Former Kansas City Chiefs guard Will Shields was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday. This is a column I wrote for the Kansas City Star on December 11, 2000 about Will, who remains one of the most fascinating players I’ve ever covered.
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All game long, I watched Will Shields. Couldn’t take my eyes off the man. There he was, out of position, in bitter cold, in howling wind, in a meaningless game, performing in front of a half-empty stadium, and he played his heart out. He played from the soul.
Man, it was beautiful.
You can get all caught up in this crazy game, boo the quarterback, fire the coach, attack the general manager, all that, and if you’re not careful you might miss something special. Something important.
Sunday afternoon, Will Shields started at left tackle for the first time since his high school days. And what was on the line, really? The Chiefs are not going to make the playoffs. Neither are the Carolina Panthers. The weather was lousy, the ball was as hard as Dan Snyder’s heart, and the stadium was quieter than it has been since the last Wizards home game.
And there was right guard Will Shields playing left tackle for the first time in 13 years because John Tait got hurt. Do you know how hard it is to play left tackle in the NFL? You’re protecting the quarterback against some of the meanest, fastest, most ferocious giants in all the world. This day, Shields battled Jay Williams, a 280-pound former basketball player who just keeps coming all day long, like Joe Frazier.
Then, just for fun, Reggie White, the greatest defensive end to ever play the game, wandered over occasionally to face off against Shields.
“You’re all alone out there at left tackle,” Chiefs center Tim Grunhard said. “It’s your own little world. One little mistake, and you’re dead.”
The Panthers sent a flurry of players at Shields, a whirlwind of moves, a barrage of hands and legs and elbows and helmets, all flying fast, furious, you block one player and two more appear in his place, you chase this guy and that guy sneaks behind you. It’s like standing alone on the South Carolina coast and trying to block a hurricane.
And that’s just what Will Shields did Sunday. He blocked a hurricane. No matter what the Panthers threw his way, he blocked it. Shields would say he felt uncomfortable. He felt bewildered. It didn’t show. Jay Williams had one tackle. Nobody sacked Elvis Grbac.Shields was everywhere, stopping Williams, bumping White, knocking down a blitzing linebacker, then hopping back to Williams, like a square dancer bouncing from partner to partner.
“Will is the greatest athlete I’ve ever been around at the offensive-line position,” Grbac said. “He’s incredible.”
“He’s unbelievable,” Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham said.
“One of the best to ever play this game,” Grunhard said.
Of course, you could write that story every single week: The incredible Will Shields. Most people will never understand the greatness of Shields until he’s gone because he performs so quietly, so efficiently. He has gone to five straight Pro Bowls not so much for what he does, but for what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t jump offside. He doesn’t hold. He doesn’t miss blocks. He doesn’t allow sacks. He doesn’t complain.
Here’s the greatest thing you can say about Shields, the greatest thing, really, you can say about an offensive lineman: You can go years and years without ever even thinking about the guy.
But there was something more remarkable about Shields’ game on Sunday. Something different. Something that clutches the heart. I know a teacher who makes pitiful money, but she stays after school every single day because there’s a child in her class who wants to become a better reader. I know a carpenter who will spend extra hours sealing the tiniest cracks, the ones the customer would never notice, because he believes in doing a job well.
I know a piano player who goes until the very last customer leaves because she loves to play music. I know a baseball scout who will drive two-lane roads all day if there’s a chance he might see a good ballplayer. I know my father has worked hard every single day of his life, excepting Thanksgiving and Christmas, because of an old cliche – an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.
And Sunday, we watched Will Shields give an honest day’s work. Who would have noticed if he had taken a play off here and there? The playoffs are gone. The Chiefs turned the ball over the first four times they had it. Empty seats filled the stadium. Heck, a lot of people around town want the Chiefs to lose so they can get a higher draft pick, so coaches will get fired, so season-ticket holders will give up their precious seats.
Who could have blamed Shields? Who would have even noticed?
But Shields just kept playing with every ounce of emotion he carries inside that giant body. Yes, he makes a lot of money, but it’s not money that drives a man when his legs ache, when his arms feel like anvils, when the wind blows ice, when huge men are lunging at him. No, it’s not money.
And it’s not fame. Shields does not care about fame. He does so many good things for children around town, but he does it all quietly. He just wants to live a quiet life with his family.
And it’s not cheers. You know that because there were precious few cheers Sunday at Arrowhead.
No, it’s something else that spurs Shields, something about pride, something about loyalty, something about love. If you get the chance, take a minute today to think about WillShields. Tell your children about him. Call the radio station about him. Sunday, with nothing at stake but a little pride and the hopes of a few thousand fans who have not yet given up faith, Shields played like a champion. Sure, it’s just sports. But that’s the stuff heroes are made of.