Shields, unshielded

As he enters the Hall, Will Shields opens up about the journey that led him there

Getty Images

CANTON, Ohio – Will Shields arrives in Canton Wednesday evening with his wife, Senia, and there’s something that feels a little bit out of place for him. In three days, he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame? He never thought about the Hall of Fame. Heck, he never thought about ANYTHING except the next game, the next play, the next block.

See, there was a word people used all the time when they talked about the football player Will Shields: “Professional.” It’s a pretty bland word, if you think about it. At its core, it simply means someone who gets paid for an activity as opposed to doing it for a hobby. Professional fisherman. Professional golfer. Professional race car driver. That sort of thing.

On the next level, perhaps, it means something more – professional comes to represent someone who does expert work. That’s a professional paint job. We need a professional to fix the leaky sink. We can’t handle this problem by ourselves, we must get a professional.

But with Will Shields, “professional” meant more than all that. It was a vibe he extended, an energy that radiated from him. This man did what needed to be done, day after day, week after week, year after year, and everyone around him watched with muted awe. He played the most unnoticed position on the football field, offensive guard … guards might as well play in camouflage. And yet he played every week with zeal and equilibrium. He never missed a start, not one. He never said a word about himself, he never griped about an injury or an opponent’s foul play. He never made an excuse or offered a detailed explanation, he never spoke a negative word about a teammate or coach. He never showed up unprepared for a game or a practice or even a meeting.

Yes, when people talked about Will Shields in Kansas City, around the AFC West, around the NFL, they kept repeating that word. Professional. Will Shields is a professional. No, he’s a consummate professional. He’s a pro’s pro.

So he arrives in Canton to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there with John Unitas and Tony Dorsett and Jim Brown, there with his contemporaries like Jerry Rice and John Elway, there with his rivals like John Randle (“Unpredictable, never knew what he would do,” Shields says) and Hall of Fame classmate Junior Seau (“He just never stopped,” Will says). It’s humbling and baffling and, more than anything, confusing.

“I did get to see this a couple of years ago when (former teammate) Willie Roaf went in,” he says when he arrives. “It’s so strange though that it’s happening to me now.”

* * *

A Will Shields story: When Will retired from football, Senia (prounounced SEN-ya) asked him where he wanted to go on vacation. Finally, after all these years, all those collisions, all that grueling work, he was finally free to go anywhere in the world he wanted to go. So where would it be? China? Africa? Australia?

“Hawaii,” Will said.

Senia looked at him as if he was mad. Hawaii? Did he really say Hawaii? The family – Will, Senia, their three children Sanayika, Shavon and Solomon — had been to Hawaii practically every year since Will became a professional football player. He had been elected to a dozen Pro Bowls, for crying out loud. The trip to Honolulu was an annual event on the family calendar.

“Hawaii?” she asked him. “We’ve been on vacation to Hawaii 12 times already.”

“No,” Will quietly corrected her. “YOU have been on vacation in Hawaii 12 times. … I was working.”

* * *

The first thing Will Shields wants to do when he gets to Canton is understand the landscape. This is how Shields’ mind works. What is my job here? What is expected of me? What can I do to exceed those expectations?

The wonder of Pro Football Hall of Fame week is that it blends the biggest and most lucrative sport in America with a sort of quaint 1950s Americana. Inductees stay at the Holiday Inn on Everhard Road. It is next to the Bob Evans Restaurant. Two people stand outside to keep autograph seekers away, though there do not appear to be too many autograph seekers. The hotel is also under construction.

When he arrives, he receives an itinerary with a long list of events – many of them are stamped “MANDATORY.” He also receives a few small gifts including a special Hall of Fame tie.

“Am I supposed to wear this tie for the induction?” he asks Senia.

“I don’t think so,” she says.

“I’m not going to wear it,” he says. “I’ve already got it all worked out, what I’m going to wear.”

He is officially Will Shields III. The first Will Shields was a Texas farmer whose toughness remains legend in the family. Will Shields Jr. – Will’s father – was an army man; he once went to Germany alone for three years so that his family could have a normal life in Lawton, Okla. He called home every single night. Even today, Will Jr. will show up 10 minutes early for everything and when his son invites him to meet the family at a restaurant or an event, he will go to the place the night before to make sure he know what it’s all about. The family calls it his recon missions. Put it this way: Will Jr. knew everything there was to know about Canton long before his son even thought about logistics for this Hall of Fame trip.

So, yes, absolutely, Will Shields III carries the discipline that came with his name. He jokes that now he’s not disciplined at all, but Senia scoffs at the notion. Discipline was always his most powerful weapon. He will tell you: He was a pudgy kid in school. The others kids liked to pick on him. He threw himself into football. He left Lawton to go play at Nebraska, which may be a high crime in the state of Oklahoma, but Shields never saw it that way. He was too practical to allow something as unpredictable as college football passion to influence his choice. Instead, he dispassionately broke down the pros and cons. For instance, some schools wanted him to play defense. In order to play defense, he would have to lose a little weight. That was a con. In order to play offense, however, he would have gain weight. That was a pro.

“I find,” he says now, with a smile on his face, “it’s a lot more fun to go in that direction.”

Nebraska wanted him for offense. Nebraska was famous for developing great offensive linemen. Nebraska felt comfortable to him. Tom Osborne felt like the right head coach. It was the right place. He didn’t just sense it. He KNEW it. Like always, he had done his homework.

“My high school coach is coming,” Shields says as he stands in the lobby of the Holiday Inn. “Coach Osborne is coming. I’m not sure who else is coming. I can’t keep up. It’s overwhelming.”

* * *

A Will Shields story: Well, first a story about my friend Mike. He was an offensive lineman in college, at Kansas State, and he was actually pretty good. I say “actually” because Mike is a humble guy, and he would never let on that he was pretty good.

For instance, there is the story he tells about playing Washington and their superstar defensive lineman Steve Emtman. It would be hard, perhaps even impossible, to recapture the aura of Steve Emtman in college, before injuries wrecked his NFL career. You would hear tales about Emtman’s feats of strength and swear they came out of Marvel comic books. The guy was the first pick in the NFL draft, winner of every lineman award imaginable, and he even finished fourth in the Heisman voting.

Mike wasn’t often responsible for blocking Emtman – Emtman was an interior defensive lineman at Washington then, and Mike was a left tackle who usually blocked defensive ends. But on one play, Emtman came looping around on a stunt, and Mike found himself face to face with the Incredible Hulk.

Emtman picked Mike up, discarded him like an empty McDonald’s bag and went after the quarterback.

Later, Mike found himself on the sideline getting screamed at by the offensive line coach. He understood the sentiment but in his mind he was thinking, “Coach, the guy PICKED ME UP. I mean, what do you want me to do?”

While at Nebraska, Will Shields also played against Washington. Emtman’s legend had grown to the point where Shields thought coming in, “What’s the point? This guy can’t be blocked.” And for the whole first half, Emtman manhandled Shields, toyed with him, made tackle after tackle. Shields went to the locker room at halftime and felt a new rage, something he never felt before.

In the second half, Will Shields hit Emtman, and hit him, and hit him and hit him – so hard, so often, with such force – and toward the end of the game, Shields saw something that he could have never expected. He saw Steve Emtman raise his hand to the sideline. He wanted out of the game.

“After that,” Shields says, “I told myself: ‘Don’t ever do that again. Don’t ever think someone is better than you.’”

* * *

He has so much to do in Canton. There is a media session at the local high school. There are community events throughout. There are a few parties, including a couple at the Holiday Inn. There is a parade through Canton, though Shields feels like he’s on parade all the time, every moment someone else walks up to him. He is sitting at a table in the restaurant when he turns, and there’s Dick Vermeil, his old coach, walking up.

“Big guy,” Vermeil says as he hugs Shields. “I am so proud of you.”

The attention stirs him and it also embarrasses him. He prefers silence. People often misunderstand Will Shields’ quietness. He often will find that he must go up to friends at parties or small gatherings and just say, “Hey, I’m not mad at you.” There’s an intensity that comes off him, like steam. He doesn’t mean to intimidate, at least not most of the time. “I like silence,” he says. “I have all my life.”

He tells a story about one time when he was not silent – that was during his first meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs. Those were confusing times for Shields. He had won the Outland Trophy at Nebraska as college football’s best lineman. He was a consensus All-American. He was the force behind a Cornhuskers running attack that had two thousand-yard rushers and averaged more than 300 yards per game. In other words, he had done every single thing he could have done.

And pro scouts were uninterested. Well, they had been burned by Cornhuskers offensive linemen before. Dave Rimington, Dean Steinkuhler and Mark Traynowicz had all been high draft picks, and none had quite worked out. The word was out that Nebraska linemen couldn’t pass block, that they were simply well-used pawns in the Osborne system.

In total, NFL teams would choose 11 offensive linemen in front of Will Shields in the 1993 draft. He and his future Chiefs teammate Willie Roaf were the most accomplished offensive linemen in college football, but teams took SIX guards before finally getting to Shields. The list included guards Lester Holmes, Ben Coleman, Todd Rucci, John Gerak, Joe Cocozzo and Mike Compton. The Chiefs took Shields midway through the third round, almost as an afterthought.

Why did the Chiefs take him? Well, the team decision makers – general manager Carl Peterson and coach Marty Schottenheimer among them – met with Shields at a college all-star game. They explained to him the many knocks on him. “Basically,” Shields says, “they told me that I wasn’t the biggest, I wasn’t the fastest and I wasn’t the strongest.”

“Prototypes,” Senia says, and you can tell by the way she bites off the word that it isn’t one of her favorites.

The Chiefs told him about a guard they had just signed. They told him how difficult it would be for him to fight through and earn playing time. They hinted that his greatest ambition might be as an NFL backup. It was a thoroughly dispiriting meeting.

And Shields – this is the part that still shocks him – finally looked up and said: “I’ll be a starter. I’ve never been a backup in my whole life. I plan on breaking into the starting lineup.” He could feel the temperature in the room drop just a little.

“They had me under the lights,” he says now, and he’s smiling. “I felt like I was being interrogated. All the coaches are standing against the wall staring at me. … I think that was the most confidence I ever had in a meeting, ever. But it was the only meeting I had with any of the pro teams at all during that whole process so I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to tell them something.’”

When the Chiefs took him in the third round, Shields felt one overwhelming ambition: He was going to make every one of those teams pay for their lack of faith. He understood why fans might not notice the excellence of an offensive guard – they’re too busy looking the other way – but he could not understand how PROFESSIONALS could miss just how much he brought to the game. “I’m not going to lie,” he says. “It pissed me off.”

In Will Shields’ first game as a Kansas City Chiefs player, guard Dave Szott got hurt. Will Shields went into the game. He started every single game for the rest of his career.

* * *

Getty Images

A Will Shields story: Have you ever sat through the comically long credits of a Pixar movie? It’s an astonishing thing to do – it makes you realize just how many people it takes to create that sort of movie magic. It is similarly astonishing to see the long list of Will Shields charities. He and Senia have dedicated themselves to what they have broadly divided into three categories: abused and neglected women and children, literacy and scholarships and improved creativity. As you might guess, each of those categories branches out in to dozens and dozens of charities. Shields as a player did so much good that in 2003 when he was finally elected NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year, people around the league wondered: What the heck took so long?

What took so long is that Shields was an offensive guard, the most anonymous of positions. He was the first guard to ever win the award. It mostly goes to quarterbacks, linebackers, running backs and so on.

In time, Shields’ overwhelming dedication to people in need – I’ve never known any athlete more dedicated – was so blindingly obvious that they gave him the award. His heart shined through.

All of this is kind of a funny thing because, as mentioned, Will Shields was anything but a touchy-feely guy. He played football with a deeply felt intensity. His wife and children used to wave to him from the crowd, and they would often ask why he didn’t wave back. So, against his better judgment, he did wave back in two games. Both times, the team played lousy. Both times, Shields felt like he played lousy. He never did that waving bit again.

After games, he would glare as he dressed. Reporters and camera people would gingerly walk up to his locker, see that glare, and quietly sulk away hoping they weren’t noticed. I should know because I was one of those people. It wasn’t just reporters either; teammates were sometimes scared to death of him. One teammate told me that one day Shields would be friendly and open and the next, well, it was like he’d never seen you before in his life. I can tell you that Will Shields was one of my favorite ever people to cover. And, I can tell you, more than once he told me to get the heck away from him.

But this person around children – he was magical. He would fold his giant body somehow to make himself their size. He would read to them. He would buy them Christmas gifts. He would help them find new shoes. It was incredible the depth of heart. “Yes, he has always loved being around children,” Senia says, and then she looks to Will and they both smile as they anticipate the often-repeated punch line. “It was adults that were the problem.”

So the story: I saw Will Shields at a charity event with children this one time, and the kids were surrounding him like usual. Only he would not smile. That was what struck me. Shields just would not smile. He meant nothing by it. He had no idea how intimidating he could look. Here he was playing with the kids, talking to them, helping inspire them to read. He was doing what he always did; trying to make the world a little bit better place. But he still wasn’t not smiling.

“Smile,” Senia whispered to him at one point. “You look so much gentler when you smile.”

“Oh yeah,” Will said. “I keep forgetting.”

* * *

The high school marching band walks through McKinley High School in the moments before the Hall of Fame inductees arrive to talk to the media. “Keep it quiet,” the bandleader says. “Understand what is happening here.”

What is happening here is that some great football players and minds are reminiscing about how they got here. This isn’t something that comes naturally to Will Shields. Part of of being a professional was just doing the job well without spending time to look back or forward. I’ve written about Will Shields for 20 years. Only now does he tell me about the notebooks.

In the Shields household, there are shelves of notebooks where Will Shields scribbled down his plans of attack on the football field. This was the part that nobody but Senia and the family could ever know. See, Shields realized that, clichés aside, he really wasn’t the biggest, the fastest or the strongest. He understood that game after game he would face defenders with otherworldly athletic gifts, and he would face Gordian blitzes designed to pop the fuses in his brain, and he would face an intensity and violence that few of us can understand. He was not superhuman like other offensive linemen. His only counter to the impossibility of being an NFL offensive lineman was to be ready for everything.

So, he would write down everything. He would write down tendencies he saw in opposing players, of course. This guy would have his right foot back two inches when he was pass-rushing. This guy would tilt his head a little bit differently on running plays. Shields says, without hesitation, that the toughest player he ever faced was Minnesota’s John Randle because the guy was unpredictable. You never knew exactly what he was about to do. That was the sort of thing that threw Will Shields. Almost everybody else had a tell of some kind.

But those notes went beyond individual tendencies. He would write down how different defensive coordinators tried to attack. He would go back in family coaching trees and write down the strategies of the coaches who TAUGHT those defensive coordinators. He would write down what every single other player on his team was supposed to be doing – every year, he would copy down the entire playbook just so he could have it. He would scribble down little tricks he learned along the way, small maneuvers that worked against certain kinds of players, blocking schemes that failed miserably.

And after all that, nobody was better prepared to play a football game than Will Shields. He didn’t jump offsides. He didn’t hold. He didn’t miss assignments. He had his teammates’ back (and his quarterback’s) when things went awry.

When coaches had their strategy meetings, Shields already knew everything they were going to say. When teammates on the offensive line got in trouble, Shields had already seen it coming and knew exactly how to help out. For 14 years, he was the rock.

The Chiefs were a Marty Schottenheimer power-running team when he began; his first running back was Hall of Famer Marcus Allen, and his first quarterback was the incomparable Joe Montana. The Chiefs were a Dick Vermeil high-flying offense in his later years; he and Willie Roaf anchored an offensive line that mashed defenses and powered the highest-scoring offense in the NFL. He played through injuries of all sorts – broken bones, torn ligaments, pulled muscles. He once busted up his hand so badly that he had to wear a giant cast during practice. On Sunday, he had the cast removed, he opened his gnarled hand and he played football. He was a professional.

“Yeah, there was some pain,” he says without emotion.

“He’s paying a price,” Senia says. They look at each other knowingly. There will be no excuses and there will be no complaints. There never were.

“I loved playing football,” he says.

* * *

Will Shields is not looking forward to his speech. It isn’t that he’s nervous about it, not exactly. It’s just that, well, the speech is only six minutes long. And, really, what can he do in that time?

“You can’t create a manifesto in six minutes,” he says. We have been talking for a long time about everything from his wedding (“He just called me up and said, ‘What are you doing today?’” Senia says. “I said, ‘Nothing.’ He said, ‘Do you want to just go down and get a marriage license?'”) to the way coaches screamed at him (“It’s really strange, but I didn’t even think about it anymore,” Will says) to his first offensive line coach Alex Gibbs (“He didn’t want Will and didn’t think he could play,” Senia says).

“The speech just is what it is,” Shields says. “I just hope I can thank everybody.”

The week flies by, just like Shields knew it would. He has been told by Hall of Famers that the time you REALLY enjoy the Hall is the year after you’re inducted. Then you get to come back and there are few events, no responsibilities, no anxiety. You can just walk around, somewhat unnoticed, and talk football. And you can see your bust there in the Hall of Fame with all the greats.

“I’m looking forward to that,” he says. “I see this week as just a blur.”

Together, they go to the event, and they try to relive every moment the night offers, commit it all to memory. The blur pauses for one second when he puts on the gold jacket just before he gives his speech. That’s when it becomes real.

“It is like seeing your best friend get what you always knew that he deserves,” Senia says.

He is wearing the NFL tie, of course, because he’s a pro. One of his best friends Adrian Lunsford, who has been playing football with Will since they were both in the fifth grade, presents him. And then he stands up on the podium, behind the lectern, and he gives, well, a professional speech.

“It takes more than yourself,” he says. “It takes a village of people. With me, it was truly a village because no one gets to the top by themselves. Someone had to push, pull and prod me to the next level, help me walk through the tough steps.”

He does get in a quick jab about Gibbs (“He initially never wanted to draft me”) before crediting Gibbs for teaching him how to be an NFL lineman. He passes along all the credit to his teammates and coaches. “This honor is for you because without you, there’s nothing,” he says. “You guys were my rock. You’re the guys I went to war with every day. And I loved every minute of it.”

* * *

A Will Shields story: In the last month of the 2000 season, with absolutely nothing at stake, Will Shields played left tackle for the only time in his professional career. He was forced to, because the Chiefs had run out of options. They had lost five games in a row, they were out of the playoff chase, they were beat up and despondent. Someone had to play left tackle and everybody else was hurt. Will Shields had to be the guy.

I think of that day as we sit together in Canton and talk about what it all means. Shields is not much for individual accomplishments, of course. “I did not grow up dreaming of being in the Hall of Fame,” he says. “This all just sort of happened.”

I think about that day as he gives his touching and modest speech. On that dreary day in Kansas City back 15 years ago, Will Shields played left tackle and played like a superstar. He didn’t miss a block. The line didn’t allow a sack. He opened up holes for Chiefs running backs. The Chiefs won the game. The win didn’t matter at all. And it mattered completely.

After the game, I went to go talk to Will. He made it clear, in his own inimitable way, that he did not have anything to say. And, for the first time, I understood him a little better. What was there to say? He said everything on the field. All of the preparation, all the analysis, all of the workouts, all of the football dreams, all of the practice, all of the pain, all of the dreams, all of the rage, all of the discipline of his father, all of the love of his family – it was there for everyone to see. You just had to look.

Saturday night, in Canton, Will Shields said “I’m standing here being honored because of you. So when the opportunity presents itself in your life, choose to be a difference-maker in a village.”

And I understand him again and why he wasn’t looking forward to the speech. Words are just words, you know. Will Shields was a difference-maker. He lived it.