Sam Mellinger

Former Chief Will Shields made impact in KC that went beyond football

Chiefs player Will Shields at Arrowhead Stadium on Friday December 5, 2003. Broke Jack Rudnay's record for career starts in a row on Sunday with 172. For some fans, offensive lineman Will Shields is synonymous with the Chiefs logo.
Chiefs player Will Shields at Arrowhead Stadium on Friday December 5, 2003. Broke Jack Rudnay's record for career starts in a row on Sunday with 172. For some fans, offensive lineman Will Shields is synonymous with the Chiefs logo. The Kansas City Star

The rules are very clear that what you’re about to read does not matter. We hope you humor us here anyway.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame is about football first and football only. The men that Will Shields is to join with induction are the best players our country’s most popular sport has seen, and by that demanding standard the former Chiefs lineman is now certified.

This is an honor based on his playing ability only, and for that he will now be forever remembered with the sport’s highest honor. All of that is great, and worth all of the fond memories of him making more than 14 seasons worth of consecutive starts and 12 Pro Bowls by protecting his quarterbacks and pulling from his right guard position to flatten linebackers so that his running backs could break records.

But — and we mean no offense to the Pro Football Hall of Fame here — football is not even close to the best thing about Shields.

A young man named Kevin is the best thing about Shields.

“Tell everyone,” Kevin says. “Let them know I freaking love the Shields family.”

That’s not his real name, Kevin. He asked that we not use his real name for this column. For his own privacy, and even for some people who let him down, we agreed.

Kevin grew up poor, painfully poor, living a chunk of his childhood homeless. But he worked hard and made friends and stayed out of trouble. Eventually, he graduated high school and earned a scholarship to an area college.

Kevin is a genuine success story. He gets good grades. He’s studying engineering, and is thinking he might go for a masters after graduation. He is an exception to the heart-breaking statistics you sometimes see. But for reasons completely out of his control, Kevin found out a few weeks ago that his scholarship was pulled.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he says.

Then he got a phone call. Kevin had known Shields for years. They met through Operation Breakthrough, a place in Midtown that does the works of saints, helping some of Kansas City’s most underprivileged kids. They had conversations, Kevin and Shields, but that’s not what stuck with Kevin.

“He says a lot more through his actions than talking,” Kevin says. “Not every time I saw Will, he saw me. So I saw him and how he acted, treated other people, his character and his demeanor. That meant a lot to me.”

This was two or three weeks ago. Sure felt like Kevin’s plan had hit a wall. He had done everything he was supposed to do and then layers more, proud that he had beat the odds to make it to college, but without a scholarship? He couldn’t do it.

He was done.

Then Kevin’s phone rang. It was Senia, Will’s wife.

“You’re going back to school,” she said.

Shields would pay the bill. Thousands and thousands of dollars. Kevin did not ask for this. Nobody asked on his behalf. But just like that, one phone call, and this man Kevin had always admired turned a dead end into an afterthought.

“Thank you,” he said.

Shields did not do this for attention, or for gratitude. He did not tell anyone. Nobody knows how many kids Shields is helping through college, either with one of many scholarships he funds or more spontaneously after hearing of a kid in need.

Kevin is just the latest, or, really, he might not even be the latest. With Shields, who knows? Kevin’s story only came up after a phone call to a local charity Shields has done work for, but really, it could have been one of a thousand other stories.

Like, this past December he created Christmas again for some of Kansas City’s most needy kids. Literally, he just created Christmas. He’s done this for some 20 years now, an annual miracle.

The Marillac Center is a place kids go to find hope again. Some of them have been sexually abused, some physically abused. Some are working through a terrible trauma, others battling mental illness.

Shields shows up every year around Christmas to make them smile. The kids make a Christmas wish list, many of them for the first time, and Shields shows up with his family and carloads of presents to hand out.

Some ask for dolls. Others for blankets. Some get video games or toys or stuffed animals. Many of them have never had anything new like this. He serves the kids dinner, and makes sure nobody eats until the kids eat. After all of that, Shields and the kids pick some Christmas carols and sing together and, well, let’s just say his singing encourages kids of varying degrees of talent to join in.

“You know,” says Brian Barash, chief medical officer at Marillac. “He’s a better football player.”

Shields spends the evening with those kids, hugging and laughing and fist bumping. Every time he does this, the staff there is amazed at how kids who never talk or smile open up to Shields. Many of them have no idea he used to play football.

There are stories like this all over the city. He built, stocked or otherwise created libraries at Operation Breakthrough and at least three schools in Kansas City.

He built a computer lab at The Children’s Place, gave $200,000 to Good Samaritan Boys Ranch, gave kitchen equipment to the Niles Home for Children, helped the burn unit at the University of Kansas Hospital, annually takes battered women to spas around the city to pamper them, provides backpacks stuffed with school supplies to kids, and set up transportation for kids in the inner-city to get and keep jobs.

One of the first things Shields did after being drafted by the Chiefs in 1993 was to start the Will to Succeed Foundation. He has raised around $4 million for Kansas City charities, and helped some 100,000 people.

This includes abused and neglected women and children, people who need help more than most. It includes kids he hears who don’t have meat for dinner, or a blanket for their bed.

“He’s an unusual man,” says Sister Berta Sailer, co-founder of Operation Breakthrough. “He’s the guy you want your kid to grow up like. There’s some football players, you think, ‘Don’t be like him. Be good at football, but don’t be like him.’ Will is different.”

After the biggest moment of Shields’ professional life, most of the people around him wanted to talk about football. They asked about influences, and where that drive came from, the one he used to go 14 years without missing a game.

He talked the small town in Oklahoma where he grew up and everyone looked out for each other, and the coaches at Nebraska who taught him that giving back is as important as anything he would do on the football field, and the coaches and stars he played with in Kansas City.

The more he talks, the more you start to see that these two sides of Shields — the nasty, relentless, oak-strong lineman and the man who melts at a kid in need — work in harmony. He says he is as proud of what he continues to do in the community as what he did on the field, and that he always saw football as the way to lead a more complete life.

I mention Kevin, that I talked to him earlier in the day, and Shields’ face lights up. I could have asked him about helping libraries or abused women or neglected children. But I asked about Kevin.

“I’m so proud of him,” Shields says. “He has to do a lot on his own. He’s basically his own young man, doing things on his own. I don’t want him to ever feel isolated, that he’s by himself. He got himself to college, and did everything on his own. It’s amazing all the things he’s accomplished on his own.

“And he’s happy where he’s at, he’s settled where he’s at. We didn’t want that to fall apart.”

In 2003, Shields was chosen the NFL’s Man of the Year. When the Chiefs nominated him, they had to shrink the type size and chop the margins to keep it to one page, per the award’s rules. They did not have room on that piece of paper for half of what Shields had done, and none of what he’s done in the last 12 years.

Kevin’s story, and those Christmases at Marillac are like grains of sand in the beach of good that Shields has done in and around Kansas City these last two decades. Along with Junior Seau, also voted in on Saturday, Shields is now one of just 20 to win the Man of the Year award and make the Hall of Fame.

A Hall of Fame football player. A better man.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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