In three days, Danny Shelton will put on his Washington Huskies uniform and attempt to bulldoze his 6-foot-2, 339-pound body through the center of the opponent’s offensive line during a college football game.
In February, the Huskies’ senior nose tackle will almost certainly attend the NFL scouting combine, running and jumping and lifting weights in front of gathered scouts, coaches and front-office personnel, many of whom represent teams that will have use for Shelton’s size and brute strength.
And in spring, he will almost certainly be selected by one of those teams on the first or second day of the NFL draft, and he will likely sign a contract that, in time, will make him a millionaire.
But right now, it is 12:30 p.m. on a Wednesday at the University of Washington, and Danny Shelton just needs the 23 freshmen seated in his classroom in Denny 315 to turn in their reflection papers.
Class is in session, and Shelton, an Auburn native and one of the nation’s most imposing defensive linemen, is teaching it.
INTEREST IN TEACHING
Shelton is what the UW calls a “FIG leader.” FIG is an acronym for “First-year Interest Group.” The purpose of a FIG, in general terms, is to allow a group of 20-some freshmen students to take a pre-configured cluster of classes together — big, basic courses like Psychology 101, usually — while also meeting once per week for a 50-minute, two-credit, pass-fail class to discuss … well, in Denny 315, that’s up to Shelton.
Rap music plays at low volume from Shelton’s iPhone — “to keep me relaxed,” he says — as he asks, in his naturally soft-spoken tone, if anyone knows of any on-campus events their classmates might be interested in attending this week. Participation, he has written in clean, neat handwriting on the white board behind him, is worth 30 percent of their final grade.
Last week, he brought in three of his friends — UW receiver DiAndre Campbell and fellow defensive linemen Drew Schultz, an Olympia native, among them — to tell the class about their academic pursuits, the basics of their major (Sociology and a minor in Law, Societies and Justice for Schultz, and a double-major in Political Science and Communication for Campbell), and who they can contact if they’re interested in a similar education.
Students are encouraged to ask questions. If they don’t, Shelton prompts each speaker with one of his own. How do you juggle a Business major with a social life? What’s your favorite Sociology class?
“The plan,” Shelton said, “was just for the kids to be exposed to different majors and have questions, have connections available for them. Networking.”
This venture spawned from an email Shelton received last winter — at first, he thought it was spam — seeking out FIG leaders. He was asked to interview for a position.
“I kind of thought to myself, ‘Why wouldn’t I take this opportunity?’ ” said Shelton, who thought about teaching as a high-schooler. “What is there to lose?”
So, he interviewed. It went well enough, and in the spring, he was offered a spot as a FIG leader, and registered for the required training classes.
It seems a natural fit for him. A first-team, All-Academic All-Pac-12 selection in 2013, Shelton’s studies have been well-documented. He’s made two study-abroad trips to Tahiti — Anthropology is his major — and his favorite professor, Holly Barker, helped introduce him to other mentoring opportunities, such as the after-school program in which he volunteered at Rainier Beach High School, with an emphasis on helping Polynesian students with their school work.
Those are the kind of off-field interests coach Chris Petersen wants his players involved in.
“I think it makes them think differently,” he said. “I think when they take on more responsibility like that, I think it changes them as a person, in a better way. And I see that out of Danny. I see from where we came in at the start to where he’s at now … I think he’s playing so well, so much because he’s taken the next step maturity-wise, and his house is very much in order in terms of what his goals are. It’s not just all football.”
On the loading dock outside the Burke Museum, where he interns for three hours every Monday, Shelton admits he never envisioned himself as an avid student.
Or, for a time, as a college student at all.
When he was 17, Shelton watched a gunman shoot and kill his older brother, Shennon, in front of him during a dispute. Anger and sorrow consumed him. He didn’t know if he wanted to go to college anymore. He credits his family, as well as former coach Steve Sarkisian, former defensive coordinator Nick Holt and former Huskies players Alameda Ta’amu and Everette Thompson, with helping him adapt to life after tragedy.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what was in store for me going into college,” Shelton said. “I thought it was a bad idea at first. I never really told anybody. I always kept everything to myself, ever since the situation. Always tried to be the strong tower for my family. Tried to hold back my emotions.
“Really, I just took the chance coming to college. Coach Sark and Coach Holt did a great job with helping me cope and just comforting me. I had ‘Meda and Everette there, too. They were like big brothers to me.”
LEARNED HIS LESSON
After Campbell completes his presentation to the class, Shelton asks his students to break into groups and brainstorm ideas for a research project, “something you can research at the library.”
The kids are hesitant to throw out ideas, so Shelton helps them along with suggestions as Sage The Gemini’s “Gas Pedal” hums in the background.
The class eventually settles on assisted suicide as a debate topic. They’ll research both pros and cons, because Shelton will decide which students will argue in favor and which students will argue against.
As class ends, he presents an extra-credit opportunity — a one-hour lecture at the Ethnic Cultural Center on campus later that week.
More than anything, Shelton says, he hopes his students learn “to take risks. Take advantage of the opportunities that they get, and definitely learn from mistakes — the mistakes that they make, and the mistakes people around them make.”
These classes can be helpful for college acclimation. Shelton took one himself as a freshman, but said he didn’t get much out of it at the time.
“I was a distracted freshman,” he said, “who wanted to go out and take easy classes and party.”
It wasn’t until later that he realized how valuable some of the lessons were. And he admits with a laugh that he cribbed some teaching techniques from Barker, from whom he’s taken more classes than he can immediately recall.
“Danny gets it in the classroom — he’s a really, really good student — and he’s one of our smarter players,” Petersen said. “And so then, you take that and then put him in a leadership role, which we’ve kind of tried to do, and I think this is another example of that.”
As he reflects on the time when none of this seemed possible, Shelton concludes: “Looking back at it, it’s crazy that I’m even standing here.”
At the head of the class, no less.