From Soldier Field to the “Big House”, Tim Shaw’s swift feet have motored across the surfaces of the most iconic football stadiums in the country.
But the gridiron that is nearest and dearest to the former NFL special-teams star’s heart is the one that rests just a long post-pattern away from the sign that reads “Welcome to Livonia Clarenceville”.
“This field, hands down, is the most special field I’ve ever played on,” Shaw said Friday afternoon, motioning toward the longtime home of the Trojans’ football team, for which he set seven state rushing records from 1998-2001. “It’s where my love for the game blew up and where football became a huge part of me.
“My memories here are amazing: the full bleachers, the long touchdown runs, the great games, great teammates. When I look at this field, I think about hard work; the times I ran around that track so hard that I threw up.
“It’s therapeutic coming back here because nostalgia is a good thing. It’s those positive memories that create positive vibes in my body.”
As Shaw spoke, over 200 youth football players lined up to register for his sixth annual free camp – the first one since he revealed last August that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” – a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, and is ultimately fatal.
During the eloquent pre-camp address that he delivered to the campers, Shaw talked briefly about the battle he is waging and how adversity can bring out the best in people.
“Life is tough sometimes, but so what?” he emphasized. “That’s why we have family and friends.
“The most important thing is getting through life’s struggles and doing whatever you can do to help someone else whose troubles may be worse than your own.”
Shaw was originally diagnosed with ALS in the spring of 2014.
The decision to go public with his diagnosis last summer – just as the inaugural “Ice Bucket Challenge” was picking up a head of steam across the country – was difficult, he admitted.
“The last thing I wanted was sympathy,” he said. “I didn’t want to be the person everybody was praying for, the person everybody is feeling sorry for, the person everybody knows is dying. I just want to be a normal person, just like everybody else.
“But, happily, there is so much good that came out of my diagnosis, No. 1 being that it could inspire people who were going through an adverse situation of their own.
“As much as ALS is a burden every single day, and as tough as it is, it was important to share it and know I didn’t have to go through it alone.”
Shaw said the feedback he received following his revelation was “overwhelming.”
“To have people come up to you and tell you, ‘If there is anything you need, let me know,’ and know that they meant it, well, what greater thing can someone give you,” he said. “To feel that overwhelming love from people has been a special thing for me.”
Shaw’s father, John, marveled at how his middle son has dealt with the daunting disease.
“Tim hasn’t stopped doing one thing he’d normally be doing, other than the things he can’t do because of his physical limitations now,” said John Shaw, as Tim high-fived a young fan a few feet away. “He’s always been just the most down-to-earth, relatable person with everybody – whether they’re 5-years-old like the kid he just high-fived or gray-haired people like me.
“Tim’s always been a person who says, ‘Let’s live life today, let’s have fun today and let’s serve today.”
Shaw said his spirits are high, but the disease is taking a physical toll on his-once chiseled body.
“I’m struggling with my hands and walking is getting a little difficult,” he said. “If I have to do something dexterity-wise, I struggle.
“I have very little strength, but I have a lot of energy and I have a lot of heart, so I just keep pushing forward.”
While his camp is labeled as a “football” camp, enhancing the participants’ gridiron skills is the least of his concerns.
“To be perfectly honest, the goal of this camp is not to make these kids become better football players,” he said. “The most important thing is for them to see a positive mentor, hear a positive message and see people are here for them who want to make them a better person,” Shaw said. “I want them to walk out of here tonight knowing that they matter and that there are people here who care about them.”
The statement that drew the loudest applause during Shaw’s pre-camp pep talk came toward the end, just before the players took the field for four hours of life-building exercises.
“Just so everyone knows,” Shaw said, pointing his finger in the air for emphasis, “this will not be the last Tim Shaw football camp.”
And there wasn’t a soul within range of Shaw’s voice who doubted him.