Offensive linemen can sometimes be the NFL’s overlooked grunts, with the glory assigned elsewhere. Often to the quarterback who had time and was comfortable while throwing that sailing, 20-yard bomb. Other times to the untouched running back who saw only sunshine while cruising through a gaping hole.
The great ones just do their job and do it well. They seal, pull or pancake, dust themselves off, then rinse and repeat, which is where we begin with former Kansas City Chiefs guard Will Shields, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Sunday.
He went through that cycle of physical dominance at the point of attack for 14 years. Looking back at his time in the NFL reveals first longevity, then consistently high-level play and off-field character that made him both a community and franchise icon.
Then we see even more: All of those things and an entire Hall of Fame career taking place in one city, for one team without missing a single game.
Will Shields is defined by being an ironman
It all started in 1993, when Shields had just endured an offseason of battling for his roster spot after being selected in the third round (74th overall) by the Chiefs.
Or perhaps more accurately, he survived it.
“The first minicamp after I got there, I was terrible,” Shields told ESPN.com’s Adam Teicher in a recent interview. “I struggled very bad, to the point I was thinking I was going to end up being cut.”
"After I came back, the second minicamp and the third one got better. I sort of figured that I arrived at that point. I guess the main [point] was when the coaches were saying I could actually, maybe, get into the starting lineup by Week 5 or at least share time with the guys that were starting Week 4 or Week 5."
At the time that was significant progress and a carrot being dangled in front of the then-22-year-old fresh out of Nebraska, where he was an All-American guard and a Fumblerooski legend.
But Shields’ first chance to shine would come much sooner than one month into his rookie season. In fact, he didn’t even have to wait one game.
In Week 1 of that year, starting guard Dave Szott suffered an injury, which immediately pushed Shields onto the field. He wasn't quite ready, and he didn’t yet have the Pro Bowl form Chiefs fans would come to know well. He was an anonymous nobody to an extent because all eyes were focused on two recently acquired critical pieces: quarterback Joe Montana and running back Marcus Allen.
The instructions given to Shields in those early days were simple, but rather important. He was to make sure Montana—the quarterback who just cost Kansas City a first-round pick and had missed nearly two full seasons with an elbow injury—remained in one piece.
“In my first start the coaches, of course, told me to make sure that Joe didn’t get hit,” Shields said to Josh Looney of KCChiefs.com in 2012. “So that was in the back of my mind, just making sure that whatever I did I made sure Joe stayed upright.”
That season Montana started 11 games, and Shields was part of a stonewalling offensive line that allowed only 12 sacks when the aging quarterback was in the pocket.
Montana finished off the final two seasons of his career in Kansas City with Shields as one of the five men tasked with minimizing his bruising. He was sacked on only 3.8 percent of his 822 dropbacks.
That’s how it all began for Shields, as he was first unsure of himself, then had to be sure in a real hurry to protect a legend. Quickly his own legendary status grew because he was a firmly entrenched offensive-line anchor who was always there on game day.
Each and every game day until he retired in 2006. You’ll notice a recurring number here...
|Will Shields' year-by-year games played and started|
|Year||Games started||Games played|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
The innovative minds over at Pro Football Focus have advanced how we evaluate offensive line play. But there was a time when the basic, surface-level counting statistic associated with any offensive lineman answered this question: did he play or not?
That would be overly simplistic at any other position. But continuity is the lifeblood of any offensive line. There’s a certain flow and cohesiveness to a line that remains together, and especially one that has a rock like Shields.
His 224 games played and 223 consecutive starts are both Chiefs franchise records. He started all but one game throughout a career that began when we were all still rocking our Discmans, and ended in 2006 when thousands of songs in your pocket was never enough.
In a sport that punishes bodies at any position, Shields took his blows and jabbed back, never crumbling. It’s almost comical to see that column of 16s stretching down in the table above.
The resulting tally puts Shields in a special class.
|Most consecutive regular-season starts|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
But he was more than merely there and slogging his way through a life in football. No, he went for both longevity and near-flawlessness.
A perennial Pro Bowler
Go ahead and consult that very repetitive chart above summarizing Shields’ career once more. Of the 14 seasons shown there, only two of them didn’t end with a Pro Bowl appearance.
He was selected to and appeared in 12 consecutive Pro Bowls. That puts Shields alongside some other legendary names in NFL history.
|Most all-time Pro Bowl selections|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Surrounding Shields on that list are seven other players who already have large replicas of their heads in the Hall of Fame, and three others soon to join them (quarterback Peyton Manning, linebacker Ray Lewis and tight end Tony Gonzalez).
Of the 11 modern-era guards in the Hall of fame, none played more games than Shields, and he did it while being the driving force behind offenses rooted in power running. He was the linchpin for seven top-five rushing units and the muscle in front of five 1,400-plus-yard seasons from two different running backs.
First, Priest Holmes hit that mark in three straight years, and then Larry Johnson enjoyed the cushy space offered by Shields and others to run for, well, a whole lot more.
|Best rushing seasons by Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson|
|Year||Running back||Rushing yards|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
That collection of seasons when opposing run defenses were figuratively (and literally?) punched in the nose each week includes Holmes’ 27 rushing touchdowns in 2003. His scoring total stood briefly as a record and is still tied for the second-highest single-season mark of all time.
Shields was a steady bulldozer and the hammer behind a rushing offense that was often the engine for his Chiefs teams.
That’s who he was on the field. And off the field he was—and still is—so much more.
A Pro Bowler in the community
Shields was an impressively agile athlete for a man who stood 6’3” and weighed 315 pounds, which is how he ascended as a guard. But quickly he came to realize his natural talent opened up a platform and provided him with an opportunity to help those in need.
The seed for that realization was planted long before he set foot on an NFL field, and even before he began his college career at the University of Nebraska.
When Shields was playing high school football in Lawton, Oklahoma, former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson visited to speak with his team. Henderson was a key part of the Cowboys’ championship season in 1977, and he went to the Pro Bowl in 1978.
But throughout his career, Henderson developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol that peaked in 1983, when he was arrested for doing cocaine with two teenage girls. He resurrected his life after that while staying sober, and he became a motivational speaker while also writing a revealing book titled Out of Control: Confessions of an NFL Casualty.
His words resonated with Shields.
“He gave the story of ‘don’t do all of the things that I have done,'” Shields recalled to BJ Kissel of KCChiefs.com. “He said ‘I had a good career and I’ve done some great things but I’ve also had some bad times and some down times.’”
Then just a few years later, Tom Osborne, Shields’ head coach at the University of Nebraska, hammered home the value of community and being more than just a football player.
“We were just college athletes but he’d say ‘hey you need to go out and do speaking engagements,’” Shields continued, also via Kissel. “And I’d say ‘coach, I’m just an offensive lineman from Lawton, Oklahoma.’
“And then he’d go, ‘but you’re a husker.’"
Over two decades later, Shields stood on a stage to receive the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
The award is given annually in recognition of a player’s outstanding volunteer and charity work. For Shields, his moment holding the bronze award depicting Payton in his prime was the culmination of work that began in 1993.
During his rookie season, Shields started the Will To Succeed Foundation, which primarily focuses on literacy, initiatives to improve creativity in young students and helping both children in need and abused women. The foundation has helped over 100,000 people, according to its website, and sponsors over a dozen programs in the Kansas City area.
"If there's one kid who we can impact, then our efforts are all worthwhile,” says a quote from Shields on the foundation’s website. “If one child makes better life choices and his or her life turns out for the better, then we have succeeded."
That quote may best summarize who Will Shields is at his core.
As a football player he’s defined by being an ironman. He was a reliable cornerstone who was there every week to do his job and take care of his assignment. The thing about playing football for a long time—and yes, I’m reaching here—is that you have to be damn good to stick around. Historically great even, and Shields never wavered from that level of dominance, missing the Pro Bowl only in his first two seasons before 12 straight appearances.
But as a person he doesn’t have one title. He didn’t just punch out after a game or practice and then disappear. His community work began around the same time as his consecutive games streak, and it’s still going.
Shields is leaving a lasting mark that extends beyond football. Now he’s taking that reputation as both a human and football player and leaving his mark in Canton, too.