The Hound and The Fury
Before he became the disruptive force that tormented opposing offenses for the University of Washington and emerged as a first-round prospect in the 2015 NFL Draft, Danny Shelton wreaked havoc in his humble hometown. Whether the self-described class clown was insulting teachers to amuse middle-school classmates or swiping convenience-store snacks to nourish his massive frame, Shelton was a troublemaker heading down a perilous path.
“Growing up, I was a bad kid,” Shelton said in March while idling his SUV outside the cramped downtown Auburn apartment where he and his four siblings lived during their formative years. “I don’t know if I should talk about this, but we’d shoplift. My brothers and I started getting into bad things — stealing bikes and stuff. There were gangs moving into the area, people selling drugs and hiding from the government. There were girls getting pregnant before high school, kids getting arrested. All of this affected how I acted in school. My grades were bad, and I was getting suspended. Then my mom took football away from me. I had to choose, and I chose football. I knew I had to change.”
As transformations go, Shelton’s was as dramatic as Walter White’s in “Breaking Bad” — only with an uplifting trajectory. The perpetually smiling, self-assured and accomplished young man who made an impression at the recent NFL Scouting Combine by rocking ie lavalava (the traditional Samoan skirt-like outfit worn on formal occasions) in team-interview sessions has come a long way. In the words of Washington coach Chris Petersen, who replaced Steve Sarkisian following Shelton’s junior season, “Danny’s one of those guys who makes coaching so fun. A lot of guys take shortcuts and look for the easy way out. He attacked his responsibilities on the field and in the classroom, and he’s such a great model for so many guys.”
When NFL talent evaluatorscue up Shelton’s senior-season game film, they tend to do double-takes; some equate his ability to make athletic, scheme-busting plays with that of oversized standouts like Houston Texans nose tackle Vince Wilfork and Detroit Lions interior lineman Haloti Ngata, both perennial Pro Bowl selections. With nine sacks, an NCAA-leading five fumble recoveries and 93 total tackles — 16.5 of them for loss — in 2014, the 6-foot-2, 339-pound defensive tackle stamped himself as a likely top-15 pick.
“He is a big-body player that can completely control the line of scrimmage versus the run, but what makes him unique is the fact he has production on the quarterback,” Washington Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan said. Added an AFC GM: “It gets your attention when a 340-pound nose tackle has more actual production than many of the best inside or outside linebackers in this draft.”
Shelton’s achievement, however, hasn’t been restricted to the football field. In addition to making numerous All-American teams, Shelton, who carried a 3.54 grade-point average, became the first Huskies player in 23 years to be honored as a first-team Academic All-American. His well-rounded education included a stint as an instructor for a freshman-orientation class at Washington, a pair of trips to Tahiti with the school’s international-exchange program and an internship at a Seattle museum, during which he created a scholastic exhibit and workshop on Polynesian culture.
That’s a pretty impressive résumé for someone who didn’t begin learning English until he was 3, having previously lived with his maternal grandparents in Western Samoa, and who in fifth grade refused to read aloud in class because he was too embarrassed to do so.
In June, about six weeks before he participates in his first NFL training camp, Shelton will graduate with a degree in anthropology — and a whole lot of perspective. He might have turned his life around, but his road to football and academic fruition was hardly devoid of potholes.
Sadly, there is one unspeakable scar from his teenage years that will never fully heal.
Just as Shelton was about to leave Auburn, a modest suburb about 30 miles south of Seattle, the 17-year-old high school senior was waylaid by a bloody altercation that left one brother dead and another hospitalized with a gunshot wound — and which very easily could have resulted in tragedy for him, as well. “After that,” he said, “everything went upside down for my family.”
The incident took place in May of 2011,on a Sunday that began with Danny and most of his family members attending the local Nazarene church where his uncle, Steve Leau, is a pastor. Gaston “Tui” Shelton, the oldest of the five Shelton siblings, had been jumped and accosted by three men following a series of altercations in their downtown Auburn neighborhood, according to Danny. Upon learning of the incident, Danny, older brother Shennon and younger brother Kevin — along with a cousin and a friend — joined Tui in surrounding the apartment of one of the perpetrators.
In the ensuing melee, the man, Olenthis Woods, ended up firing two shots with a Walther PPK 9mm pistol. The first bullet hit Tui in the chest; the second struck Shennon in the head. A third bullet was likely meant for Danny, who can recall the horrific sequence with vivid clarity.
“The guy pointed the gun at me,” he said, “but the gun got jammed. I had a chair and threw it at him and got the gun away from him and started beating him with it. It went off and I dropped it.
“I remember beating up the guy, and (Woods’ mother and sister) pepper-spraying me and pulling my hair, but I didn’t stop. I tried to choke him. I tried to punch him again. Then my bicep locked up and I let go. I looked over and realized my brother (Shennon) was still on the ground.”
Shelton’s family had been through some trying times — according to Danny, his late father physically abused his mother, Oneone, on a repeated basis, causing the family to flee from Sacramento to Tacoma, Washington, (they later moved to Auburn) in an effort to escape his wrath. This, however, was a ruinous event: Hours after being shot, Shennon, a middle school football and basketball coach, was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Less than an hour later, Tui, who’d recently returned from Afghanistan after a three-year stint in the Army, underwent emergency surgery, during which doctors elected not to remove a bullet lodged in his lungs.
“It was just too dangerous to pull it out,” Danny recalled. “That next month or so, we were going back and forth to the hospital, and it was just horrible. When my brother (Shennon) passed, it was really empty. We got ourselves a Rottweiler to try to fill the void, but he was too big for the house, and we had to give him away. Tui already had post-traumatic stress from the Army, and it got even worse when my brother passed. I didn’t want to drive by the scene, and we were all messed up from it. And then I left for college and basically stopped coming home — they’d just come up to see me.”
If Danny was looking to escape, he was only partly successful. He was sad at times and angry at others. The fact that the King County Prosecutor’s Office declined to file charges against Shennon’s assailant, reasoning in a statement that “prosecutors cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Woods was unjustified in his actions” because he faced “imminent risk of being assaulted,” enraged Shelton, who harbored revenge fantasies and succumbed to some irrational racial profiling.
“I remember having a dislike for African-Americans,” Shelton said. “Eventually, I started hanging out with those guys (on my team), and everything changed. But it was tough the first year. The only thing I could think about was revenge, and how the guy got away with it.
“The first two years, having to think about college football and think about my brother, it was a lot. It was hard for me to open up to people. I’d think about the incident at random times, like in class, and start bawling. And I’d always get flashbacks. Whenever I got mad, it’d get bad.
“I’d be arguing with Coach Sark, and I’d just start to lose it. It was like (everything went) all red … and I’d just want to beat up something. In workouts, when I’d get pushed to my limit, I’d get flashbacks … it’d turn red. And then I’d snap.”
Though he played as a true freshman at Washington, Shelton struggled to adapt to life as a student-athlete.
“(The night before my second) game, against Hawaii, I brought a girl to the hotel and got in trouble,” he recalled. “And part of my punishment was to do a lot of extra conditioning, and I got angry about how hard the workouts were. The weight-training coach was all over me, and I acted out. It was just too early, too close to my brother’s death.”
Early in his sophomore campaign, Shelton, who’d become a starter, got so angry during a Huskies practice that he punched a goal post, breaking his right hand. He played through the injury, wearing a protective cast for the rest of the season, but his reputation as a problem child grew.
“It was a huge deal,” recalled Justin Wilcox, who was the Huskies’ defensive coordinator in 2012 and ’13 before following Sarkisian to USC in the same role. “That was something where it was like, ‘Come on, man. This can’t happen.’ But he’s grown up a lot. For any person, especially at a young age, to experience something like what he went through — who knows what impact that would have?
“In college football in this day and age, so much is judged so early, and I don’t know if it’s always fair. There’s an adjustment period. Danny adjusted, and it’s great to see where he is now. He’s a very, very intelligent guy, and he’s got a great future ahead of him.”
Said one former Huskies assistant: “There were a lot of tantrums — situations where he’d lose his mind over something small and rant and rave and make a scene. He’d try to get attention, and he didn’t have a lot of self-control. But the guy is a great kid who’s a star in the classroom, and there was never any fear that he’d embarrass the program or become a liability. He is not a ‘problem’ guy. And as time went on, those outbursts got less and less frequent.”
Shelton speaks highly of the prior regime at Washington: “I gave them the hardest time, but Sark never once stepped back from trying to help me out.” Petersen, however, managed to reach him on another level, preaching positivity and a narrowing of Shelton’s focus to football and academics. Shelton, viewing the coaching change as a chance to reinvent himself, bought in wholeheartedly.
“I didn’t have to think about (my past) anymore,” Shelton said. “I didn’t have to think about them staying away from me because they thought I’d have an outburst. Petersen, he already knew all the answers, and it was about helping me finalizing with the maturity.”
Petersen, said Shelton, “taught me, ‘Simplify Your Life.’ Partying, going out with friends — that had to end. I didn’t have one drink throughout the season. It threw people off. They’d say, ‘Oh, bro — you’re never down.’ ‘Cause before that, I was, like, ‘The Guy.’ But I got myself a girlfriend, got a dog, chose to live by myself and kept a low profile.”
Said Petersen: “There had been rumors he might have been hard to coach. That couldn’t have been further from the truth for us. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for him here, and he had a couple of bumps in the road early on (in the summer before his senior season) — but he worked through some things and weathered the storm. He’s just getting it all totally figured out.”
Shelton’s senior year
has been so fruitful on so many fronts, his list of accomplishments reads like an NCAA propaganda campaign. At the Huskies’ team banquet, he won the 101 Club Academic Excellence Award and
the Guy Flaherty Award, the program’s oldest and most prestigious honor given to the most inspirational player. During the fall quarter, he guided 23 freshmen through a first-year-interest class designed to help their transition to collegiate life — “Take chances” was one of his core teaching principles — and also created a workshop explaining the Polynesian culture to schoolchildren during an internship at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.
Getting in touch with his Samoan roots has been especially important to Shelton, who also wore ie lavalava during his pro day workout at Husky Stadium earlier this month.
“I basically lost the culture when I moved here (at age 3) — I feel like I was forced into this culture without having an opportunity to keep my culture around,” he said. “I’ve been focusing on reconnecting with the culture.”
For example, Shelton sometimes joins Polynesian friends and relatives in late-night kava sessions, drinking a thick liquid derived from a western Pacific crop with sedative and anesthetic properties while swapping stories and singing songs.
Soon, Shelton and his family will have plenty to celebrate. He’s planning to attend the draft in Chicago, where he’ll likely be taken off the board in the top half of the first round, despite his surprisingly slow 40-yard-dash time of 5.64 seconds at the combine.
“He’s got the unique ability to make plays from a power position,” said one longtime NFL scout, who works for an AFC team. “Typically, those guys aren’t playmakers. He’s a playmaker. ‘Cause he’s got great instincts and awareness, and a chip on his shoulder. He feels pressure. He’s really good. But will anybody have the balls to take a guy that high who runs a 5.6?”
Said Petersen: “The ‘Underwear Olympics’ — that’s not what Danny’s strengths are going to be. I still chuckle: As smart as the NFL guys are, they’re gonna have a nose guard run a 40-yard dash? You’ve just got to put the tape on. He’ll still run sideline to sideline. He’s explosive and strong and he’s been so durable. And he is legitimately very, very sharp.”
Shelton honored his heritage at Washington’s pro day by performing drills in a traditional Samoan cloth.
Back in his class-clown days, Shelton might have provoked relentless laughter by making such a proclamation. Pulling his SUV into the parking lot of the apartment complex in which his mother, sister Shannon and brother Tui now share an unassuming unit, in an area of Auburn that is technically part of the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation, Danny recounted a story from his self-described bad kid days.
“In fifth grade, we had a substitute teacher for half the school year,” Shelton said. “I was mad that the regular teacher had left, and I was acting out toward the sub, so she told me to read part of this book in front of the class.
“Reading was not my subject; I hated reading with a passion, and I knew the other kids would laugh at me. I said, ‘I’m not doing this.’ I called her fat. She started bawling. I started kicking over recycling bins, throwing a fit. She sent me to the office, and I got suspended. Back then, the vice principal’s office was basically like my second class. (The vice principal) would always talk to me about changing, but it took me a long time to get the message.”
Once inside the apartment, it wasn’t hard to read Shelton: He was in his comfort zone — and he’s well aware that things are about to get a lot more comfortable for the family.
On this overcast midweek afternoon,Shelton sat calmly on a well-worn couch supervising his dogs — Juicy, a Husky (naturally), and Moni, the pit bull he acquired before his senior year at Washington. Two other dogs occupied the small living space, where Danny’s girlfriend, Mara Mariano, looked right at home among the Sheltons in her midst. Tui, currently unemployed, playfully lifted one of his five daughters; Oneone and Shannon, a dental hygienist, tidied up the kitchen; younger brother Kevin, a defensive end who recently completed his sophomore season at the University of Idaho, stretched his back on the carpeted floor. Shennon was there, too — in the form of a memorial portrait doubling as a wall clock.
Growing up, the supersized Shelton brothers were inseparable. At times, at least from their mother’s perspective, they were also insufferable.
“Yeah, we wrestled, and yeah, we’ve broken a lot of couches, man,” Kevin said, laughing. “We’ve broken TVs. We broke everything.”
Added Danny: “My mom would always get mad at us, ’cause somebody would always get hurt. At our old apartment, we broke like four windows throwing balls around. The manager hated us there. My mom had to pay all these fines. Now I finally get a chance to pay her back.”
Danny, who visited the Cleveland Browns last week, doesn’t know which team will end up doling out his paychecks next fall. When his name is called, likely on the first night of the draft — on the eve of the fourth anniversary of Shennon’s death — he’ll be thinking less about his impending relocation and more about the tragedy-tinged road he has traveled.
“Back when I was shoplifting,” Shelton said softly, “I always had a conscience, a voice in the back of my head. I’d think, ‘This is wrong,’ but I’d still do it. I never stole money or merchandise; I stole snacks, mostly. It made it easier on my mom, who was working two jobs, in a factory and in a warehouse, and had been abused by my dad and had been through a lot.
“I can’t wait to buy her a house — it’s one of those things I’m looking forward to. I offered to have her move with me, but she doesn’t want to leave Auburn. She wants to stay close to my brother’s gravesite. I’m going to get her a really big house here, one to fit my brothers and my sister — who has basically taken on the role of the mother since our brother died, because my mom stopped working, and has made a lot of sacrifices — and possibly my uncle, who is the High Chief of our family and who has some health issues that I’d like to help him with.”
And though Shelton will soon don a cap and gown and join his classmates in receiving a diploma — and, chances are, sign a lucrative rookie contract — his academic career may well be extended.
“I might go to graduate school,” Shelton said. “I also want to work in the community, and set up a program to help student-athletes. I have a passion for dogs, and I’m planning to do some work at shelters. When my career is over, I want to start a pit bull shelter, to try to help break that stereotype.
“I’ve got big plans. Life’s too short to be bitter. The pain is still there, but I’ve just got to figure out a way to move forward.”