Here’s Earl

The Last Man on Earth

Elias Stein

Shedding the Blockers

How massive Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton worked through an unimaginable tragedy and became a top-flight NFL prospect

Packed in a barber’s chair made for a man half his size, Danny Shelton leans back as Niko Fernandez scrapes a gold straight razor down his cheek. Shelton has been going to Fernandez’s barbershop since he got to the University of Washington, but it’s been at least two years since he’s had the ends of his long, gold-tipped hair snipped. Today, it’s just some trimming and shaping around the ears. “I call it a Samoan taper,” Fernandez says. Many of Shelton’s Pacific Islander teammates go for the same look. He doesn’t remember which elder Husky first told him about Niko. “It was just understood,” Shelton says. “In Seattle, there’s only one place you go.”

The Roosevelt Barbershop has three TVs, arranged so that every seat has one in view. On this dreary Tuesday in April, each is set to Draft Academy on ESPN. A few of the segments were shot at EXOS, the performance center just outside San Diego where Shelton spent time training before the combine. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon was also there, and early on, the pair remembered they’d played together in a high school all-star game in South Carolina. As Gordon’s 408-yard outburst against Nebraska flashes across the screen, Shelton realizes it’s the first time he’s seen his new friend play. “He’s cool to kick it with,” Shelton says, “and I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was this good.”

Part of the motivation behind this trip to see Niko is that in two weeks, Shelton will have an onscreen moment of his own. Earlier in the day, he accepted the NFL’s invitation to attend the draft in Chicago, a sign that the 339-pound defensive tackle is likely to be selected in the first round. Yet for a player who might be taken in the first 15 picks, someone who’s dedicated most of his life to football, Shelton doesn’t watch much of it. He can’t remember the last time he saw an entire game from his couch, not even the Super Bowl. Growing up, his brothers would urge him to join them in cheering on their beloved 49ers on Sunday afternoons. “I didn’t get why we wouldn’t just go outside and play football,” Shelton says. “I’m not a fan of being a fan.”

Shelton is more in tune with his identity — how he presents himself and when — than most 21-year-olds. He’s a football player, a Samoan, a brother, and much more. College is a time of self-discovery for anyone, but when Shelton arrived on Washington’s campus in 2011, he came in pieces. The past four years were about more than building a résumé worthy of the NFL; they were about putting those pieces back together. “There was a lot of rebuilding and maturing that went on these four years,” Shelton says. “Trying to figure out who I am. Trying to find an identity. Really, just trying to live.”

2015 NFL Scouting CombineJoe Robbins/Getty Images

Shelton parks his rented Kia Sorento at the corner of 37th Street and D Place, less than a 10-minute drive from his family’s apartment in Auburn, Washington. He won’t go any farther north near the cul-de-sac where it happened. “I haven’t been back there since,” he says.

May 1, 2011, was a Sunday. Shelton and his family hadn’t been out of church long when his older brother Shennon, who went by Skeevie, got a call from their oldest brother Tui’s girlfriend. In a nearby apartment complex, a fight had escalated throughout the day.1 An argument between two 13-year-olds had intensified to include their families and others. Tui, then 23, had been recording the scuffles with his phone when he’d been pulled into the fray and punched in the back of the head before fending off three men. Tui’s face was cut and bloodied, and he’d called his girlfriend, urging her to tell his brothers to meet him nearby. Soon, five men — Skeevie, Danny, their youngest brother Kevin, a cousin, and another friend — approached the apartment of Olenthis Woods, the older brother of one of the 13-year-old boys. Woods was one of the men who’d jumped Tui.

Danny moved to the left side of the house. Through a window, he could see Woods carrying a gun as he walked toward the front door. He called out to his brothers, who didn’t budge. The first shot hit Tui in the chest. A second shot hit Shennon in the head, behind the ear. By then, Shelton was in front of the house, with a chair in his right hand. Woods raised the gun but didn’t fire. It was jammed. After throwing the chair, Shelton was able to wrestle the gun from Woods before pulling him to the ground. Gun in hand, Shelton hit Woods in the face repeatedly as Woods’s sister and mother yanked at Shelton’s hair and pepper-sprayed his face. He says he let up only when his right biceps seized, allowing Woods to shake free.

“My whole body was covered with blood,” Shelton says. “The guy’s blood and my brother’s blood, because we carried him to the curb. I went home, washed all the blood and pepper spray from my eyes, and went to the hospital.” Paramedics said Shennon had died before reaching the hospital. The bullet lodged in Tui’s chest was too deep to remove, but after surgery he would eventually recover.

All summer, Shelton felt lost. On prom night, a few drinks deep, he insisted he and his friends walk to his brother’s grave, a miles-long trip. Graduation brought a similar ache. Moments came when he didn’t know whether he even wanted to come to Washington.

“There are times when it was hard, and I was just like, ‘What would Skeevie do?’” Shelton says. “If I give up now, then why am I here? Why did I want to make my brothers happy and make my family happy? Why waste it? I just kept with it. I kept quiet and kept going.”

The heart of Greek Row at Washington is about three blocks from The Ave, the main drag near campus that makes this stretch of Seattle look like any college town. Near the intersection of 47th Street and 17th Avenue, a half dozen fraternity houses are crammed into just a few blocks. It was a familiar corner for Shelton his first year at school. “This is where we started all our nights,” he says as he drives by. Plenty of freshmen spend their time drinking beer and chasing girls, but for Shelton, it went beyond enjoying newfound freedom. He was trying to fill a void. “That was a way for me to let off steam, to let off emotions and stuff,” he says. “After [my brother] passed away, I just started going through this rage.” The night before a game that season, he even tried sneaking a female student into the team hotel. He was punished, but not to the extent that other players might have been.

Shelton knows that Steve Sarkisian’s staff afforded him freedom not given to others. His first two seasons at Washington were filled with outbursts — at teammates, at coaches. “He was just on a short fuse,” teammate John Timu says. “He got annoyed by the littlest things.” A player not touching a line or missing an assignment was enough to set him off. “The way he was angry,” Timu says, “you knew he was angry about more than a guy missing a line.”

This fuse was shorter, but one had always been there. Shelton’s family moved often when he was young. His three older siblings were born in American Samoa, where his mother had met his father, a visiting Peruvian fisherman. Shelton was born in Sacramento and spent some time in Tacoma before the family settled in Auburn, about 30 minutes southeast of Seattle, with his uncle. All the shuffling was an attempt to get away from Shelton’s father, who regularly abused his mother. “There were times when we had three families in one house,” Shelton’s brother Tui says, sitting in the living room of his mother’s apartment. When an ignorant stranger asks to see Shelton’s room, he and Tui nearly double over. “This is it!” Shelton says, pointing to one of the few couches he and his brothers didn’t break as kids.

Across town, just outside the gate of Shelton’s high school football stadium, is a small park. It was a place for family parties and church dance rehearsals, but it was also the scene for after-school fights. Shelton answered almost any taunt with violence. He shoplifted — nothing of value, just a stray candy bar here and there. It was a family thing. He doesn’t remember much about his father — the older man left for good when Shelton was 11 and died a few years later — but he can recall trips to Toys R Us when he was 5 or 6. Shelton would pick out a small item, an action figure or toy car, before his father would slip it under his jacket and head toward the exit.

“Moni, sasa,” Shelton hisses as his pit bull whines from the backseat. He commands his dogs in Samoan and jokes that, by now, Moni is bilingual. Shelton rescued her toward the end of his sophomore year, when he was still living with a group of teammates. For the first few weeks, he carried her everywhere — from workouts to class, in an old black duffel bag, her head popping out of the top. “In the middle of class one day, you hear this yip, yip,” says Holly Barker, one of Shelton’s professors. “I just said, ‘Danny, it’s cool if you bring your puppy, but we can’t have yipping in class.’”

Moni meant companionship at a time when Shelton admits he was lonely, but she was also a means to create structure. He was responsible for another life, and he had to build his own around those obligations. “You really have to sit down and fix your schedule,” he says. The next fall, Shelton moved into a studio apartment alone. The move helped free his roommates from worrying about what a pit bull puppy does to furniture, but it also helped slow Shelton’s life down even more. He was drinking less, studying more. “Basically,” he says, “I was adding more responsibility so I didn’t have to go out and party.” Around the same time, he met a young woman named Mara Mariano while at the mall with his family. She was working at Juicy Couture before starting dental school. When Shelton and his family left the store, he lied about going to look for a hat before ducking back in and asking for her phone number. “I took a chance,” he says, “and it worked out for me.” The pair soon got another dog, a husky fittingly named Juicy.

Despite the stigma, pit bulls are an agreeable breed. But a husky “was totally different,” Shelton says. Juicy tore up the carpet in his living room, the vinyl in his kitchen. She ripped her way out of cages and ran off at every chance. Owning Juicy became a lesson in patience — the one thing Shelton lacked in his earlier years at Washington. He was healing, slowly. Between his sophomore and junior years, for the first time in two years, he returned to Auburn, stopping at his brother’s grave before coming home. “My life started to become easier,” he says. “I had less stress. I started coming back. I started playing better. I started producing more.”

Washington v Washington StateWilliam Mancebo/Getty Images

As a sophomore, Shelton started every game at nose tackle, but he felt that his junior season could be different. Then, in Washington’s season opener against Boise State, he suffered a sprained shoulder that he’d play with all season. He didn’t miss a game, but his play lagged. The Huskies finished the regular season 8-4, but the day after their 27-17 win over Washington State in the Apple Cup, players started noticing rumblings on Twitter that Sarkisian was headed to USC. The initial reaction, from Shelton and some of the other rising seniors, was deflation. “I got to the point where I didn’t want to play football anymore,” Shelton says. Within the week, though, resolve returned to him and the other seniors, and behind interim coach Marques Tuiasosopo, Washington won its bowl game against BYU.

The arrival of new coach Chris Petersen meant starting anew, not just for Washington’s program but also for Shelton, with a coaching staff who’d only heard rumors about how difficult he could be. Justin Wilcox, the defensive coordinator for Sarkisian, had previously held the same title under Petersen at Boise State. Jeff Choate, who was arriving at Washington as the defensive line coach, was also on Petersen’s Boise State staff, and Wilcox and Choate had actually vacationed together that summer. Shelton was a frequent topic of conversation. Wilcox told Choate about Shelton’s boiling point, about the importance of bringing him back from the edge.

“It was kind of ironic, because [when I got to Washington] I was always just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Choate says. “There were days where you could tell [Danny] was reaching a frustration level, but he did a great job of kind of resetting himself. He was acutely aware of that. Not that we’d brought it to his attention, but I think over the course of his career, he’d figured it out.”

From the start, it was obvious to Choate what he had in the middle of Washington’s defense. In the Huskies’ season opener, a late-August game in Hawaii, Shelton played 78 snaps. Even at 339 pounds — a number Choate calls “conservative” — Shelton was on the field for all three downs. He would finish the season with nine sacks, but his presence also created opportunities all over the Washington defense. Like Vince Wilfork — a player to whom Shelton has been compared often in the lead-up to the draft — single-teaming him with a center allows him to control both inside gaps, freeing up linebackers to worry about plays further outside. After the first series in Washington’s 27-26 loss at Arizona, Choate noticed the Wildcats were content to not double-team Shelton at all. Shelton finished the game with nine total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a sack. “At our level, he was dominant,” Choate says. “The production he had for an interior defensive lineman is really hard to understand.”

In the back room of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, near the main entrance to Washington’s campus, sits a staging area with a gray backdrop flanked by two high-quality LiteDome photographic lighting canopies. Today’s mystery is a woven, straw-colored sheet with tiny oval holes and a stitch of red across its length. Barker — she of the yipping ban — is an anthropology professor and the curator of Asian Pacific artifacts at the museum, and she guesses it’s about 80 years old.

“We’re trying to figure out if it’s Samoan or Tongan,” she says to Shelton, “and we’d love your two cents.”

“I’ve never seen these designs before,” Shelton says. “With these holes, you probably couldn’t wear it as a garment.” One guess is that it’s ornamental, to be placed over a casket. Another is that it’s actually from Fiji. Of the 50,000 objects in the back rooms of the Burke, not all can be traced to a single island.

There are 88 sets of shelves in these back rooms, each with at least 13 rows and four columns. Units 5 and 6 are where Shelton spends most of his time when he visits, among the Polynesian artifacts. That’s also the row with the first of two walls full of spears. “They used to joke that if there were a zombie apocalypse, this is where you’d want to be,” Barker says. Shelton took his first class with Barker, a cultural exploration of the atomic bomb, as a freshman. By now, he’s taken five more as part of his anthropology major.

In the same row as the spears sit the kavas, wooden dishes propped up by legs that surround their circumference. There’s one tattooed on Shelton’s left forearm, along with a crossed chief’s fly whisk and talking stick, two more items used in Samoan ceremonies. “I would just come back here and see if I could find a connection [to my past],” Shelton says. He and other anthropology and ethnology students would spend hours in the back, sifting through items and learning what they could from them. As an intern at the museum, he helped to redesign a Pacific Islander exhibit. Barker and the staff made him a joke Burke Nerd certificate after he was named first-team academic All-American.

Shelton admits that reconnecting to his lineage was just another way of rebuilding a part of who he is. Away from football at Washington, he tried to be more of a Polynesian and a mentor with a 3.7 GPA than an athlete. This fall, he led a First-Year Interest Group on campus, helping mentor incoming students about the difficulties of the transition to college. He’s the first athlete Barker can remember asking to be involved with the program. Early on, when students would ask if he played football, he would lie. “I’d tell them I played tennis,” Shelton says. A few said he should give football a try. He told them he’d think about it.

“Anthropology hits him because it’s the study of people, the study of culture, the study of human behavior, and look at all the worlds he has to translate,” Barker says. “He’s a football player. He’s a Samoan. These things ground him, being a Polynesian, connecting to his culture. I think it gives him strength.”

It’s just after 6 p.m. on a Wednesday, and most of Shelton’s family — his sister, his mother, a few cousins — have gathered in a room of the Church of Nazarene in Auburn for a Bible study led by his uncle. Shelton pops in to greet them, but not much more. As he leaves, a few kids in the lobby ask if he plays football. He tells them the truth. They ask if he’s a running back, and he smiles.

“I don’t go to church as much anymore,” Shelton says as he pulls out of the parking lot. “I just don’t have that connection. I didn’t ever tell my mom. I didn’t ever tell my uncle. The desire to go there is kind of lost. That day at church was one of the last times we had fun.”

Skeevie was active in the church. He used to operate the lights during services. That day, Shelton remembers sneaking up to the rafters, where his brother was working. “I was gonna scare him, but he was chilling; he wasn’t doing anything up there,” Shelton says. “We’d always call him out for it, so I just recorded him. It’s the last recording we have of him.”

His brother is buried at Mountain View Cemetery, which sits on a winding, uphill road on the edge of Auburn. As Shelton takes the curves, he sifts through why he’s made the drive so few times. “I try to force myself to think that he’s still here, to force myself to think that he’s still around,” Shelton says. “I don’t like having that empty feeling, and that’s how I help myself cope and move forward.”

The site they chose for Skeevie was purposeful. All the way up the hill, there’s a perfect view of Mount Rainier in the distance, and a clear look below at all of Auburn. “We saw it as a way for him to feel connected with us still, for him to be able to watch over us,” Shelton says. The sun is setting behind a row of trees in the distance, but there’s still enough light for the gold and purple balloons left from Easter to shimmer. Despite the chill, Shelton wears only a white Washington T-shirt with his name and no. 55 on the back. It was Skeevie’s high school number. Shelton grabbed it at Washington as soon as he could.

Picking his school was a collective effort for the Sheltons, and recruiting trips remain some of his favorite memories with his brothers. “I could always see them smiling all the time,” he says. “It was more for them than it was for me.” He feels the same way today. “What makes me happy about this is knowing my family is happy and enjoying the process with me,” he says. “That’s exactly how my brother was, too. My brother was all about the family, all about making sure we were having a good time.

“I’m just trying to live out our dream together.”

He exhales. By now, the sun is almost behind the trees. Shelton and his size-15 sandals begin shuffling toward the car. Even as darkness creeps in, the balloons glimmer.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Draft, NFL Draft, NFL, Danny Shelton, Washington Huskies, Chris Petersen, Steve Sarkissian

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays