One of the things they don’t tell you about receiving the honor of a lifetime is that you don’t have much time to enjoy it. The whole thing moves fast. You fly here on a Wednesday and they tell you to cherish every minute, but that can be hard when it’s Saturday and you realize the minutes are flying by.
The cherishing tends to come late at night, after all of the meet-and-greets, the autographs, the applause and even after laughing with the family. Will and Senia Shields stayed up late into the night in their room at a nearby Holiday Inn, physically exhausted but unable to sleep, talking about everything that happened that day.
These are the memories that can stick. Will was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame here on Saturday, part of an eight-man class headlined in very dominant and different ways by Junior Seau and Jerome Bettis.
Shields is different. He’s the introvert who worked himself into a football star, and the football star who worked himself into a real-life hero.
He metabolizes insults, like many athletes, and his best friend thinks induction is the point where he can finally stop feeling slighted by being a third-round pick more than 20 years ago. But he is also a private person who doesn’t need his story to be told, so some of the pomp and circumstance of the weekend feels unnecessary. He’s such a steady person, you know.
Late at night, in that hotel room with his wife, some of that washes away. This is the Hall of Fame, for crying out loud. When Will put on his gold jacket — made, incidentally, by the company his mother used to work for — Senia wished she could have frozen the moment and lived it forever.
The whole week has been a bit like that, really, so it’s good to have those late nights to take inventory — just the two of them, as late as 3 in the morning. They can sleep next week.
“Oh my gosh,” Senia says. “It’s like, ‘How cool is this?’”
Will Shields used his speech in exactly the way those who know him expected him to use it. He thanked people. He thanked teachers and coaches and his children and his parents and his wife.
At one point, he mentioned Coach Madden. That’s Clarence Madden, Shields’ line coach from high school. When he thanked Madden’s wife, Linda, and mentioned chocolate chip cookies, that was a reference to the Lawton High lineman of the week choosing the snacks for Wednesday night film sessions.
When he talked about the Maddens, up popped a picture of the time he took them to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. Shields has always made it a point to thank those who deserve it.
“It takes more than just yourself. It takes a village,” Shields said. “And for me, it was truly a village. Nobody gets to the top by themselves. Someone had to push, prod and pull me through the tough times. Someone helped me walk through the tough steps and be forever grateful.”
That’s always been Shields, and he always played like he lived. Some people have a hard time seeing that. Shields can be quiet. Calculated. It can be hard to see how a man like that can push around some of the biggest and strongest men in the world, but Shields has never been one-dimensional.
There are two very different sides to him. He has always been a nasty competitor, enough that Senia jokes they stopped playing chess against each other to save the marriage.
“He’s always had this switch,” said Adrian Lunsford, a longtime friend and Shields’ presenter on Saturday night. “He kept control of that switch all his life: ‘On the field, I need to do it this way; off the field, I need to do it that way.’”
Shields also had significant physical gifts. He had the reach of a man much taller, and the feet and hips of a man much smaller. And he was so smart and so dedicated. Friends who came to stay with him during his playing days tell stories of being surprised at waking up at 6 a.m. and discovering their host had already gone to work.
Here’s a scene that happened over and over on the sideline: The linemen are sitting together, between possessions, an assistant coach telling them about assignments and strategies and motivation and everything else coaches talk about. Then the coach walks away and one of Will’s teammates speaks up.
“Hey, so what do we need to do?”
Shields was selected to 12 Pro Bowls. Only seven men have ever been selected to more, and only one of them played the offensive line. Shields had to earn everything he got, too. Interior linemen are underrepresented in the hall — particularly interior linemen who were unwanted by their first position coach.
But Shields left no choice. His first game of his rookie year he came in after a teammate was injured, and for 14 years he never missed a start. He was so calm that he would take a nap before games, and so good that when the Chiefs needed a fill-in left tackle for a game in 2000, Shields played the position for the first time since high school and didn’t allow a sack.
Offensive linemen don’t score touchdowns, or sack quarterbacks. The nature of the position makes it hard for moments to stick out as much as consistency, but Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt smiles when he thinks of one particular play.
It’s Shields, having pulled from his guard position, leading Priest Holmes down the field.
“He’s basically outrunning Priest from about 50 yards all the way to the end zone,” Hunt said. “And blocking guys as he goes. He was so athletic.”
Shields hardly mentioned football during his speech. He mentioned coaches and teammates, but always in the context of thanking them for support and guidance.
If you ask Shields what he’s proudest of — a Hall of Fame career or an exemplary life of charity off the field — he does not answer directly. Football gave him the platform and resources to help people, so the two are entwined. Neither is better than the other.
Shields’ life has been like that. Football is just part of it. Same with thanking his friends and teachers and coaches and family.
“I’m standing here today being honored because of each of you,” he said. “So when the opportunity presents itself in your life, choose to be the difference maker in this village.”
Too much of following football has been about scandal and this has been true for too long. Not just head injuries either. Drunk driving, failed drug tests, the deflation of footballs, the manipulation of testimony about the inflation of footballs.
So much of it is not about football, but an ugly film that seems impossible to wash off. The games remain enthralling, the best and most popular form of sports entertainment in the country, but the rest of it is bad enough that you can wonder why we all care so much.
Lawbreakers will always make more news, but as arrests continue to dominate headlines, here is a man who made 12 Pro Bowls and 231 straight starts without a whiff of controversy.
As the league struggles to address domestic violence, the Hall of Fame just welcomed a man whose foundation has helped thousands and thousands of battered women. Nobody knows how many college students and graduates have been touched by his generosity. Shields never kept track, or at least would never tell anyone if he did.
His is the best kind of football story. Along his path from a childhood in Lawton, Okla., to college in Lincoln, Neb., to pro football fame in Kansas City is a long line of friends and teachers and coaches and children who have modeled his spirit or now lead improved lives because of Shields.
The weekend is now over, no matter how much Will or Senia wanted to freeze a dozen different moments. But the life he now goes back to is even better in the ways that really matter.