A motor-driven cluster of needles shoved ink below the skin of Danny Shelton’s upper chest to spell out “Search For The Truth” his freshman year at Washington.
Those words reveal Shelton’s open-ended pursuit. He’s trying to figure out his true self. He’s wondering if he has caged the anger that has festered in his soul since his brother was shot to death in front of him two years ago. Stamping out the fury has been a trying and disjointed process.
Everything about Shelton is wide. His legs, arms, shoulders, face. At 6-foot-1, 327 pounds, Shelton used his bulk and power to snatch a gun away from a gang member, then start beating him in the face with it.
Shelton tries to use that same ferocity to shove 300-pound foes onto their behinds or at least back several steps during college football games.
Though he considered discarding football after his brother’s shooting, it has provided Shelton a regimen. The former Auburn High School star played with a cast-encased broken hand and wonky hamstring last season, starting all 13 games at nose tackle. He made 45 tackles. He was named to the Pacific-12 Conference’s all-academic first team.
As much as football, Shelton is playing a game of separation. There was a life before his brother’s death. Now, he’s trying to manage the life after.
“I used to have this temper,” Shelton said. “It’s dying away … I can see it and I feel it.”
* * * *
More than an hour of shock, violence and blood turned May 1, 2011, into a Sunday of menace on the 3400 block of C Court Southeast in Auburn.
According to police reports and statements from the King County Prosecutor’s office, the fuse was lit by children. A 13-year-old boy had argued with a girl of similar age. Each went back to their families to complain.
That led to a fight between several people at an apartment complex about six blocks from the 3400 block. Gaston “Tui” Shelton, one the older brothers in Danny’s Samoan family, was visiting a friend that afternoon and began to record the fight with his cellphone.
The initial fight subsided. A second started at a neighboring complex a short time later, involving new and prior participants.
As the brawl moved from complex to complex – the police report estimated 30-35 people were involved in various fights during the day – Gaston watched. Then, he was punched. He fought back. Three men, including Olenthis Woods, the older brother of the 13-year-old boy, jumped him.
Gaston had cuts on his face and vengeance on his mind. He called his wife and told her to tell his three brothers, Shennon, Kevin and Danny, he had been jumped and to meet him at the complex he was visiting.
The three brothers arrived with a cousin and another friend. The six of them stalked toward Woods’ apartment, where Woods’ mother and sister also were.
The men spread around the building, with Danny going to the side. He saw Woods pick up a gun and began to yell to his brothers in front that Woods was armed. The Sheltons yelled for Woods to come out.
Woods, carrying a Walther PPK 9mm pistol he bought on the street a week prior, headed for the door.
Gaston and Shennon Shelton were out front. Woods yelled at them to back up before Gaston decided to “post up,” as he put it. He told Woods “then shoot me, shoot me dude,” and Woods did, once in the chest, knocking Gaston back and to the ground.
Shennon lunged at Woods who shot again. This bullet struck Shennon in the head, entering behind the ear. He fell.
That’s when Danny Shelton threw a chair at Woods, then grabbed the gun from him as Woods tried to shoot him. Danny took the handgun away and began beating Woods in the face with it.
Woods’ sister and mother screamed while they pepper-sprayed Danny, enabling the 5-foot-8, 155-pound Woods to squirm away. The Sheltons tried to take Shennon, who was a middle school football and basketball coach at Cascade Middle School, to their vehicle. Police and medical responders arrived shortly after.
Woods told police he didn’t know anyone he shot.
* * * *
The most consistent element visible in 711 crime scene photographs is blood.
Three-inch blood stains on the concrete. A bloody baby blanket. Torn shirts covered with blood. A brown, blood-soaked bandanna. A blue Cadillac with a blood spatter that covers “a large portion of the hood, the front passenger-side fender, down the length of the passenger side and the paved driveway.”
And bloody footprints.
When Washington coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt arrived at Harborview Medical Center, they found what they estimated to be 100 emotional people packed in there.
Danny Shelton was covered in blood. His brother Shennon died from his gunshot wound at 6:08 p.m. Gaston Shelton’s emergency surgery began around 7 p.m. The doctor did not remove the bullet from Gaston. It was lodged in Gaston’s lungs and removal was too risky. He would recover.
Sarkisian said he went to the hospital out of concern for everyone’s health and to make sure Danny didn’t do anything in retaliation.
“I can’t imagine watching my own brother get shot and killed from point-blank range and how I would have responded,” Sarkisian said.
* * * *
Woods was arrested the day of the shooting. A friend had wrapped the Walther in a brown towel and flung it into the overgrown back yard. From the start, Woods said he shot the Sheltons. He also said he didn’t know them.
Less than two months later, the King County Prosecutor’s office issued a statement saying it declined to file criminal charges in “the tragic death” of Shennon Shelton.
It read in part:
“Based on the facts of the case, prosecutors cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Woods was unjustified in his actions. Woods faced imminent risk of being assaulted by the six men who had come to his apartment to likely enact revenge for Woods’ earlier attack on Gaston Shelton.”
Danny Shelton was 17 at the time. His anger made him consider dropping plans for football and college. He was angry that Woods was not prosecuted; angry at African-American people, particularly Woods; angry his brother was gone.
Following through with football has helped tame those emotions.
“The coaches are helping me control my anger and apply it to technique, apply it to the violence in my game,” Shelton said. “I’m really loving it. I love the experience and the change I’m going through right now.
“Ever since the incident, I really had this dislike toward African-Americans, because of the incident and how the dude got away with it. I feel like there’s been a real big change on my perspective on African-Americans, being with my teammates. A lot of them coming from the same background, and I can communicate to them, and we’re on the same level with everything.”
* * * *
In June, Shelton was chosen to join a small Washington football contingent, including John Timu, Hau’oli Kikaha and Deontae Cooper, to run a pilot football camp in Tahiti.
Shelton swam with sharks and sting rays during his free time in the South Pacific island nation. The group visited elementary schools to work with kids. They taught men in their 40s basic football rules.
“Probably the best 10 days I’ve had in a long time,” Shelton said.
His broken hand is healed. Other parts, damaged in ways X-rays don’t reveal, are progressing.
Washington expects Shelton to funnel any fury into the middle of the field. He’s doing his job if he’s stalling opposing offenses, allowing the Huskies’ fleet linebackers space to roam. Sarkisian says he’s anticipating a big season from Shelton.
Games and workouts are the only time the clink from dangling dog tags around Shelton’s neck can’t be heard. Shennon’s name is pressed into the metal.
“I try to not dwell on the past,” Danny Shelton said. “I could remember first football camp, second football camp, I always had these flashbacks of my brother and that distracted me from reaching my potential.
“Now that everything is like calmed down, our family is pretty cool now, going through our own lives now. It’s kind of not overwhelming; it’s relaxing to know my family is OK.”
Shelton put an artist’s ink-filled needles to work again following this year’s spring game, having his “Search For The Truth” tattoo embellished by a warrior necklace.
He knows his internal fight is not over.