Travis Hill, a first-team Nebraska All-America outside linebacker in 1992, will never forget sitting in an NFL film room two years later when Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban was an assistant with the Cleveland Browns. "We were breaking down film in slow motion, and Coach Saban said you have to watch this next guy because it almost looks like he's using his dancing ability to choreograph how's he's going to block people," Hill recalls Saban saying.
Sure enough, the slow-mo product matched Saban's promotion, but Hill never dreamed who that "Dancing King" might be ... none other than Will Shields, his college teammate who helped lead the Huskers to three national rushing titles at Nebraska.
In college, Hill ran out of adjectives trying to describe Shields' unique ways to block defenders. So Saban's creative analysis that day triggered an immediate flashback to Nebraska's loss to Florida State in the 1993 Orange Bowl. "I still remember both teams ending up at a bowl function and somehow there was a dance contest after we all ate our steak dinners," Hill said. "I remember a little taunting when Florida State had a couple of good dancers, and then Will got up. There weren't any judges or any prizes, but everyone in that club knew Will was the best dancer because he just took over."
Imagine the surprise from Hill, a 1992 Husker captain and fellow senior with Shields. The same, however, could not be said from tight end starter William Washington, a fellow Texan and fellow Nebraska captain on that same team. "I knew when Will was a freshman how good of a dancer he was," Washington said.
The Competition Ended Before It Started
As a 17-year-old freshman, Shields roomed with Washington's younger brother, Roderick. "I remember meeting Will and how soft spoken he was," Washington said. "We were in our dorm room on the fourth floor of Abel Hall. My parents were in the room and my roommate (Andre McDuffy) and I challenged Will and Roderick to a dancing contest. They started dancing first and when Will was done, let's put it this way, the contest was over before it started. We didn't show one move. We conceded. Will has the best feet I've ever seen on a big man. That's why I'd love to see him on Dancing With The Stars. I think he would shock everyone on that show and watching that show."
Before Shields is enshrined in the 2012 College Football Hall of Fame class Saturday night in South Bend, Ind., the N-Sider could not resist asking the excessively humble Shields for his take on his teammates' raving reviews. Surprisingly, Shields, because of his extremely competitive nature, did not downplay his dancing ability. If anything, he enhanced it.
"I learned to dance when I was a baby," the Lawton, Okla., native said. "It's like anything else. You mimic what you see on TV. You take different steps and learn different moves and if you see anything new, you add that in, too."
For Shields, it all started watching Michael Jackson and wanting to imitate him. The Temptations were equally influential because their fine-tuned choreography was every bit as entertaining as their finer-tuned harmonies.
Just a Big Kid Impersonating a Smaller One
"Every time famous people come on TV, you think: 'Man, can I do that?' Shields said. "Then, you have to see if you can. When break dancing came along, even though I was a bigger kid, I had to figure out if I could do everything the smaller kid could do. That was one thing that was real funny about my dancing. I refused to concede anything."
No wonder Nick Saban loved Will Shields' choreography.
I asked Shields if he remembered the dance-off that didn't materialize with Washington or the challenge that Florida State appeared to issue at the Orange Bowl.
"I remember both, but I don't remember everything that happened," he said. "I was competing."
I press for more details in Miami. "It's funny how everything kind of comes back," he said. "I think it was some sort of ranch place or some big bar and grill. I just remember it was a fun night. I don't remember what I did. I just combined several kinds of dancing and then ended it with some break-dancing stuff."
Is Dancing Part of Offensive Line Blocking?
I ask Shields if Saban's review of his NFL dancing/blocking/choreography with the Kansas City Chiefs was fact or exaggeration.
"I don't know about that one," he said, "but I do know that I've always tried to learn different elements to help me keep my balance. When you get unbalanced, you want to find the quickest way to get your balance back, so, yes, I would say that dancing is a part of that. I never looked at it that way, but it makes sense."
By now, I'm eager because I'm trying to warm a humble, soft-spoken, hard-working, team-oriented legend to consider himself worthy of being in the same sentence and on the same dance floor with Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Jason Taylor, Warren Sapp and Hines Ward as a contestant on the very popular Dancing With The Stars.
"Do you still like to dance," I ask Shields as the final warm-up question.
"I still like to dance," he replied. "But it's more work dancing at the house than it is somewhere else. It's nothing major. I don't get out and shake it up much anymore. When you become the old guy of the bunch, you just sort of hang out near the wall."
Lead-up Questions Pave Way to the Big One
Finally, I ask if he's ever watched DWTS. "I'm either working or going to kids' games, so I've never sat down and watched a whole show, but I have seen different sequences of certain shows," he said.
Do you think you can dance as well as Jerry Rice or Emmitt Smith?
"I think I do well in any arena I get put in," Shields said. "That's just the way it goes with me. The competitive spirit just comes out in you."
I tell him how two captains on his final Nebraska football team think he would "shock the world" on Dancing With The Stars.
From the voice on the phone, I sense a smile on Shields' normally serious face.
"It's really all about being comfortable in your own body and being comfortable with who you are, regardless if you have a bigger body, a smaller body or whatever," he said. "When you're talking about what you can accomplish, I'm indifferent to size. And when it comes to what people think is culturally acceptable for you to do, I've always been outside the box."
Last question: Would you consider DWTS if there was any interest from the other side?
"Probably," Shields said. "It's a competition, isn't it?"
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