A Son, a Chance, a Dream

Arman Shields, right, with his father, Bertie, played wide receiver at Gonzaga and the University of Richmond, and has overcome a major knee injury.
Arman Shields, right, with his father, Bertie, played wide receiver at Gonzaga and the University of Richmond, and has overcome a major knee injury. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Once, Bertie Shields was going to be a boxer. This was in 1975, when he was in the U.S. Army stationed in South Korea, certain there wasn't a serviceman in that country who could beat him. It was his ticket out, the one chance for a Guyanan immigrant by way of Washington to make something of his life.

At night, the Army gave him one of the most dangerous assignments it had at the time, telling him to walk the one mile through the darkened forests of the demilitarized zone over land mines and around enemy soldiers to spy through the fence at the North Koreans.

By day, he trained to be a fighter -- lifting weights, running sprints, doing anything he could to tone his muscular frame. The Army had taken notice, and he was on the verge of a transfer to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he would be part of an elite fight program. All he had to do was win his last fight.

Bertie looked at the Marine who stood before him that day, a man from Tucson named Peoples, and figured it would be easy. Then, seconds after the fight began, Shields was on the floor, hit by a punch he never saw. The official was waving his hands. The fight was over. Gone was his undefeated record. Gone, too, was Fort Bragg.

But the greatest lesson of his life lingered. Right there, halfway around the world, he vowed if he had children he would teach it to them every day: Never, ever, take anything for granted.

Until the letter arrived at the house just outside College Park this past Christmas Eve with the return address of NFL combine, Indianapolis, few had heard of Bertie Shields's second son, Arman. He was not a significant prospect at Gonzaga in the District and starred at times as a wide receiver at the University of Richmond, but since Richmond did not play big-time college football, he went largely unnoticed.

It was only after he caught 12 passes for 107 yards against Vanderbilt in Richmond's season-opening game that the NFL seemed to pay attention. Then, the next week, he tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his knee and essentially didn't play again the rest of the year. He was sure he had ruined his chance to impress the NFL.

So on the day before Christmas, when Bertie came to the basement of their home with the letter in his hand and a smile on his face, Arman said he "almost jumped through the roof." He may not have played for an important program, but he -- like every senior in college football -- knows a letter from the scouting combine means only one thing: an invitation to the camp in February. And for a player like Arman, it meant he had been given one shot to prove to NFL people he belongs in their league.

This was his ticket to Fort Bragg. And unlike the father so many years ago in South Korea against that Marine, Arman was taking nothing for granted.

"That was like the best Christmas present I've received -- ever," Arman recalled, certain it was even better than the Christmas when he was in second grade and got a bicycle.

He looked at the paper, and his father remembers him glancing up and saying: "Dad, the combine is not ready for me. Watch what happens at the combine. I'm going to show them something at that combine."

Two months later, inside an empty RCA Dome, Arman, who is 6 feet 2 and 185 pounds, tore through his tryout with zeal. Latrell Scott, his old position coach at Richmond, watched the combine on television at his new job with the University of Tennessee and marveled as Arman's times kept flashing on the television:

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