Sam Shields rising to occasion

Green Bay — Giants shield the end zone, like Mike Daniels and A.J. Hawk, with shoulders so broad they take an angle when they walk through some doorways, and Datone Jones and Johnny Jolly, who are tall enough to need the headroom of an SUV.

But there is Sam Shields behind them all, Green Bay's last line of defense. He is guarding the goal line against Washington and dives after the ball carrier. Then he disappears, No. 37 buried under fullbacks and tight ends and linemen.

The play worked. Green Bay lived to fight another down.

Shields got to the NFL with his speed. Nothing has changed there. But the truth is, he has had to work on other parts of his game to stick around as an undrafted free agent and become a starting cornerback for the now sizable, now feisty Packers defense.

"He might not be your biggest guy but he's a tough guy," said safety Morgan Burnett. "He has the big play-making ability but he won't back down from no one, I don't care who you are."

Starting opposite Tramon Williams, Shields has been taking on top-flight receivers this season.

Against Baltimore, he defended Torrey Smith, who was second in the NFL with 556 yards at that point but was held to one catch for 12 yards.

Against Washington, Shields dived around Santana Moss to deflect a pass with his left hand. When Robert Griffin III completed a big throw to Pierre Garcon, it could have been a touchdown, but Shields raced from behind to save it. Washington didn't score on the drive.

Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green did get a touchdown out of his four catches, but Shields evened the score with an interception and otherwise hounded Green. That was a big-time stance against a Pro Bowl receiver.

After some early inconsistency, Shields is turning in steady performances. Shields still uses his speed and has refined some acrobatic moves to make up for anything he doesn't have in height and weight at 5 feet 11 inches and 184 pounds.

"I've been working at it, working at different movements that I never did before," said Shields. "When the coaches look at me, they're now grading me on technique, like staying square on backpedaling, so that you can move either way. It also helps in practice, going against Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson — they make it so much easier when you get to Sunday."

He's also adopted the mentality of a shutdown corner.

"Guys are going to catch balls, we have to forget about it and keep going," he said. "But I say to myself, every down: 'He's not going to catch it.' He might — but that's what I keep in my mind, every down, just go hard."

Shields has done everything possible to improve as a player and his gift of speed. He worked with his position coach, Joe Whitt Jr., to learn the defense.
"My first year I was out there, I didn't know it. I couldn't get it," said Shields.

Whitt put the formation on one side of a flashcard and then drew the defense on the other and tested Shields until he learned. Now, he's a trusted teammate.
"I like everything about Sam," said Hawk. "He's so easy. He communicates really well. He's super quiet but on the field, I love him. He's one of the fastest guys on the team, and so athletic, we have so much respect for him."

With Shields signing a one-year tender offer in June, he's playing for his future now. That will be largely determined by him and partly by his agent, Drew Rosenhaus.

"He was the only agent that really wanted me," said Shields. "I was like shoot, why not."

Rosenhaus followed Shields' career closely at the University of Miami, where Shields was a receiver until he converted to defensive back in 2009.

"He was a very talented guy that really wasn't used properly in college," said Rosenhaus. "He was out of position most of his career and yet he had a lot of upside. I was very interested in signing Sam. Even though he wasn't projected at the time to get drafted, we were very confident that he would be a good NFL player."

It's incredible, really, playing his first defensive snap in 2009, helping the team win the Super Bowl the following year and taking on top wideouts now. By many accounts that's all a credit to Shields and his dedication.

"He's matured so much," said Rosenhaus. "Not only as a player, just as a person. He's come so far, I give him so much credit.

"He's accountable both on and off the field, he's hardworking, dependable and he's a likable guy. He has a great personality. I've never met anybody who met Sam who didn't really like him."

The one area Shields hasn't been able to improve?

Bulking up.

Sam Shields III can thank genetics for his frame, but then he would have to be thankful for the speed and athleticism, too. His father, Sam Shields Jr., was a point guard at Southwestern Louisiana, a teammate of Andrew Toney, who went on to play for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Sam Jr. has been with wife Mimi since junior high school and raised Sam and his sister in the same Sarasota house he was born and raised in, just down the street from the John Ringling mansion that was turned into an art museum. The Shields' front door was always open and Mimi was always feeding someone.

"We never pushed our kids to do anything, but we stood behind them and supported them all the time," he said.

Blazing speed ran in the family, and when they were little Sam Shields' sister used to beat him in races down the street.

"And he would pout, and he would pout, and he would pout," said his father.

Sam didn't gravitate to basketball like his dad, though. His steal and sprint down the court would end with a plain old layup. No, he was a football player. This was Florida after all.

"Sarasota is pretty retired, laid back," said Sam Jr. "The black community is very small and together. This town is very liberal and very cultural, big art culture. And athletes here play football, tennis and, of course, golf."

It is important to know this because when Shields was asked the reason for his success, this was his answer:

"My parents always stayed on me. School, sports. That was a blessing because I don't know a lot of guys around here that have both of their parents.

"But being home is a place that I don't want to be. To tell you the truth, I'd probably be doing some illegal stuff if I was home. Just being real."

Shields explained that in Florida he has a friend who can't get a job because of his criminal record. He has another friend who has a degree but no motivation to find work.

"He's just not trying. That kills me every time," said Shields.

He knows others with similar stories. This is all too common. Sam Jr. said there were kids who were better — and even faster — than Sam but didn't have the focus or the desire to put in the work. Or they took their gifts for granted.

"Sam actually willed himself to do a lot of things on the positive side. He made a lot of good decisions," his dad said.

That means Shields comes back from practice and heads to his locker slowly, taking steps gingerly as joints and muscles pinch and tighten. Sure, he's tried to put on some muscle or even just a few pounds to endure another year in the NFL, but he eats whatever he wants and doesn't gain an ounce. So he just takes the abuse.

"I mean, there's a lot more guys smaller than me!" he pleads.

There's Denver's Tony Carter, who is 5-9, 175.

"He's a good player, he's smaller, way smaller than me," said Shields. "Brent Grimes plays for the Dolphins. I admire him a lot."

Looking ahead there's Calvin Johnson to face in the rematch with Detroit. There's Roddy White and Atlanta. Brandon Marshall in Chicago.

"Those are some big challenges I'd like to go against," said Shields. "Hey, I get a little aggressive, too. My little body can get a little aggressive too."

He may be small but he's going to have to play tall. Shields' father proudly introduces him back home as his NFL star son and the reaction is always, "'re kind of small."

To which Dad responds: "Well, he plays on his toes so he can be a little taller."

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