The boys jumped out the front door and went right down 35th Street toward the fun. On their feet, they could cover the half mile or so in 10 minutes, maybe less, by cutting through some apartments and across 38th. But they were almost never on their feet.
Riding BMX bicycles was everything in small towns like this during the 1980s — wheelies, racing, seeing who could land the longest jump. And on their bikes, the boys could take the trails and cut down their trip by a few minutes, leaving more time for tricks. This is Harold Park, known to area kids as Bicycle Park.
The grass is a little too long, and a rusty muffler lies across the park’s entrance, but Will Shields and Adrian Lunsford came here dang near every day. Shields had his first football practice in this park as a boy. The sport would end up making Shields rich and famous, a career that will be honored with his induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend.
But back then, he and Lunsford were just two kids trying to stick a backflip on their bikes.
“Hey,” Shields said one day, “you want to go to the store and get some chips and a soda?”
“I don’t have any money,” Lunsford said.
“I didn’t ask you if you had any money,” Shields responded. “I asked if you wanted to get some chips and a soda.”
Now a grown man, Lunsford laughs when he tells the story. This is the friend he’ll present at the induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio, on Saturday. Lunsford has a thousand stories like this. Most center around things more important than a bag of chips. Shields once leaned out of a moving truck, for instance, risking his own fall because he saw a friend losing his balance.
There is a sweet charm to the way each man talks of this place, one that focuses on the happy part of a town with two personalities.
Shields originally wanted his kids to present him, but the rules say it can only be one person, and Shields’ children are too competitive to pick just one. For those who know Shields well, though, Lunsford will highlight the same message his kids would have.
Two of the four kids that Shields thinks of as his aren’t his blood. Shields has always been about taking care of others, shared DNA or not, and Lunsford’s history in Lawton makes him a terrific messenger.
Lawton — people here often call it LA, for Lawton America — can be a rough place. When Shields was a boy, his town became temporarily famous for being announced by Johnny Carson as having the country’s highest per capita crime rate. Drugs and violence and gangs aren’t just for big cities.
Lawton High School had the highest rate of free or reduced lunch among the town’s three high schools. Locals knew it as the poor school. But Shields was lucky. Two loving and strong parents. An older brother who taught him to love football and an older sister who taught him to love music.
Others weren’t so fortunate. Shields doesn’t talk about this much, but the difference stuck with him. The experience helped create one of the great philanthropists in sports. This weekend in Canton, he will be honored as one of the best offensive lineman to ever play the game, but back in Lawton, people talk more about the man who grew up to do the work of a saint.
Shields’ foundation has helped thousands of battered women. For nearly two decades, he has sung and handed out gifts to kids at a Kansas City mental health facility. More kids than anyone can count are attending or have graduated from college on Shields’ empathy.
There is not enough space in this newspaper to detail every way he has changed lives, and all of it, in one way or another, started here in Lawton.
“That’s where I was meant to be growing up,” Shields said.
Lawton is a military town. It’s often referred to as the Lawton-Fort Sill community, and the military presence there is enough that most everyone who isn’t enlisted knows someone who is.
The rest of the town is blue collar — middle class or below. The biggest employers have always been the military, the school system and factories — including Haggar, a clothing company where Shields’ mom worked and which makes the gold jackets for Pro Football Hall of Famers.
The size and demographics haven’t changed much since Shields lived in Lawton. Every now and then, a developer will come in with the idea of building up a downtown business district, but it never sticks.
“We don’t have a skyline,” Shields said. “We have a mall. That’s it. And even the mall is probably half full, half empty.”
Shields grew up in a military family. His father was stationed in Germany for three years when Shields was growing up, the type of assignment that often means an entire family moves. But on their father’s decision, Shields and his siblings stayed in Lawton, with their mother.
Maybe it was simpler that way. Maybe stability was the important thing. Maybe Lawton was the kind of place that could complement the structure of home. Shields isn’t sure — he has never asked why they stayed behind.
Shields has always been different. Even back then, he was the one other kids would tell their parents they were with to soothe concerns. And there was plenty to be concerned about. As one childhood friend put it, “We (weren’t) all like Will.”
Some of the boys and girls that Shields grew up with fell behind, lost in the sad cliché of poorer places across the country. But a lot of those kids made it too, perhaps more so than they would have from similar backgrounds in other places.
You see, there are two very different sides of Lawton: the crime that Carson made famous on “The Tonight Show,” but also the structure and love with which Shields grew up.
Shields had friends on both sides of the divide. He also had a personal look at a bridge from danger to compassion, and a childhood that showed him the value of looking out for one another.
Shields is best known as a former football star, the 12-time Pro Bowler who made 231 consecutive starts for the Chiefs. But his life outside football — the stuff that made him just the third offensive lineman to win the NFL’s Man of the Year Award — is also well known.
“I saw so many people helping so many people,” he said of Lawton. “That leaves an impression on you.”
The specifics are harder to uncover, keeping vague the story of how one of sports’ great philanthropists came out of this stark dichotomy of a small town.
Shields will speak about this in generalities but won’t budge when pushed for details. Go ahead, ask. A name. A memory. Anything.
“I don’t know if they want that,” Shields said, smiling. “But if you go down there and you talk to Charlotte, I’m pretty sure you’ll get an idea what I’m talking about.”
Charlotte is Charlotte Oates. Back when Shields was growing up, she was Charlotte Gagliardi, but the kids all called her Mama G.
She was the choir teacher at Lawton High, and it’s informative on a few levels that when a boy showed up to class out of his mind on drugs and threatened her, he was immediately tackled and dragged to the principal’s office by two other students.
“We got you, Mama G,” she remembers one of them telling her.
Oates and Shields were close from the beginning. Oates liked Shields’ sincerity and drive. Shields liked Oates’ warmth and passion. Oates kept a sign outside her room saying “choir students only,” and Shields would duck in to avoid the chaos of high school.
Sometimes Shields would practice. He had a beautiful spinto tenor voice (still does, actually). Sometimes he would do homework in that room. Other days, he and Mama G would just talk. About his friends, about his future, about his frustrations, about girls.
Shields wasn’t the only one who would confide in Mama G, and for his peers, the sanctuary was much more important. Some of them would stay in her room after school, up to a dozen there into the evening, listening to music or talking or playing games. The kids felt safe there. For many of them, home meant stress, or worse.
Eventually, the refuge Oates offered extended beyond the school’s doors. She and her husband had an extra bedroom, and at some point it became like a shelter.
The first was a girl who simply loved it at Lawton High and didn’t want to move for her senior year. Others had darker reasons. One came to Oates’ house with a police officer, telling her: “My brother tried to kill me.” One was kicked out by his dad after coming out as gay. Another was simply left behind by his family, who took off to Florida.
Oates remembers sitting by the pool in her backyard with one young man, the sun and sound of a nearby fountain creating a serene moment.
“You know what I like about it over here?” the boy said. “You can’t hear the bullets.”
Shields never needed that kind of solace. His parents were strong, dedicated and respected. But parents aren’t our only influences, and in this way, Shields saw a generosity in Oates that stuck with him. Lessons that stuck with him. Your workday is not defined by the bell. You always have time to listen. You always have room to help.
Oates is now the principal at crosstown Eisenhower High School. This will be her first year in the new job, and there are a thousand things she needs to take care of, which means she hasn’t had a chance to organize her office, which means she isn’t yet sure where that framed Sports Illustrated story will go.
It’s the Feb. 18, 2007, issue — so long ago that Lou Piniella and Alfonso Soriano are on the cover as the pictures of hope for the Cubs, but back in Lawton it’s timeless. Oates and Shields are in that issue, arms around each other on a full page, both beaming as Oates is introduced as the NFL Teacher of the Year on Will’s letter of recommendation.
“I’m a father today and a husband today and the best person I can be today because of Ms. G,” Shields is quoted as saying.
He doesn’t mention that Oates is the godmother to his kids, one of many role models from back home who have guided him through a wonderful life. She is proud to be part of that. Proud that others are too.
“Have you talked to Bill Shoemate?” she asked.
Bill Shoemate is soft-spoken, his words coming out carefully and thoughtfully and full of Oklahoma drawl. He runs a water park now, but he used to manage a local radio station that broadcast Lawton High football games. Sometimes he did play-by-play.
Shoemate knows his stuff too. He just retired after 58 years of coaching. Football, baseball, basketball, track — all of it at the youth level, often all at once. He taught Sunday school too, and the kids loved him enough that a few went with him when he moved 100 miles away for a short time.
Shoemate and his wife, Helen, had an above-ground pool in the backyard with a deck built around it and all the games a kid could need. They even bought a batting cage. The Shoemates’ home became like headquarters for Lawton kids. Helen Shoemate got really efficient at cooking for a dozen or so ravenous visitors.
“Will was the type, you almost had to beg him to eat with you,” Bill Shoemate said now. “The rest of them, they’d eat like there was no tomorrow.”
Many of those young people needed more than pool games and spaghetti. Many stayed longer than the afternoon, and some for much longer than the weekend. Over the years, in addition to their two sons, the Shoemates have had 17 kids live with them for anywhere from six months to 20 years.
The Shoemates didn’t formally adopt these kids, but they arranged for paperwork allowing them to make medical decisions on their behalf. They raised these boys and girls as their own, calling them sons and daughters. When it was time for prom, Bill Shoemate showed the boys how to tie their bow ties. During the week, Helen Shoemate was there to help with homework.
“Our house has always looked like the United Nations,” Bill Shoemate said.
Just like with Oates, the kids came to the Shoemates’ home for all sorts of reasons. Some were kicked out by their parents. Others left on their own. Shoemate thought they just needed a place to hang out, somewhere safe, away from the stress of violence or hunger or drugs.
The Shoemates’ house became like a factory for second chances in Lawton. One boy was booted from his house by his father, went to stay with the Shoemates and is now a surgical nurse. Another operates retirement centers. Others run nonprofits, or teach, or coach.
James Trapp never stayed with the Shoemates for more than a weekend. He had another guardian — there were a lot of homes with open doors in Lawton — but still spent a lot of time at the Shoemates’ place.
Trapp and Shields played high school football together, part of a remarkably talented group that included at least six future professional athletes. Trapp grew up to be a world-class sprinter — he was an alternate on the 1992 Olympic team — and won a Super Bowl ring as a defensive back with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
Trapp now works for the Buffalo Bills as assistant director of player engagement and does ministry on the side — one more life forever bettered by the warmth of Lawton.
“We didn’t take those notes too meticulously when we were younger, but you reflect back on that as you age,” Trapp says now. “I’ll take that to the day I die. (Bill Shoemate) represented what a man is, what a man should be.”
Shoemate had that effect on a lot of kids. Lawton did too. The town had its dangers, its holes, and like anywhere else, there are kids who fell in. But the dichotomy with so many do-gooders created the ingredients for something beautiful too.
Lunsford has another story he likes to tell about his friend. This was back around 1980 or so, before he knew Shields. One day, Lunsford and his brother hid behind some hedges, armed with dirt clods and their throwing arms.
It was nothing sinister, just boys-will-be-boys stuff, but when Shields rode past on his bike they really put it on him. The next day, Lunsford saw Shields and said hi.
“Yeah, I remember you,” Shields said. “You and your brother were throwing dirt clods at me yesterday.”
Lunsford laughs when he tells this one too. The run-in could have led to a fight. But Shields was so calm. He was not angry and he did not want to punch the boy who just the day before was throwing balls of dirt at him from behind some shrubbery. Even back then, that’s not who Shields was.
We all face moments like this, moments of decision. Try to even the score or move on? Focus on the negative or explore something better? Lawton gave kids more than their share of these moments.
Instead of punching Lunsford, Will Shields smiled. They headed to the park, the beginning of one of the best friendships of their lives.
When to watch
Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony at Canton, Ohio, 6 p.m., ESPN, NFL
NFL Hall of Fame game: Pittsburgh vs. Minnesota at Canton, Ohio, 7 p.m., NBC, Ch. 27, 41