The nausea came over him in waves every day. He was dizzy, uncomfortable in bright light, and he couldn’t bear being outside for very long.
As much as cornerback Sam Shields missed football, simply watching a game on TV was too much for his concussion-muddled brain to process.
“Mentally, at times I wasn’t there,” he said. “I couldn’t do nothing. I’d sit in the dark and go to sleep.”
Shields, a key member of Green Bay’s Super Bowl XLV championship team and a 2014 Pro Bowl selection, took a knee to the head in the first game of the Packers’ 2016 season. It was at least his fourth concussion, so he knew immediately something was wrong. But he didn’t know that it would be his last game for quite a while, or that it would threaten his standout career.
Shields was released by the Packers in February 2017 and sat out the 2017 season. He spent about six months in the care of UCLA’s neurology department and about three months at home in Sarasota, Fla., all the while hoping the fog enveloping him would lift for good.
And suddenly, it did.
“It was crazy,” he said. “One day it was, ‘I feel good,’ and every day, it was ‘I feel better. No headaches, OK.’ And then I just went out there and worked out, and after I worked out, it was like, ‘Damn, I’m seeing straight.’ I kept doing it, kept going through that process, and every day, I just kept feeling better and better.”
The Rams’ decision to sign Shields as a free agent in March was considered a low-risk, high-reward move for a team that already had an impressive pass defense. If Shields stays healthy and retains his preseason slot behind Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, his agility and short-space quickness will give the Rams remarkable depth in their secondary. But for Shields, the risks are bigger than a salary-cap charge or roster spot unfilled. His health and his future are on the line.
Studies have linked repeated brain injuries and concussions to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. The NFL acknowledged the link in settling a lawsuit filed by retired players; payments of more than $520 million have been approved in less than two years, according to the settlement program’s website.
Shields said he didn’t consider retirement and said his friends and family never suggested it because they trusted him to make the right decision. Once he was medically cleared, he had no doubt he would play in the NFL again. The doctors, he said, “were trying to make sure I was healthy before anything. They didn’t care about football or anything. They were definitely making sure that my mind, my health was on point. I went through that process. I feel good. I feel normal.
“I had a lot of time off to be able to make sure my mind was right. I had time with my family. That was good. Him above, God is not going to bring you back to something that’s going to mess you up, that’s how I feel.”
Shields considered only the Rams and the Cleveland Browns as possible destinations and chose the Rams “because I just felt here it was real” and because he liked defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, whose schemes he compared to those he played in at Green Bay for Dom Capers.
His first day in pads, in late July, “was a lot” and was a crucial step. His first appearance in a game — the Rams’ exhibition loss at Baltimore — was another leap forward. His first credited tackle, in the second quarter of the Rams’ exhibition victory over the Oakland Raiders last weekend, was another test.
“Just being out there wasn’t too different. It was like riding a bike,” he said this week after a practice at Cal Lutheran. “But my first tackle, first contact, I was kind of nervous approaching the tackle. But at the same time, it was football, so I was just playing fast and not worrying about my situation.”
He can’t afford to play scared. “Not in this game. You know how serious this game gets,” he said. “I’m still a competitive guy. I’m just blessed to be back out here with my brothers, playing the game again.”
Rams general manager Les Snead was impressed by Shields’ resilience and desire to return.
“You bring him in, you do the physical, you check into all that and you make sure from that standpoint that we can continue the dream and you give him that shot,” Snead said.
Snead said he hasn’t cringed or held his breath when he has seen Shields face contact.
“If it was going to be a cringe element, you’d probably say, ‘Hey, based on all we know, it’s best for you not to play,’ ” Snead said. “I think the nice thing for Sam is, let’s call it the vision of the NFL to make football safer will help people like Sam and everybody else who follows him.”
Still, it’s going to be difficult not to hold your breath until Shields gets up after he is involved in physical contact.
Should fans worry?
“No, they shouldn’t,” he said. “I got this far. It’s a long process. It’s hard. Look how far I’ve got now. I think if [the coaches] have confidence in me and believe in me, I’ll be all right. I’ve just got to keep showing them.”