NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tim Shaw warns Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey not to overuse his story, looking to inspire the Titans, seeing limits to the emotional tale of the former NFL linebacker and special teams ace fighting amytrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Mularkey, and the rest of the Titans, respectfully disagree with the former Penn State standout. That includes a York Suburban High School graduate.
“He’s a teammate, he’s a brother, and he always will be no matter what,” said long snapper Beau Brinkley, who sits next to Shaw’s spot in the Tennessee locker room.
A year ago, Tennessee surprised Shaw by inviting him to training camp to sign a one-day contract and retire as a Titan. The Titans were the last team Shaw played for in his six-year NFL career. The 6-foot-1, 233-pound special teams captain played through muscle weakness late in the 2012 season. Test after test found nothing, so he reported for training camp in 2013 only to be released in the final roster cuts.
Shortly after his 30th birthday in March 2014, Shaw learned his life-altering diagnosis: ALS.
He shared the news during the “Ice Bucket Challenge” with the Titans and then-coach Ken Whisenhunt accepting Shaw’s challenge to help raise money for ALS research. Then Shaw took a break from football as he bungee-jumped in New Zealand, visited Australia and helped drill a well in Brazil. He met with congressmen and other lawmakers. He even wrote a book called “Blitz Your Life” about how to make a difference.
“I was dealing with losing the game, losing my physical abilities to play, losing my identity as an NFL player,” Shaw told The Associated Press. “I mean just for me, I needed to be away from it to come to grips with who I really was and who I was apart from the game.”
A year ago, Tennessee called Shaw to training camp for the retirement — and invited him to visit anytime.
Within the month, his name was on a locker inside the revamped locker room. Then Mularkey asked Shaw to give the team a quick report one Monday looking ahead at the next opponent. To help him scout, the Titans gave him an iPad to watch film.
“It’s nice to see people who are about action, and they back their words up with action,” Shaw said. “The Titans have done that for me. … I don’t need a locker. But it’s the simple act of saying, ‘You’re one of us. You’re with us.’”
York Suburban connection: When Mularkey fired special teams coordinator Bobby April on Oct. 3 , the Titans needed a bit more. Mularkey asked if Shaw could help out special teams coach Steve Hoffman, who is Suburban grad. Shaw accepted, taking over the quick special teams report due each Monday looking ahead to the next opponent.
“He had seen so much as a player, he was able to do some advance scouting for me,” said Hoffman, who has been an NFL assistant since the late 1980s. “He’d watch the other team. He was great. He’d call me, sometimes shoot me a text or write an email or whatever, and he’d actually detail it out. ‘Game two, play three, this is what I see. Game four, play five, this is what they’re doing. Watch for that.’ Then he’d come in on Mondays and kind of give me a little synopsis of what he saw.”
Shaw also spent time in the locker room, giving suggestions to players on special teams.
“My leverage was always kind of getting jacked up, and Tim basically simplified it for me and made it real easy for me,” linebacker Nate Palmer said.
Mularkey hired a special teams assistant this offseason.
Getting stem cell treatment: Shaw is preparing for a third trip to Israel later this month for a stem cell treatment hoping to slow the progression of a disease that weakens the muscles with no known cure. He believes football played a role in him developing ALS, which is why he’s pushing the NFL to do more to figure out the links between brain trauma and concussions to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and ALS .
Former Saints receiver and special teamer Steve Gleason suffers from ALS and has been a leading advocate for more action by the league, as has former linebacker O.J. Brigance, who has survived 10 years with the disease.
“I think the NFL needs to stand up taller and bigger and use some of that money that they generate, that crazy amount of money that they make every year, to put more toward studies and treatments for these players,” said Shaw, who has yet to see any money from a concussion settlement between the league and former players.
Titans want to keep Shaw around: Even with the coaching slot filled, the Titans have made it clear they want Shaw around whenever possible, offering whatever he wants to share.
“I was approached by a number of players to make sure Tim is here,” Mularkey said in June. “We want him around here. He has a big impact on this team. And I want him to work with special teams. You’re talking about a core guy. You’re talking about a guy that’s made more tackles than anyone on our team in one year. We’re not even close to his production. Follow his lead. I’m glad he’s here, I really am.”
The average ALS patient survives between two and five years after being diagnosed. Shaw, who is still able to talk, says he focuses on himself some days, though he also talks to groups, churches or coaches.
“The Titans are a group like that for me,” Shaw said. “They give me life. I actually get to give them energy and inspiration as well. Right now, I’m really focused on impacting as many people as I can. Me being true to myself, I’m able to impact people through just living every day.”