MONTICELLO — William Shearer may have stood 5-foot-8, but at the 2002 Kentucky boys' high school state basketball tournament he was a big man.
A the ripe old age of 25, Shearer had pulled a Kentucky high school basketball Triple Crown. He had participated in the Sweet Sixteen for Wayne County High School in three different ways — as a team manager (1989), a starting point guard (1994 and '95) and as a first-year assistant coach (2002).
The thing left to do, Shearer said in March, 2002, was to make it back to the state tourney a fourth way: As a head coach.
By all rights, Shearer should have had decades ahead to make that dream happen.
Yet not even two years later, one day Trent Owens, Shearer's childhood best friend and former Wayne County teammate, answered his phone to hear William sobbing.
Says Owens: "He said 'I've got colon cancer.'"
It is possible — maybe — that other people have loved a high school as much as William Shearer loved Wayne County. It's hard to imagine anyone ever loved a school more.
Growing up, the high school was practically William's home. His dad, Joe, was the Wayne County athletics director. His mom, Carol, taught high school math.
William's older brother, Jeffrey, was a backup guard on the 1989 Cardinals basketball team of Coach Rodney Woods that made a Cinderella run to the state finals before losing a two-point heartbreaker to PRP.
On the bench, a sixth-grade manager soaked up every minute of that enchanted March. "About as special as it gets," William told the Herald-Leader in 2002. "I remember everything about it."
William's foremost dream was to do what his brother had done, wear the Wayne County jersey as a player in the Sweet Sixteen.
Problem was, William never really grew. To compensate for what he lacked in size, the 5-8 guard had to rely on guile, grit and a competitive fire that burned white hot. He played so hard, the Wayne County coaches started calling him The Little Warrior.
William became one of the premier defensive ballhawks ever to play high school hoops in Kentucky. Until Shelby Valley star Elisha Justice broke the mark in 2010, William's 449 career steals were the state record.
That all-time basketball cliche about a coach on the floor? It fit William to a T. Former Wayne County star David Phillips went on to be a college standout at Tennessee-Chattanooga, playing on a team that reached the NCAA Tournament round of 16 in 1997.
"I played with some really good point guards in college," Phillips said. "But I don't think I ever played with a better leader as a point guard than William. He'd get on guys if they weren't playing hard. He ran the show."
As part of a junior-dominated team, William helped Wayne win the 1994 12th Region title. The Cardinals lost in the Sweet Sixteen first round in Freedom Hall to Frank Lee and Boyd County.
The next year, a senior-laden Wayne roster vowed to do more. The Cardinals made it back to the state tournament, William scoring 23 points in a 12th Region finals victory over Pulaski County.
Yet in the Sweet Sixteen first round in Rupp Arena, Scott County used a late run to beat Wayne 60-53. In his final high school game, William had 15 points and four steals, but also eight turnovers.
"I don't know that he was sad as much as mad," Jeffrey Shearer says of his younger brother. "He really thought they had a chance to do something that year. It bothered him that his group never won in the state (tournament)."
William entered college planning to be a dentist. By the time he graduated from Lindsey Wilson, he had switched his career path to education. Once that happened, there was exactly zero doubt at which high school he would work.
The classroom at Wayne County where he taught science was next to his mom's math class.
When the school day ended, it only seemed like William was coaching every single sports team the school system fielded.
He coached middle school basketball. He was on the bench with the JV and varsity hoops teams. In 2002, Wayne County launched a high school girls volleyball program. William had zero experience with that sport. Didn't matter. He took that head coaching job, too.
"He was Mr. Wayne County," says Woods, the long-time Wayne boys' hoops head coach and a former University of Tennessee guard. "He went to all the games that he wasn't coaching in, too."
William bought a house in the Monticello neighborhood where his parents lived. As families are wont to do, William's hoped he would marry. "He said he hadn't met the right one yet and he would know it when he did," Joe Shearer says.
Early in the 2003-04 school year, William started passing blood.
Eventually, he came to the University of Kentucky Hospital for a colonoscopy. After it was over, he stopped by the Lexington home of Owens.
"He thought he might have irritable bowel syndrome, maybe colitis at the worst," Owens says.
Some three or four days later, Owens' phone rang. It was William.
"When I picked up the phone and he was crying, I knew it was bad," Owens said.
As scary as colon cancer sounded, everyone figured William wound vanquish the Big C.
"I thought he would right up to almost the end," says Carol Shearer of her son.
Says Phillips: "You had to know William. He was so feisty. I thought he'd beat it."
In Monticello, William's sister, Allison, moved into his house to help look after him. When he would come to UK's Markey Cancer Center for treatment, he would often stay with Owens.
As boys, they had played basketball on each other's home goals, had epic ping-pong battles in Owens' basement and played Nintendo deep into many a night.
"I think he told me the things he didn't want to scare his family (with)," Owens says. "One time he told me 'I'm not afraid of dying, but I dread the things that lead up to it.'"
William had surgery, took radiation treatments and chemo and, for a while, it seemed he actually had whipped the cancer.
"It went into remission, he was clean," Woods said. "I thought he had beaten it."
When the cancer came back, it came back with ferocity.
It spread into William's lymph nodes, got into his liver. William had to leave his eighth-grade basketball coaching position midway through the 2005-06 season.
"I think he tried to shield us from a lot of what he was going through," says Allison Heatherly of her brother. "He suffered a lot in silence, I think."
There was no history of colon cancer in William's family. He had every reason to ask why me? William had grown up in the Baptist Church, had long been active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Faced with an affliction that would have tested the faith of John the Baptist, William never questioned God.
"I think I'm the one he might have talked to about something like that," says Owens. "But he didn't. He didn't lose his faith."
The last five weeks of William's life were spent inside the Markey Cancer Center at UK. He just kept getting weaker.
Woods was in Rupp Arena as a spectator for the 2006 Boys' Sweet Sixteen when his cell phone rang. That same day, Owens was in the back of a car headed to Rupp for the tourney when he got the same call.
William's in bad shape.
Traffic was so bad, Owens got out and walked to the Markey Cancer Center to be there for his friend one final time.
It was March 16, 2006.
"I got there," says Owens, "and about an hour later, he died."
William Shearer was 29.
The implications of a life cut so short are always difficult to fathom. Start with the unnatural act of parents forced to bury a child.
Of his five nephews and nieces, William Shearer didn't live long enough to meet three.
William never had the chance to marry and have kids of his own.
Says Trent Owens: "William just got cheated out of so much of his life."
It is of far less gravity, of course, but we'll never know what arc William's coaching career would have taken. The guy who participated in the Kentucky boys high school basketball tournament as a manager, a starting player and an assistant coach never got the chance to see if he could make it as a head man.
We do know this.
The young coach who signed on to start girls volleyball at Wayne County in 2002 even though he knew nothing about the sport won six matches his first year.
Over the next three seasons, William's volleyball teams won 28, 30 and 23 times.
In the first season after he died, the program he started from scratch went 29-6, won the 12th Region championship and made the state tournament.
The players from the 2006 12th Region champs all signed a volleyball for the coach who didn't get to make the trip to state with them. To this day, it sits in Joe and Carol Shearer's basement.
Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3230, or firstname.lastname@example.org.