His future in football was far from set, and it had been a humbling four years in Coral Gables.
Even for Shields—who once ran a 4.20 40-yard dash at Miami—his route to stardom has been a fast one. Looking back on the path he blazed to get here, however, maybe we should have seen it coming.
Four star start
Born in Sarasota, Florida, Shields attended Booker High School. Known more for its' visual and performing arts program, Booker was far from a football powerhouse.
That all changed once Shields suited up for the Tornadoes. (Yes, the Booker High School Tornadoes.)
In his sophomore season, Shields caught 24 passes for 825 yards (34.4 yard average) and 12 touchdowns, and he started to receive some major college attention.
His junior year he caught 44 passes for 900 yards and 12 more touchdowns, and also had two kickoff returns for touchdowns. His senior year, however, is when Shields really took off.
That year he caught 67 passes for 1,201 yards and 22 touchdowns, had two punt returns for touchdowns, averaged 44 yards per kickoff return, and also had 200 yards rushing on fake punts and reverses.
Shields was everything for the Tornadoes, and his team advanced to the Florida Class 3A state semi-final game for the first time in school history.
As a four star recruit, Shields had plenty of college suitors. After weighing options such as Florida and LSU, he finally decided on Miami.
Shields the Tornado would now be Shields the Hurricane.
Promising beginning turns sour
Shields got off to a fast start in Coral Gables. He played in all 13 games as a freshman, starting seven, and caught 37 passes for 501 yards and four touchdowns.
His 37 catches were the most by a Miami freshman since Reggie Wayne hauled in 47 during his first year, and Shields was recognized by the Sporting News as a Honorable Mention Freshman All-American and by his conference as an All-ACC academic member.
It appeared that Shields was just beginning an electric career at the receiver position for the Hurricanes.
However, that all changed over the next two seasons.
Shields would only catch 27 and 11 passes over his sophomore and junior years, respectively, and in both years he struggled catching the ball.
To make matters worse, Shields was suspended by coach Randy Shannon for three games in his sophomore season for academic (missing class) and practice habits. Not everyone was ready to give up on him though.
About the same time, Miami defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff realized they had something other than a receiver in Shields. They had a cornerback.
"I had been talking to Sam over a year and a half," McGriff told the Palm Beach Post. "I kept telling him, 'Hey, you're a big-time defensive back wasting your time at receiver.' "
Shields dismissed that idea until his options at receiver became so bleak.
"He took me up on it," said McGriff. "That was a big risk that he took, changing positions as a senior. But he had a mind-set that no matter what, he was going to be successful."
His senior season, Shields started 10 games at cornerback and was named the team's most improved player. While he didn't intercept a pass, it was clear that if he wanted his football career to continue, it'd have to be in the defensive backfield.
Would the Green Bay Packers be in the Super Bowl without Sam Shields?
That future, however, was about to get murky once again for Shields.
Bad decision has consequences
On March 18th, 2010, Shields was arrested in Sarasota on a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana (less than 20 grams). Shields claimed he was falsely arrested and wasn't using any of the drug.
That didn't matter.
The charges were later dropped and Shields paid only the court fees, but the damage was already done. His already small chance of being drafted died once the news got out.
A little over a month later, on April 22nd, those fears were realized. During the 2010 NFL Draft, 33 cornerbacks were picked (most of any position), but Shields was not one of them.
"I was sick," Shields told the Green Bay Press Gazette when asked about the feeling of being passed over 255 times and by all 32 teams.
However, seven teams, including the Packers, were interested in signing Shields as an undrafted free agent.
While he admitted being frustrated with the process, Shields eventually signed with the Packers for a modest $7,500 bonus and a minimum contract.
“I liked Green Bay, the Hall of Fame, everything," Shields said, “I talked to my head coach, Randy Shannon, and I also did my homework on the depth chart and how I could fit in as far as special teams. I thought it was the best fit for me.”
Little did Shields know how fast he would rocket up that very depth chart.
Training camp preview
There were very few Packers fans who knew much about Sam Shields. I was one of them—I only knew his name from the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl in which Shields took a reverse on the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown (called back after a stupid penalty, watch the video).
However, I do have to give myself a small pat on the back. After researching Shields, I wrote an article about the additions of both James Starks and Shields and how they could help the Packers this season.
But to be fair, no one could have seen exactly how important he would become. First off, Shields had to make the team by impressing coaches at training camp.
He did just that. Shields immediately started opening eyes—important eyes in the Packers' organization.
Coach Mike McCarthy told reporters that Shields "really jumped out" to him during training camp.
Veteran Charles Woodson also saw something in the raw cornerback. "You know what? I think he's going to be able to play for us."
Shields capped off an impressive camp with a 98-yard interception return during the Packers' family night scrimmage, and after the preseason was over, Shields had made the 53-man roster.
Not bad for a kid who was a failing receiver just two years prior, but Sam Shields was just getting started.
Regular season footing takes awhile
Heading into the 2010 regular season, the Packers were the talk of the land as possible Super Bowl participants from the NFC.
With Shields and fellow rookie Morgan Burnett as the only significant additions to the Packers' secondary, many questioned (including me) whether Green Bay was in a better position to stop quarterbacks than the year before.
Shields did very little to answer those questions in the beginning of the season. As the starting nickelback on opening day, the Philadelphia Eagles unwisely avoided targeting Shields. But when they did a few rare times, they found success.
Most notably, on a fourth quarter Eagles touchdown, Jeremy Maclin got Shields completely turned around on his 17-yard touchdown catch.
However, once Week 1 was in the books, you didn't hear much from Shields again for awhile. That is, until the Dallas Cowboys came to Lambeau Field.
Early in the first half, Shields lined up head-to-head against the Cowboys' best receiver, Miles Austin.
A speedster in his own right, Austin has developed into one of the NFL's better receivers, and I'm sure any fan who saw the matchup before the play took a big gulp.
Once the play was over, however, Packers fans knew they really had something in Shields.
Austin ran a straight go route, and Cowboys quarterback Jon Kitna immediately recognized the matchup. He tried to fit the ball in over the Packers' rookie corner, but Shields made an acrobatic interception that was the spark to Green Bay's 45-7 thrashing of the Cowboys.
“Other than catching it with the wrong hand, he played it perfectly,” Packers defensive back coach Joe Whitt said. “It’s just impossible to catch a ball like that, which he did. You would think you catch it with your stop hand. It’s just really a splash play.
“When the ball went up, I said, ‘OK, he’s in good position. Wow, he caught the ball.’ It was amazing to me.
Just two days after the Dallas game, the Packers released veteran cornerback and two-time Pro Bowler Al Harris. Shields never would have admitted it publicly, but the Packers management had given him a giant vote of confidence moving forward.
Little did either side know, but Shields would reward that confidence in the biggest game he's ever played.
Shields had an interception against the Giants in Week 16, but for the most part remained quiet the rest of the regular season (sometimes a good thing for a cornerback).
The Packers, on the other hand, were busy making plenty of noise. After winning their last two games of the season, Green Bay snuck into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed with a 10-6 record.
Once in the playoffs, the Packers dispatched the Eagles, 21-16, and destroyed the Falcons by a final tally of 48-21. Shields played a major role as nickelback in both games, but the major story line was the two NFC Championship game qualifiers:
The Packers and Bears.
The longest running rivalry in NFL history would, for just the second time, extend into the playoffs, and for the first time decide who goes to the Super Bowl.
The game was a sportswriters' dream; story lines poured out of it like sweat on a hot day.
Sam Shields just wasn't one of them. Of course, it's easy to overlook a 23 year old undrafted rookie cornerback in a game of this magnitude.
However, by the game's final whistle, Shields had made sure that the postgame headlines would include his name with two of the game's most important plays.
The first occurred after quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw a circus interception—with the Packers up 14-0—to Lance Briggs that got the quiet Solider Field crowd back into the game.
With under two minutes in the first half, and as the Bears began their drive down the field, you could feel that a Chicago score in that situation would do wonders in getting them back into the game.
Shields ensured that momentum swing never happened.
The Packers went to the locker room up 14-0, but Shields saved his best performance for last.
After Cutler was unable to finish the game, and backup Todd Collins was pulled, third string quarterback Caleb Hanie attempted to lead the Bears back.
A touchdown pass to Earl Bennett cut the Packers' lead to 21-14, and after a defensive stop the next series, the Bears got the ball back with an opportunity to tie the NFC Championship game.
As you watch the play, you notice a couple of things about Sam Shields.
First, he makes a great catch on the interception. Of course, that was one of the main reasons he made the switch to cornerback.
But what's most important is what happens next. Instead of just going down, Shields raced down the far sideline of Solider Field, displaying his breath-taking speed.
Clearly an unwise decision, but for Shields, no two seconds of sprinting could have ever felt more rewarding.
After everything he's been through, and every obstacle he's run over, around, or past, he'd finally made it.
"Sam has gone through a lot in his career," said Randy Phillips, Shields' former teammate at Miami. "But he hung in there."
By hanging in there, he proved his doubters wrong, and he proved the people who believed in him—Packers GM Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy, Wesley McGriff, Joe Whitt, Charles Woodson—absolutely right.
Now, in large part due to the efforts of Shields, the Packers are going to the Super Bowl.
It's clearly been a fast track to stardom, but if we've learned anything about Sam Shields, the speed in which he gets to point A to point B has never been much of a problem.