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Will Shields is in a league of his own. Nebraska's 15th and most recent player elected into the College Football Hall of Fame wrote his own book on life and success, and no single column can capture everything he accomplished on the football field or fully dramatize what he stands for outside those narrow chalk lines.
To get a glimpse of how unique Shields was in his pursuit to become an All-American in college, a perennial all-pro and, at the same time become an even better person in the eyes of his coaches and teammates, you have to aim higher, perhaps even read one of the most popular Fortune magazine cover stories ever written - an article entitled "What it takes to be great".
In that article, senior editor Geoffrey Colvin insists that the greatness of say, a Winston Churchill or a Warren Buffett, was not determined by their inborn talents. Their greatness, he believes, was more the result of practice and perseverance honed over decades than their DNA.
Colvin's deepest message and most powerful insight dwelled on what he called "deliberate practice" - a training regimen that requires astonishing dedication and sacrifice to get better every day, every year.
Shields fits that mold. He did not walk among the football gods and become the NFL's "Man of the Year" without a constant focus on everything that was important to him - from athletics and academics to servant leadership and life in general, and please, don't forget one of his most important priorities of all ... genuine humility, something he saw in his father growing up and embraced in Tom Osborne the minute he met him.
Will Shields approached football with the same kind of gusto that Olympic swimmer Michel Phelps pursued the Olympics. He had that continuous drive to work relentlessly hard every day so he could develop the discipline that compounded itself over time and allowed him to trump what he always feared the most - a lack of the raw talent he saw even among his own high school teammates in Lawton, Okla.
Aggressive Goals, Daily Feedback = High Performance
Shields became a master at activity explicitly intended to improve performance. He reached for objectives that were beyond his own level of competence and with offensive line coaches Milt Tenopir and the late Dan Young providing daily feedback on the footwork and techniques required to run block and pass block, he was able to use high levels of repetition to achieve equally high levels of performance.
Yes, talent can be overrated, and Shields' daily regimen of working hard on fundamentals to compensate for lesser gifts proved a point. He showed how talent can be developed and maximized through deliberate practice. In the process, he redefined the meaning of sweat equity. He also would have made Bo Pelini's ideal "Poster Player" nearly two decades before Pelini became Nebraska's head coach.
If Will Shields wrote his own book on what it takes to be great, we offer up these seven traits that we believe took Shields from a basically good recruit to the greatness he achieved as a Husker. Consider them a Cliff's Notes version of what the real author has stored up in his mind and in his heart.
Trait 1: Will Shields was Quietly Proactive
Just ask Tom Osborne, Nebraska's former head coach and now athletic director who recruited Shields away from his home state of Oklahoma. "Will had excellent leadership ability, which he accomplished in a quiet way," Osborne said. "He led by example and was a person of outstanding character. During his last two years at Nebraska he served as a mentor to a junior high school boy in the Lincoln Public Schools.
"This was typical of his willingness to serve other people," Osborne said. "After becoming an outstanding player with the Kansas City Chiefs, Will continued to serve young people in the Kansas City area through various charitable organizations. His being named NFL Man of the Year symbolizes his philanthropic spirit. We are very proud of his accomplishments both on and off the field."
Ask Dennis Leblanc, Nebraska's senior associate athletic director of Academics. When Shields was a junior, and Nebraska was preparing to play eventual national champion Miami in the Orange Bowl, he asked Leblanc an unusual question - Could he purchase his second-semester books while the first semester was still in progress, so he could be proactive academically during pre- and post-Orange Bowl practices and the game itself?
"No one had ever asked that question before," Leblanc said. "Will was so devoted to academic improvement, he wanted to get ahead of the game while he had some free time. I had to check with the NCAA to make sure he could do that."
Shields claims he learned how to be proactive just watching Osborne. "Before the announcement Coach Osborne called to let me know I was in the Hall of Fame and to congratulate me," he said. "It was a short conversation. I've learned a lot over the years just watching him and listening to him. He's always relaxed. Nothing ever fazes him. That's the way I was raised. My dad is quiet, too. That's why I'm a sit-back-and-watch kind of guy.
"I came to Nebraska because I knew I needed academic development, and they had a support system that was way beyond anyone else's. The training table and the tutors were very impressive, and they were a big part of my decision. Oklahoma was getting ready to go on probation, so I came very close to going to Oklahoma State. I also visited Arkansas and Tulsa.
"I won't say who the coach was, but one school recruiting me told me Nebraska was my best chance to play on TV, win a national championship and lay the foundation for everything else I wanted to accomplish. Once he knew what was most important to me, he helped steer me to the right place with great wisdom and total honesty. I wasn't the strongest or the fastest athlete or the smartest or the best student. He knew how Nebraska would develop me in all areas, and he was right. Nebraska was definitely the best fit for me."
Trait 2: Shields Was Tough as Nails
Shields was the only member of NU's1988 recruiting class to go straight to the varsity roster and play as a freshman. "He was one of a kind. He broke the mold," said Trev Alberts, an All-America rush end, Butkus Award winner and NFL first-round draft choice who was in the same recruiting class as Shields.
"Seven freshmen redshirted, and the rest played freshman football that season," Alberts said. "Will was such a technician. He was so intelligent and did everything right. As important as anything, he was rarely hurt. If he was banged up, it never affected his play. He was that steady, that strong, that dedicated."
Shields started the last 36 games of his Husker career before becoming the cornerstone of the Kansas City Chiefs' offensive line for 15 years. He played in a franchise-record 224 consecutive regular-season games (230 counting playoff games) for the Chiefs and made a franchise-record 12 consecutive Pro Bowls.
"He was tough as nails from the first day he stepped on campus," said George "Sully" Sullivan, who was Nebraska's head football trainer for all four of Shields' years in Lincoln. "We had to tape his ankles, but you'd never find him in the tent."
Whenever Sullivan would get together with the Kansas City Chiefs trainers that also worked with Shields, they would talk about how tough and how durable he was. "If Will ever had an ache, you'd never know it," Sully said. "Jiminy Christmas, he was tough for a big man like that."
Shields shrugs off the compliments. "I hated not to play," he said. "I even hated if I couldn't practice. That's just the way it was for me. It was my mentality. I've been like that since we were kids playing street ball. If you had a bum ankle, you worked your way through it."
At Nebraska, it was no different. "I loved the game so much, I never wanted to miss anything," he said. "If it was something I could work my way through, that's what I did. I loved the game. I loved to be on the field, whether I was nicked up, banged up or healed up."
Shields played through a medial collateral knee injury, but he sets the record straight about his college career. "I did miss one game," he said. "I tore my ankle up against Colorado my junior year. I missed the next game (at Kansas). I was back in the lineup for Iowa State and for the Big Eight championship game (a 19-14 win) against Oklahoma."
Trait 3: Shields is as Humble as They Come
Ask Gregg Riess, a top Kansas City photographer who was asked by the Kansas City Sports Commission to shoot a portrait of Shields for a silent auction at its annual banquet. "I asked Will to bring a Chiefs' jersey and helmet to Operation Breakthrough, where he'd been volunteering (for disadvantaged youth) for a long time," Riess recalled. "When Will walked in with those items, about 30 kids wanted to know why he brought them with him. They had no idea he was an NFL player. They just knew him as Will."
Riess was thinking about that as his family sat behind Will's family at their daughters' recent high school academic recognition event. "Will volunteers so he can help kids," Riess said. "He's not there for a photo op. He's quiet, humble, hands on. Drawing attention isn't his game at all. He'd rather sit down and talk with kids than be the keynote speaker for a banquet, even though he's great at that, too, because I heard him speak to a group of financial executives once. It was fascinating to hear him describe how hard he felt he had to work to develop the speed he thought he needed for his size."
Ask Don Forsythe, a former Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star sports editor and retired corporate executive who lives in Overland Park, Kan. Forsythe once attended a Nebraska gathering in Overland Park that served as a Big Red pep rally of sorts before a Big 12 Conference Men's and Women's Basketball Tournament in Kansas City. Nebraska's pep band and cheerleaders were there. So were Will Shields and Neil Smith, a pair of Nebraska All-Americans who became teammates with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Someone that day asked Shields about his most memorable moment as a Husker. "Good question," he said. "Let me think about that." Seconds later, he came up with a startling answer: Kenny Walker's introduction during Nebraska Senior Day when Shields was just a sophomore. "I'll never forget the roar of silence the crowd gave Kenny," he said. "That day inspired me. To be deaf from the age of 2 and become an All-American was so rare, it was something we'll probably never see again."
That answer that day punctuated why Forsythe puts Shields in a league of his own. "I thought it was amazing that Will's all-time highlight involved someone else," he said. "I think it speaks volumes about him as a man as well as an athlete."
Shields appreciates the compliment, and he says he would answer the same question identically today. "What Kenny did with his abilities was spectacular," he said. "To have the gifts to understand, dissect and play the game at such a high level when you've never been able to hear is just amazing and then to watch the crowd go silent and sign for him on his special day ... that still sends chills right down my spine."
Trait 4: Shields is Selfless in Everything He Does
Alberts has met dozens of Hall-of-Fame football players, but he doesn't know any who is so consistently selfless in every aspect of his life like Shields is. "If you took all of the Hall-of-Famers in college or pro football, Will would stack up with anyone," Alberts said. "There is not a single area of his life that he would be delinquent in. He is, in my mind, the quintessential Hall-of-Famer.
"You couldn't build a better case for a first-year NFL Hall-of-Famer than Will Shields," Alberts added. "He shouldn't have to wait to get in to that group. There's a reason why he was the (2004) Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. He never defines himself by being a football player. He defines himself by helping others. That's why everyone enjoys talking to him like he's their next-door neighbor."
The more Alberts describes Shields, the quicker he comes to a conclusion. "Will Shields, in almost everything he does, is symbolic of Tom Osborne," he said. "They're both legends, but if you met either of them on the street or in an airport, you would never know it because both are selfless by nature."
No wonder Shields was named the 2010 Walter Camp Man of the Year Award winner. To win this, a player must have a reputation for integrity and dedicated to American heritage, public service and honoring his community, country and fellow man. "Will Shields' remarkable longevity and success on the football field is quite impressive, but his care and devotion for others clearly symbolizes the life of Walter Camp," said Walter Camp Foundation President Alphonse Paolillo, Jr.
Trait 5: Shields is Consistent Every Play, Every Day
No one knows how consistent Shields was every play of every day better than Tenopir, who coached and helped recruit him at Nebraska. "I can't think of a more deserving person to be entering into the College Football Hall of Fame," Tenopir said. "He was a great football player and an even better person. He had the whole package. That's why he could play his college and professional careers at the highest level."
John Parrella, who spent 12 years in the NFL and played in three Super Bowls, was a senior with Shields at Nebraska in 1992. "Not only was he a great football player, but Will is a great man," Parella said. "What he has done for families off the field is his legacy and testimony to who he is. I had the opportunity to play against him in college and in professional football, and I don't know that I've seen too many guys play at his level. He is one of the all-time greats! He might be one of the best offensive linemen to play the game."
Alberts agrees. "Will was a remarkable football player and a great teammate, but he was tough, man, every single play," Alberts said. "I know that as well as anyone because I had to play against him every day in practice. I still remember how often he would pull around. If you were one step off, he'd explode right through you. His footwork was almost perfect. His head was almost perfect, and his leverage was almost perfect.
"Playing against Will, you couldn't afford to make a mistake," Alberts said. "There were very few people who could run me over, but there were many times where he would just embarrass me. And as soon he did, he would pull me up and he'd walk me right back to the huddle. He played with a quiet, but an always intense fire. He always did his talking with his blocking. He was always striving for physical and technical perfection. He was the type of football player that Nebraska football is and always should be about."
Trait 6: Shields was True to his Own Mantra
It would be a mistake to give Nebraska all the credit for the man Shields is. We've already mentioned his family, but Lawton High School planted the seeds for him to learn and grow as a Husker, just as it did for fellow Nebraska Hall-of-Famer and Lawton grad Mike Minter. Hanta Yo - a Lakota Sioux Indian term that means "Clear the Way" - was the mantra that Shields lived by playing football in Lawton, and it is the word that he still tries to live by today.
Shields believes that Hanta Yo - an infinite source of creative potential - is what led him to Nebraska, where he honed that almost mystical power and pushed himself beyond almost every challenge imaginable. Yanta Ho is the source of Will Shields' work ethic, his commitment to daily improvement and even his humility.
"Growing up, I didn't want to be in the limelight or in front of the room," he said. "I didn't want to be showcased. I just wanted to have the chance to be the best I could be and contribute whatever I could contribute. That's what was so great about coming to Nebraska, where they teach you that whenever you're going to do something, you better do it the best way you can.
"I wasn't the fastest, the strongest or able to jump very high," Shields said, "but our high school coaches created a belief in us, and we just kept clearing the way for others - like others had cleared the way for us. The best thing about leaving a legacy is giving the next generation the chance to surpass what you did."
And that brings us to an important juncture in this detailed conversation. Shields played on a Fiesta Bowl team that lost to Florida State, a Citrus Bowl team that lost to national champion Georgia Tech, an Orange Bowl team that lost to Miami and another Orange Bowl team that lost to Florida State.
Four losses in four bowl games don't represent the greatest legacy in Nebraska football, but let the record show that in the five years immediately after Shields graduated, the Huskers won 60 of 63 games and three national championships, proving that those, like Shields, who dared to fail greatly, paved the path for those who followed to achieve greatly.
Shields knows the Huskers came within a whisker of winning two Big 12 football championships in Texas. He's hoping the lessons learned from those two games set the stage for something spectacular in Nebraska's first year in the Big Ten Conference. "It would be unbelievable. It would awesome if we could win that first playoff game in the Big Ten," he said. "If we qualify, I would definitely go watch that game in Indianapolis."
Trait 7: Shields is Highly Successful in Life
Will Shields will never forget his first semester at Nebraska when he tried to juggle the pressure of playing as a true freshman with the rigor required for academic excellence.
"I let myself get behind academically," he recalled. "I played well on the field, but was in the cellar with my grades. I was on academic probation after the first semester, so I made a vow never to put myself in that position again. For me, I was as excited about building my grade point average back up as I was to become a starter. I was almost a 3.0 overall by the time I was senior, and I worked very hard to get there."
Today, Shields owns two businesses in Kansas City - one in sports health and wellness and the other an indoor training facility. The two buildings total 120,000 square feet, and Shields is doing everything he can to help young kids learn how to train and grow like he did.
He built his two businesses from scratch and works sunup to sundown almost every day to help others. "Business is tough," he said, "but you learn new things every day. We're building a bridge to walk across the two buildings. Life is full. It makes you excited to get up every morning and exhausted to go to bed every night. That's the point of getting better."
He can't help but remember his experience as one of 21 mentors in the first class of Tom and Nancy Osborne's voluntary TeamMates Program.
"I learned a lot from mentoring a young junior high kid when I was just 18 or 19 years old myself," he said. "When you give someone else your time, you get a little wiser at the same time you're trying to help them get a little wiser. It's a great challenge and a great opportunity to be a kid mentoring a kid. That's what made Nebraska such a unique training ground - trying to inspire someone else to reach their full potential at the same time you're trying to reach yours..
"Volunteering was one of the greatest things I did while I was busy studying and playing football in college," he said. "Regardless of what you do, mentors and mentees are going to make mistakes on both sides of the road. The point is learning from those mistakes, and when you narrow it all down, you can all get to where you need to be."
He Focused on Consistency and All-Out Effort
Shields tells kids that since he wasn't the most talented athlete, he decided to focus on becoming the most technically sound athlete. Sharing his daily vision with others helped him understand that principle, embrace it and execute it. "I learned very quickly how to work every day on a different aspect of my game just so I could make myself better," he said.
Shields also shared with junior high kids how he would ask himself several important questions every day and why it was important for them to ask the same kinds of questions, such as: What is my self-worth? What is my source of pride? What is my gusto? What is my spark? What am I going to do to make myself unique?
For Shields, consistency and all-out effort were twin daily goals, and hard work became the enabler he used to achieve those goals. The Hall of Fame, he said, was never a goal, but it was definitely an outgrowth of striving to master the imperfect science of daily improvement.
"I'm excited about where Nebraska is right now with Coach Osborne at the helm," Shields said. "The past is the past, and the future will be what it will be. It's an honor for me to be in what I call the indelible ink of the College Football Hall of Fame. But I'm even more excited to see what these young men and young women want to do with their opportunities. I want to make sure they know they have a hand in a new game and can create a new rung of their own. I want them to know this is their chance to make their mark on Nebraska history, and I want to keep track of every step they make."
Yes, Will Shields wrote his own book on what it takes to be great, and one of his greatest legacies is simply this: He would like nothing better than to see those who come behind him to surpass what he and his teammates did and then pass their torch on, so the next generation of Huskers can turbo-charge their performance and pass them.
The recruiting philosophy of Bo Pelini is designed to attract student-athletes who will be motivated to do the extra-effort, highly focused work that Shields delivered daily for nearly two decades.
Who knows? Maybe Nebraska can use Shields as a role model for a study in its new 20,000-square-foot Nebraska Athletic Research Facility that will be part of the expanded East Stadium in 2013.
Since Shields is into asking questions, we end this discussion by asking an important one of our own: Can anyone think of a better standard for character and how it might relate to performance than Will Shields?
Voices from Husker Nation
Will Shields was a great player but an even greater man. We could really use a lot more like him today. A truly talented, hardworking athlete that let his playing do the talking unlike so many today that talk, talk, talk and talk some more. Will Shields should be a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame inductee. I'm a Raiders' fan, but I always enjoyed watching Will succeed so well in KC. GO BIG RED! Ron Wilson, Brule, Nebraska
Appreciate the superb article on Will Shields. In Will's early years with the Chiefs, I would drive by his home on the way to a friend's house. More often than not, his driveway was full of young kids playing basketball or some other game. Nebraska Athletics has produced so many wonderful men and women, but Will Shields may be the all-time best. Thanks again for the article. Gary Loft, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Great article about a great person! Joseph P. Sokolovsky, Fremont, Nebraska
This column on the best traits of Will Shields says it all about what makes Nebraska truly great. Really enjoyed reading all of the character examples and especially the ones from the Kansas City photographer and the retired corporate exec in Overland Park. We're proud of what Will accomplished at Nebraska, but we're even prouder of what he's done and continues to do right here in the Kansas City area. He's preparing boys and girls for life and molding them into young men and women. Because of his vision and his leadership, they are all learning about life and what goes into having the "Will to Succeed". Will Shields has been my all-time favorite Husker for a long time, and after reading this column, I predict he will move up on everyone's "favorite Husker" list. Thanks for proving something most of us already knew - that Will Shields is truly in "a league of his own". Jim White, Overland Park, Kansas
I am not a Nebraska fan, but discovered this column on Will Shields because I'm always looking for stories about my Kansas City Chiefs. Wow! I already had Will right up there among my all-time favorites just because he was such an iron man and went to so many Pro Bowls. Now I know why he was so great. I can see why Nebraska is so proud of Will because he's so proud of Nebraska. Very enjoyable read, even for a "non-Nebraska" fan. Steve Adams, Kansas City, Missouri