternoon. It was ‘Bus’ Sheary who, on many occasions, while playing defensive fullback” – (linebacker today) – “roamed behind the line of scrimmage and tore in at opportune moments to stop dead in their tracks the fast-stepping Chat. backs.
“It was ‘Bus’ who plunged with determined efforts and much success to net many yards for the Red and Black during the game. Again it was this same old, grim, hard-working tiger backfield star that provided a lion’s share of the interference for his running mates.”
“A hard worker, a heady player and an inspiring leader,” The Washington Herald’s Al Costello wrote after the game. “That best describes Capt. Lester John Sheary, Catholic University’s invaluable captain.”
In their final college game, a 25-0 victory over Loyola (Md.) at Washington’s Griffith Stadium, Sheary and Whelan rushed for two touchdowns apiece. Both were selected to The Tower’s all-time Cardinal football first team in 1935.
Following the season, Sheary, Whelan and end Vinnie Fraatz – another CUA Hall of Famer – were selected All-South and played in an All-Star game in Baltimore.
Of Sheary, the school newspaper wrote, “His line-smashing drives and his line backing have been of All-American caliber. His ability as a leader on the field is exemplified by the wonderful record of the past season’s team which he captained. Who can dispute the selection?”
Basketball Star, Too
Sheary also excelled on the basketball court. In a 31-24 upset victory over George Washington in January 1931, he led all scorers with eight points. He was the “outstanding star” of the game, according to The Tower, and “pumped long range goals through the C.U. net every time the visitors came dangerously close to the C.U. total.” He finished the season leading the team in scoring with 118 points (47 field goals, 24 free throws).
As a senior, Sheary helped the Cardinals hold Maryland scoreless in the second half and overtime, turning a 27-10 halftime deficit into a 29-27 victory. The win prompted a 1933 Cardinal student to write:
“Five C.U. men played the entire game, each giving all he had. But to Buster Sheary should go the credit for C.U.’s greatest victory in basketball since 1924. It was Bus who paced the club – cool and calm was the Ripper’s handling of the C.U. attack and defense. Whenever the Redbird five threatened to blow up, the Ripper cleverly took charge and brought them to earth.”
Sheary, who played guard and forward, helped the 1932-33 Redbirds post the team’s first winning season in five years. The Cards (10-4) punctuated their 8-0 home campaign with a 38-27 victory over Wake Forest. Sheary scored a game-high 15 points as CUA raced to a 25-5 lead. According to The Tower:
“Sheary not only played a great role in the offensive end of the game but also was outstanding in defensive tactics, repeatedly taking the ball away from the opposing team.”
Coaching Future NBA Champions
After graduating from CUA in 1933, Sheary coached football and basketball at St. John’s and St. Peter’s high schools in Worcester. He served in the Navy during World War II and became an assistant basketball coach at Holy Cross in 1946. The Crusaders advanced to the eight-team NCAA Tournament that season and became the first New England program to win the National Championship.
Sheary became the team’s head coach in 1948 and led the club to a 19-8 record. Holy Cross won 20 or more games the next five seasons, highlighted by a 27-4 mark in 1949-50; a 24-4 record in 1951-52; and a 26-2 performance in 1953-54. The latter team was ranked third in the nation at season’s end by the Associated Press and captured the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) championship. The NIT of yesteryear was much more prestigious than it is today.
Sheary’s Crusaders advanced to two NCAA Tournaments (1950, ’53) and three NITs (1952, ’54, ’55). His seven-year record as head coach was 155-36 (.812).
Sheary coached three All-Americans at Holy Cross who went on to play for the Boston Celtics: Togo Palazzi and NBA Hall of Famers Tom Heinsohn and Bob Cousy. Heinsohn won eight NBA championships with Boston as a player and two as head coach. Cousy, one of the finest playmakers in NBA history, was chosen to the NBA’s 25th, 35th and 50th Anniversary Teams. He won six titles with the Celtics.
Palazzi was Boston’s first-round draft choice in 1954.
“I played for a great coach in Buster Sheary and got to play with Ron Perry and Tommy Heinsohn,” Palazzi told The Boston Globe in 2005. “We won the NIT Championship in 1954 and took part in three tournaments.”
Multiple Halls of Fame
After leaving his Crusader coaching duties, Sheary retained his job as assistant director of athletics for the Worcester Public Schools, a position he held for 41 years. He worked as an instructor at many of Cousy’s New Hampshire summer basketball camps and coached international goodwill teams.
In 1975, Sheary was inducted into the Holy Cross Varsity Club Hall of Fame. It is one of six halls of fame to count him as a member.
Catholic University Connections
Sheary’s multiple connections to Catholic University are intriguing. Chick Gagnon, who coached him in three sports in high school, became the Cardinals’ head basketball coach for one season (1930-31), Sheary’s sophomore year. After Sheary coached Cousy at Holy Cross, Cousy went on to coach Jack Kvancz at Boston College. Kvancz was CUA’s head basketball coach from 1975-82 and was athletic director when Sheary was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
Mike Lonergan, now the head basketball coach at George Washington, led his Cardinal team to the Northeast Sectional championship at Worcester’s Clark University during the playoff run to the 2001 National Championship. Sheary was living in the city at the time.
Lonergan’s father, Jack, played baseball at Holy Cross during the time Sheary was head coach and helped the Crusaders win the 1952 College World Series.
Sheary died at Holy Trinity Nursing Center in Worcester on Nov. 30, 2001. He was 93.