Will Shields was playing college ball in the early 1990s for legendary University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne when he learned one of the most valuable lessons of his life.
“Coach Osborne introduced his TeamMates Mentoring Program,” said Shields on a recent afternoon at his Lenexa 68 Inside Sports fitness, wellness and training facility. “It was an opportunity to make things happen for kids.”
Shields didn’t waste any time emulating his coach’s philanthropic example when in 1993 he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs.
One of his first orders of business was to form the Will to Succeed Foundation, an umbrella 501(c)(3) organization that has helped more than 100,000 individuals — including abused and neglected women and children — with assistance and resources.
“The only problem I faced was to pick the foundation’s mission,” said Shields. “We don’t have a niche — rather we direct and support existing specific initiatives, help other agencies and develop our own unique programming. Women, kids, self-esteem, education, reading, Special Olympics, Operation Breakthrough, scholarships.”
For Shields encouraging, empowering, motivating and transforming people — especially women and children — from an attitude of “I can’t” to “I will” is a priceless opportunity.
“It’s unbelievably fulfilling,” he said.
Shields, who lives in Overland Park, is among a group of former high-profile professional athletes who not only put down roots in Johnson County after retiring from sports but also help people throughout greater Kansas City achieve a better life.
Trent Green and Eddie Kennison, former Chiefs players and Leawood residents, are two of Shields’ peers and athletes who consider some of their greatest achievements to be those off the field.
For these community champions the glare of the cameras, scrutiny by sports pundits, grass-stained jerseys and Monday morning aches and pains have been replaced by the satisfaction and joy of helping others.
Meet the family guys.
A calendar — the old-fashioned desk variety — sits in the middle of the Green family’s kitchen island.
From a distance the blocks on the large sheet of paper look entirely shaded in gray.
On closer inspection the calendar reveals five distinct sets of handwriting filling each day.
Many days are crowded with more than five entries, and tiny notes scribbled at an angle are on others.
“It’s definitely stone age,” chuckled Julie Green, the ultimate keeper of the calendar, scanning a month with her finger. “We haven’t figured out a more efficient method to monitor our schedule — this provides a great visual. Between the kids’ sporting events and practices, Trent’s obligations and my activities, plus the foundation, it’s a constant whirlwind.”
The Trent Green Family Foundation commands a major role in the Greens’ busy life. That’s just fine according to a unanimous show of hands from the five family members as the former Chiefs quarterback and Julie, a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, held court at their south Johnson County home on a recent dreary Monday afternoon.
“Lots of pro athletes have some sort of charitable outlet while they’re playing, and many fold up shop when they’re done in the NFL,” said Trent, who retired in 2009 after playing 15 seasons, including six with the Chiefs. “It was important for us to incorporate giving back to the community into our lives after my football career ended.”
Trent, from St. Louis, and Julie, from Fort Wayne, Ind., decided to stay in Johnson County following his official retirement from football.
“This feels like home for us,” Trent said. “The people, quality of life and opportunities for us to continue the foundation’s work. It’s perfect.”
The couple, their three children and pooches Weston and Bailey, are sprawled in the living room, which overlooks a spacious backyard littered with sports equipment and a fire pit where the Greens cooked s’mores the night before.
Today there’s a rare pause in the action before the family scatters in different directions.
“Weekends are full with the kids’ sports, weekdays are practices and school functions, and our free time is spent on charity work or with friends and family,” Trent said.
This afternoon T.J., a Rockhurst High School junior, is headed for baseball practice.
Trent has a meeting and Julie will run errands.
Derek, a 13-year-old Leawood Middle School student, and second-grader Janelle plop down next to their older brother on the sofa.
Julie, perched on a loveseat next to Trent, surveys her kids with a grin.
“Reminds me of a trip to Los Angeles last year when we all sat on the ‘Modern Family’ set couch,” she said.
Family is the tie that binds the Green clan and was Trent’s impetus to establish the Trent Green Family Foundation.
“Our mission is to connect kids and families to resources and support,” he said. “Everything from health and wellness to education.”
Since its inception in 1999 the 501(c)(3) organization, administered by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, has donated more than $2 million to organizations like Children’s Mercy Hospital, Special Olympics, the YMCA and Project Warmth.
In May the foundation announced its largest initiative to date — a five-year partnership with Kansas City-based Phoenix Family, which offers support for families living in low-income housing communities, to create the HIKE Reading Achievement Program, Trent said.
“The program will provide expert instruction, academic support and educational resources to help instill the key to education for every child in a Phoenix Family community,” Trent said.
The Ronald McDonald House Charities of Kansas City’s Trent Green Golf Classic raised more than $185,000 in June for the nonprofit, which helps reduce the burden of childhood illness on kids and their families.
Trent considers his long NFL career — which includes being only the fourth NFL quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in three consecutive seasons during his stint with the Chiefs — as a fortunate bonus in his life.
He relishes the fact that he can be an asset to the community.
“I am extremely humbled I could play as long as I did,” he said. “Now I’m grateful for family time and our immersion into the foundation.”
T.J., Derek and Janelle volunteer at foundation events — invaluable experiences Trent and Julie are happy to provide.
“We’re a family helping families,” said Trent. “It’s that simple.”
Eddie Kennison is a self-professed man in perpetual motion.
Husband, father, church volunteer, philanthropist, entrepreneur, head of the Eddie Kennison Quick Start Foundation.
A noted college sprinter and six-time All-American, the former wide receiver doesn’t slow down for much, even after a 13-year career of relentlessly pursuing opponents in various NFL franchises, including the Chiefs from 2001 to 2007.
But earlier this summer Kennison relaxed in a comfortably worn leather chair in his Leawood home, hands folded neatly on his lap.
He’s about to take on another role: chef.
“Friends are coming over and I’m fixing dinner,” said Eddie, a cooking aficionado.
The Lake Charles, La., native’s long legs are crossed, and the feet that once pounded Arrowhead’s hallowed turf are clad in a pair of sports shoes from Kennison’s extensive collection.
A well-thumbed copy of popular minister and author Joel Osteen’s daily meditation book sits on a table next to a fragrant burning candle.
“I get up at 4 or 4:30 and sit here before starting the day,” Eddie said. “I read, be quiet. It’s my prayer and meditation time.”
It’s a setting far removed from the well-documented frenzy of Arrowhead, where he played in front of 84,000 screaming KC fans.
Or as Kennison likes to say, “had the opportunity to entertain.”
When Kennison signed with the St. Louis Rams in 2008 and then retired two years later, the family decided to stay in Kansas City.
“We’ve lived here for more than a decade,” said Eddie. “Roots are important and we love this community.”
This day’s subject: life, post-NFL. Goals, tenacity, commitment.
“A man is measured by how hard he works when no one is watching,” said Eddie, paraphrasing one of basketball player and revered coach John Wooden’s inspirational quotes. “I believe that with all my heart. Giving back to the community is the centerpiece of life in the Kennison household and one of my personal missions.”
Kennison wandered into the kitchen, positioning his lean and well-chiseled frame over a cutting board, a gleaming chef’s knife poised in one hand, a peeled jumbo white onion in the other.
Chef Eddie concentrated on chopping onions for one of his one-pot meals.
“I try to be the best I can be no matter what I’m doing,” he said, laser-focused on the culinary task.
Sitting on the opposite side of the large granite-topped island scattered with groceries and dinner ingredients were Eddie’s biggest fans: wife Shimika, pregnant with their third son whom they named Griffin when he was born a few weeks later, and fresh from the Bill Self Basketball Camp, sons Karrington, 15, and Jisiah, 11.
The knife moved deftly under Eddie’s confident direction. In seconds a pile of tear-inducing onions was ready for tonight’s dish: chicken with cornmeal dumplings, a Kennison family favorite.
“I rely on my quick hands in the kitchen,” laughed Eddie, known to whip up a mean crawfish etoufee that echoes his Southern roots.
Eddie excused himself to answer his cellphone.
“It’s Pastor Cobbins,” he said, looking at Shimika.
“Great work, Pastor Eric,” said Eddie. “Wish I could have gone with you.”
Eric Cobbins, head of the Lenexa church the Kennison family attends, The Worship Center of KC, was in Moore, Okla., surveying the chaos and destruction left behind by the May 20 EF5 tornado. He made the trip to deliver supplies and support the storm’s victims.
“You take care,” said Eddie, wrapping up a quick chat with Cobbins. “Safe travels.”
Glancing at the cookbook propped in front of him, Eddie shared his philosophy of a champion.
“Do you have what it takes every day to make a positive impact on someone?” said Eddie, who volunteered with cleanup efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “We each have 24 hours to make a choice — either be self-involved or make a difference.”
Eddie created the Quick Start Foundation in 2003, two years after Shimika was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect the skin, joints, blood and kidneys.
“We had to wrap our heads around it and figure out what the heck lupus was and how it was going to affect Shimika and our family,” said Eddie.
The couple decided to make it their personal goal to help find a cure for and raise awareness of the devastating disease.
“The foundation supports families dealing with lupus in a compassionate and caring manner and educates others about what it’s like for those suffering from it,” explained Eddie. “We also fund scholarships for underserved kids here in Kansas City and in my hometown.”
More than $1 million has been raised in a decade for the cause from events such as an annual walk that is organized and staffed by almost 100 volunteers.
“I can’t take credit for the efforts and strides the foundation has made,” said Eddie. “We have a phenomenal team of volunteers and people passionate about the cause.”
Shimika, a cosmetologist and makeup artist, also hails from Lake Charles. She grew up as a benefactor of community outreach organizations.
“Now to be able to help people in need with Quick Start is incredible,” she said. “Life is about what you can give back.”
Karrington, a Rockhurst sophomore, and Jisiah, a Prairie Star Middle School student, participate in foundation activities.
“We’re a close-knit family,” said Shimika. “And we strive to set an example for our boys that you don’t brag on the stuff in life you’re supposed to do — you don’t need applause. You just do the next right thing.”
Eddie checked the seasoning on the dish he’d prepared for tonight’s guests.
“It’s just right,” he said, looking at Shimika and the boys gathered in front of him.
Eddie wiped his hands with a towel and leaned on the island, his voice falling to a church-level whisper.
“God blessed us with a tremendous living ability and our obligation is to do good with that,” he said. “It’s just right.”
Across town a bespectacled Will Shields, who dazzled football fans as a Chiefs All-Pro right guard for 14 seasons, wrapped up a long day at 68 Inside Sports. Earlier in the week he attended one of his football camps — the former pro’s schedule is relentless, but that’s OK.
“Some nights you’ll find me napping on the couch at home,” laughed Shields, who also holds a place of honor in the Chiefs Hall of Fame.
Shields’ public relations representative patiently waited outside to drive the celebrated former professional athlete to Blue Springs.
That night, Shields would sign autographs at a buddy’s new burger joint for a couple of hours. Proceeds from the appearance will help provide scholarships to underserved kids through the Will to Succeed Foundation.
The organization’s mission is entrenched in myriad causes, including abused and neglected children and women, literacy and building self-esteem.
Shields has been married for 20 years to Danish-born Senia. He grew up in Lawton, Okla., with three siblings — “I was the intense one” — and went from playing for the Nebraska Cornhuskers to a record-breaking career with the Chiefs.
“I weathered storms when I was kid and had a community of support — teachers, coaches and people who positively influenced me,” said Shields.
Known as a humble performer, effective leader and so-called gentle giant, Shields anchored the Chiefs offensive line that consistently led the team to a top five rushing offense in the NFL.
Other well-known Shields statistics include a whopping 230 consecutive starts during his tenure with the Chiefs and 12 Pro Bowl appearances, an achievement that still holds the team record.
“Playing football was my job and I took it seriously,” said Shields. “I worked hard and wanted to help propel the team to victory.”
As far as showing and up and suiting up 230 times in a row, Shields shrugged his big shoulders and flashed a smile.
“I would have done the same no matter who I worked for,” he said. “I don’t make excuses.”
That dedication to excellence is a hallmark of Shields’ well-documented philanthropic work, too.
In 2003 he received the coveted NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award to recognize his ongoing work in the Will to Succeed Foundation — an organization that has raised nearly $4 million in 20 years for Kansas City charities like Operation Breakthrough, Safehome and the Marillac Center, among others.
Shields takes his successes in stride — like being widely considered as a future member of the NFL Hall of Fame — and along with Senia, has instilled the same core values of hard work, accountability and ethics in his four children.
Daughter Sanayika and sons Shavon, Solomon and Willie Cauley-Stein are standout students, athletes and volunteers, often participating in foundation events.
“I am committed to my family and in that commitment, to serving the community,” said Shields. “I’m all about helping people better themselves.”
And with that, Shields exited the room to go sign some autographs and raise money for Will to Succeed.
For him, it’s all in a day’s work — part of a job he takes very seriously.