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:
A 3.96 in the 20-yard shuttle -- the fastest time of anyone at the combine.
A 10.87 in the 60-yard shuttle -- also the fastest time at the combine.
The third-best time of all in the three-cone drill.
And in the most important test of all, the 40-yard dash, the player with the torn knee, who missed almost all of last season, had a 4.44 total average but ran a 4.38 on one of his attempts, ranking him among the fastest players on the field. Scott smiled as he saw the number pop up on his screen. He called Arman and delivered the news.
Players are not told their times inside the stadium, so Arman had no idea how he had done. He felt good, but it wasn't until the phone rang and Scott was on the other end with his results that Arman stopped. He was standing outside the RCA Dome, alone on the sidewalk in downtown Indianapolis. He threw back his head and began to shout at the buildings all around him.
"I was screaming at the excitement," he said the other day during a break from his team visits. "I understood: 'Man, this is like a dream. This is something I waited my whole life for, and now it's coming true.' The 40 is so big in the NFL, and I had worked my [butt] off to get back. I feel I ran really fast. Then when I heard the times I thought, 'Oh my goodness, did I really?' "
He laughed as he recalled the other wide receivers from all the big schools looking at him quizzically.
"Everybody is like, 'Who the hell is this guy from Richmond?' " he said.
If only they had seen him last fall, pushing at those weight machines, willing the ligaments to heal. If they had watched him trying to rush back only to re-injure the knee, forcing him to start over, and then seen him in the training center in New Jersey, where he ultimately went to build the strength. Maybe then they would have understood.
Then again, perhaps all they needed to do was meet Bertie. So much of the son comes from the father.
When his sons came along, Bertie, a runner in Guyana, began training them to be athletes. He set up workouts for them, established a regular program to follow and urged them to challenge themselves.
"Never let anyone tell you that you are the best," Bertie always would tell them. "You can always get better. And the only way to get better is to work harder."
Arman listened. As a little boy he woke early and watched his father leave the house to go to his job as a detective with the D.C. police. Bertie worked a great deal.
And yet he also made every youth league practice and every game, driving his children home that night with the same words ringing in their ears: "Hard work can't hide, it's got to show."
They had to listen; they had no choice.
When Arman was in high school, Bertie began talking about early-morning workouts -- to be held in that gray, fuzzy hour before the sun climbed above the horizon.
"You have to be working while the other person is sleeping," Bertie said.
Arman would rise, and together they drove to the University of Maryland a few blocks from their house and ran the Byrd Stadium steps until eventually it wasn't Bertie who was demanding the workouts, but Arman.
"You have to love it when your son wants to get up before you do and go to work," Bertie said.
Perhaps this sounds obsessive, but Bertie Shields never has pushed Arman too far. He has been careful to look for limits, to make sure he is making his children study as hard as they practice. He and his wife, Beverly -- the couple has five children -- have expected good grades. Academics came first. But football was never far behind.
Bertie remembers, almost incredulously, the elementary school teacher who undoubtedly thought she was doing right when she asked to speak to the father when he came to pick up Arman one afternoon. The class had been doing a lesson on careers, and Arman had raised his hand boldly and declared he wanted to be a professional football player.
That would not do, the teacher said.
"You need to sit him down and tell him becoming a football player is like trying to find a needle in a haystack," he remembered the teacher saying.
Bertie never did have that talk.
"His father is a different cat," Scott said of Bertie. "When it comes to parents, nine times out of 10 as a college football coach you don't want to deal with them. Mr. Shields is a special man. He's the kind of parent who wants the best for his kid but would come to me and say, 'Anything you need me to do.' "
When Scott first arrived at Richmond in Arman's second year, the player was a raw specimen: fast, eager and talented enough to give a coach hope. He remembers telling Arman he had a chance to play in the NFL, but it would take a lot of dedication; he would have to work. More important, he would have to listen.
And whenever Scott felt Arman might not be understanding his point, he simply called Bertie. Bertie took care of it.
Now it is NFL teams that are calling. Tampa Bay asked for a visit, as did Kansas City and Denver. The Jets have phoned a few times. Most projections have him going in the fourth round of this weekend's NFL draft. It's a dream turned into reality when you consider how far Arman had to come just to get the letter of his life.
Then, with one chance to shine, he remembered the great lesson of Bertie Shields.
He took nothing for granted.