Unleashed: The 'Unbelievable' Maturation of Danny Shelton
Aug. 29, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE -- The mammoth force around which the Huskies are centering their new, completely remade defense turned 19 last week.
But after what Danny Shelton has been through the last two years, the sophomore is infinitely more mature than any teenager imaginable.
And coach Steve Sarkisian knows better than almost anyone that whatever the bullish, surprisingly quick and fiendishly dedicated defensive tackle does to improve Washington's defense beginning in Saturday night's opener against San Diego State won't come close to matching what big number 71 has endured just to be on the field.
In a chilling memory that shows practices and the games we watch are only parts of his job, Sarkisian was with Shelton during the worst hours of his life two years ago.
"He's been unbelievable," Sarkisian says. "It's been great to watch him mature in a year's time. He's a very mature kid. Excellent student, dean's list student.
"I'm really proud of him."
While just 17 and a senior at Auburn, Wash., High School already signed to UW, Shelton and his then-15-year-old brother watched their two older brothers get shot on May 1, 2011. One of the bullets went through the head of Shennon, his second-oldest brother, a beloved middle-school football and basketball coach known as "Skeevie" in their hometown. It killed him a few feet from where Danny was standing.
According to a report by the Auburn Police Department, the brothers were at an apartment following a street fight involving Danny's oldest brother Gaston, whom they call "Tui." Tui then rounded up his brothers, some cousins and a friend and sought retribution.
They were met at the apartment not only with resistance, but a gun. Tui was shot through his torso, narrowly missing his heart. Skeevie was mortally wounded in the neck.
Then - mercifully, miraculously, whatever -- the gunman's weapon jammed. With one of his brothers dying and another shot in the chest feet away from him, Danny jumped the shooter.
Pepper spray ended the melee, but not the memory.
"I have flashbacks. I have flashbacks thinking a lot, 'What if this? What if that?'" Danny Shelton told me two weeks ago, standing off the edge of East Field following preseason practice. "But then I have to think to myself, I have to move on and look to the future.
"I'm always, constantly thinking about my brother. How it would be different if he was here with me right now, supporting me."
Skeevie was 22, a basketball and football coach at Cascade Middle School in Auburn. Tui was 23 then, with a wife and children. He spent a week in Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where Sarkisian rushed that Sunday night to be with Danny and his family. Tui has since recovered and is serving in the U.S. Army, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Auburn.
Danny is still recovering emotionally. Since that horrific night, he's talked of taking steps to manage his anger.
In turn, he's remarkably managed his life.
He started as a true freshman last season on an Alamo Bowl team and got off to a soaring start academically at UW - all while being the father-like figure he, his sister and his younger brother Kevin "Kevai" never had.
This defensive tackle driven like none other continues to comfort his mother, too. Oneone (Ow-ne' ow-ne'), a single mom who has held down three jobs to raise five kids, has been understandably devastated that she lost one of her sons to senseless, avoidable gunfire.
"In a big way it made me have to grow up and be the leader of the family because I was leaving to go off to college," Shelton said, speaking in a quiet voice belying his 6-foot-1, 317-pound body. "My mom, my sister and my little brother, I had to show them that I could be strong and be on my own. I had to be the older brother for my little brother, because we had two older brothers (shot).
"So it was pretty hard, you know? I was just trying to be the big brother and really the father figure for my little brother."
Shelton tries to make the 35-minute trip home from UW to his mother, sister and younger brother at least three times a month.
"Last year I went home a lot, just to see if they were comfortable," he said. "Now I am trying to go home less to be on my own and be an adult."
He's flourishing in that role, too.
Huskies assistant coach Johnny Nansen was on the phone with Shelton in those critical, heartbreaking days after the shooting. Nansen has seen Shelton go from a 17-year-old boy to 18-year-old man essentially as quickly as two bullets can fire from a gun.
Shelton has a cumulative grade-point average of 3.57 over his first year-plus at UW. That's one of the highest GPAs on the football team. He made the dean's list this past winter quarter and barely missed it two other quarters.
Kim Durand, UW's associate athletic director for student development, thinks Shelton has a chance to become an academic All-American. Ed Cunningham, the all-conference center on the 1991 national-championship team, is the Huskies' last first-team Academic All-American in football. So it's been a while.
It's been never since the Huskies have had one that's been through what Shelton has.
"We think the WORLD of him!!" Durand wrote in an e-mail.
Nansen said "it's like night and day" how Shelton has gone from haunted, 17-year-old freshman to 18-year-old leader of the defense.
"Even our older guys are following his lead," said Nansen, a fellow Samoan. "Danny's been a joy, man. I am looking forward to the next two years with him.
"Oh, man, for him to be where he is at today says a lot for him and his family. Really, he has become closer to our football team and our family."
Nansen credits Sarkisian.
"I AM HERE FOR YOU"
Sarkisian, a former record-setting quarterback at BYU and architect of USC's and Washington's potent offenses recently, isn't often associated with a 317-pound defensive tackle.
Then again, Sark had never received a phone call like the one he got early in the evening of May 1, 2011.
The coach was enjoying a routine, relatively quiet offseason Sunday. Spring ball had been over for a week. His players were finishing the academic term.
The man on the other end of the line was the uncle of his prized, all-state recruit from Auburn High. He told the coach that had forged a bond with the family over the previous two years while recruiting big Danny that the tackle's older brothers had been shot and that Skeevie was dead.
Sarkisian learned Danny was with his family at the hospital in Seattle, with Tui in serious condition.
That's when Sarkisian became Danny's father figure. At a crossroads moment in Shelton's life, with the south Auburn community where the shooting occurred bracing for retaliation, the coach rushed to Harborview.
"My gut instinct was to go, right there, right then - for a variety of reasons," Sarkisian said. "One, for his own well-being. Two, for the family, for his mother.
"Three, sometimes when you are 17, 18 years old you can make emotional decisions, irrational decisions that I didn't want him to make.
"I wanted to be there for him so he could make a great decision at that time."
Sarkisian didn't just check in on Shelton. He stayed late by his side at the hospital, for three-plus hours, months before Shelton would play his first down for the Huskies.
"It was a long time," the coach said.
He sat next to Shelton in a packed emergency room, grief and support pouring out of the waiting room. He looked Shelton directly in the eyes and, for that night anyway, became his father.
"I've never been through this on how you should feel, how you should deal with it," he told Shelton in that ER. "I just want you to know I am here for you. And I always will be."
That's how Danny Shelton became a Husky for life.
"He actually came to the hospital, the night of," Shelton said, still marveling. "He was there to talk to me, give me words of strength. Just trying to comfort me."
Asked what that meant to him, Shelton didn't hesitate.
"I really felt like I was going to be taken care of the next year while in college," he said. "I even had Everrette Thompson and Alameda Ta'amu (UW upperclassmen defensive linemen at the time) texting me, calling me the night of, too. They were like, 'Hey, bro, if you need anything we got you.'
"They were opening their arms for me."
Recruiting in big-time college sports is widely viewed as a treacherous industry, and deservedly so. But the next time you read or hear of a shady dealing with high-school athletes, remember also the Huskies coach who rushed into an emergency room full of grieving family members from a different culture. Who dealt with a murder and a double shooting -- and kept a kid from veering into retaliation, quitting his college dream, who knows what.
"It was very special for Sark to be there for the family. That means a lot to the Samoan culture," said Nansen, who was born in Samoa. "That goes a long way."
Nansen was away the day Shelton's brothers were shot and didn't talk to Sarkisian that Sunday. The coach went alone from his home across Lake Washington to Seattle's First Hill.
What did Sarkisian see when he got to Harborview?
"Amazing support," he said. "The emergency room spread out to the parking lot, there were so many people there. That was so cool that a family and friends could come together like that in support of family members. That was extremely impressive to me.
"That was the biggest thing that stuck out to me, how everybody came together."
Yes, Shelton had signed with UW three months earlier. But the most traumatic event imaginable for a 17-year-old kid could easily have changed everything.
Asked if he feared Shelton might not enroll at Washington as he spoke to him that night at Harborview and in the days and weeks that followed, Sarkisian said: "I don't know."
"I was hopeful that would give him a sense that, 'If I go the University of Washington Coach Sarkisian will be there for me,' the coach said. "That's all I wanted him to know.
"If he'd said, 'Coach, I want to take a year off,' I wouldn't have blamed him. How could I know? You witness something like that, how do you deal with it?"
Shelton has dealt with it by not just using his college opportunity but seizing it. He's excelling in the classroom. He's rededicated himself to his family and football.
He is on track to become a four-year starter and central force on the Huskies' defense. He's become a family patriarch while still a teenager. He's become a leader at UW on and off the field, so much so that Nansen says "even our older players look up to him."
He's become, to use Sarkisian's word, unbelievable.
"He's really improved on the field. He's a tremendous player for us. Our whole defense is centered around him," the coach said. "I've been really impressed with Danny Shelton."
Can you imagine not only keeping on but rising up and excelling in the months after witnessing your older brother get killed and another brother get shot at your feet?
Neither can Sarkisian.
"No. That's the part to me," he said.
"Man, there are some days I might get up and I'm grumpy or this or that. Sometimes when Danny has one, I quickly remind the person - and sometimes it's myself, because I want to get after him on something: Think about what this guy went through. Of course there is probably emotion or anger that's inside him that we are still working with him on. How could you blame him? How could there not be?
"I just try to step back and put myself in his shoes the best I can. And, again, continually try to support him."
So how did Shelton, the second youngest of four boys, get through it?
Family. His own. And his new one at UW.
"Really, for me, it was just sticking with my family and making sure everything was OK with my mom, my sister, my little brother, because they took it pretty tough," he said. "We were all trying to come together for our oldest brother, trying to get him to make it through.
"Really, all I needed was the comfort of my family, my friends, too. It got to the point I had to push it to the back of my mind."
The gunman who killed Shelton's older brother was never charged. The King County prosecutor's office concluded in June 2011 after the police investigation that the shooter could and would under state law claim he acted in self defense to protect himself and his home.
Danny Shelton? He isn't looking back.
He's watching Kevai, now 17, follow in his footsteps at his high school as a standout lineman with Division-I aspirations.
Danny said it took until late in August 2011, weeks before his first college game for the Huskies, before he could push his brothers' shootings from the front of his mind. Now, he's turned tragedy into motivation, into a reason not only to exist but to excel.
"My mindset was really to push myself even further, to make it to the NFL, to support my family," he says, with the tone of burden most sophomores can't fathom. "I have the mindset to push it even harder, to not give up for them."
I asked him now what the biggest difference is for him this preseason compared to last year at this time.
"I'm getting way more sleep," he said, sounding relieved. "Last year, there was too much anxiety. I was too hyped to go to sleep."
With all he's been through, with all he's playing for and how far he's come in 15 months, no wonder.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sportswriter who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduated of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.