David Shaw, a 6-foot-4, 307-pound defensive lineman at Maryland, was raised in the family business of raising earthworms for composting and fishing bait. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

The secluded compound sits behind a thicket of tall trees, tucked between a mossy pond and the Hickory Heights golf course in York County. Jim Shaw took over this 13-acre plot just north of the Maryland border nearly 30 years ago, raising eight children in a country-style white house a few hundred feet from his mysterious laboratory.

His three sons, Jimmy, John and David , have dug millions of earthworms out of the soil with their bare hands over the years, packaging them in green cloth bags to sell. They’ve stacked 200-pound barrels full of compost, shoveled miles of trenches, moved heavy machinery and helped build the barns that house the worms, all the while building their hulking bodies into the mold of their father’s 6-foot-4 frame. Jim Shaw was once a lineman at Colgate, and he taught his sons that as worms move the earth, so could they.

And so Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm, one of the most recognizable brands in American vermiculture, also became the most unlikely college football factory in the country, a breeding ground that has produced millions of fat European night crawlers along with three massive Big Ten linemen. The oldest son, 6-4, 270-pound Jimmy, played two years as a defensive lineman at Penn State after starting his career at Rice. John grew even larger — 6-4, 303 pounds — and played right tackle at Penn State for four years. They would come home from State College and rough up their teenage brother, David, the youngest of the eight children, but they knew he was in line to continue both family legacies. As Maryland football works toward its season opener on Sept. 3 against Howard, David Shaw — a 6-4, 307-pound redshirt sophomore — is competing for a starting spot as a defensive lineman.

He is trying to win the job after suffering two major injuries in his first two seasons in College Park, and he is doing it as one of the only players on the roster who doesn’t wear gloves. Why would he need them? His massive hands were shaped and textured by worms and the soil they crawled through over the years, raw enough for Shaw to burrow his own holes in the trenches as a defensive lineman.

Those hands dug into grimy worm bins back on the farm one Saturday morning in July, pulling out heaps of hyperactive red wigglers. He looked like an overgrown child playing with spaghetti. Shaw grinned as the critters slimed through his fingers, finding delight in what would make most others squeamish.

“David has been doing this since he was conceived,” Jim Shaw said of his son.

Jim and Patricia Shaw, at center of second row from back, with their eight children and their grandchildren. David Shaw is at the back center. (Courtesy of the Shaw family)

David Shaw, shown working at age 10 on the farm, where years of manual labor contributed to his brute strength. (Courtesy of the Shaw family)
Growing business and family

Inside a dank barn, a harvester hummed. A geothermal unit pumped 61-degree oxygen to help keep the worms comfortable. A pair of workers sorted through bins in preparation to package and send thousands of red wigglers and European night crawlers to fishermen, gardeners, farmers, golf course owners and bird enthusiasts across the country, further fueling a word-of-mouth business that the owner says was born more than 40 years ago and has since grown into one of the largest worm farms in the country.

Shaw has prepared for the upcoming season through Maryland’s intensive summer conditioning program and several trips back home to the worm farm. He draws strength from those trips, which provide solace from a hectic college schedule and a reminder of what Shaw’s family has built, no matter how unconventional it may be. Shaw’s coaches and teammates at Maryland have often wondered about his upbringing, about how he was one of eight children to grow up among millions of worms. He never thought his father’s interest in vermiculture was strange, because that entrepreneurial spirit is all he has ever known.

“I don’t mention it, but I can build a lot of things. Just because I learned over the years,” Shaw said. “I watched people. Because I worked on a worm farm, I know how to do a lot of things.”

The idea was first hatched when Jim Shaw was an 8-year-old in Connecticut in the early 1970s. His father, a fisherman from Vermont, told him to put a sign on the front lawn and sell worms for 40 cents a dozen. Jim eventually recruited neighborhood kids to help him pick worms to sell.

Even as he pursued other avenues — he went on to play college football, worked a stint as a truck driver and started a family with his wife, Patricia — Jim was always experimenting with growing worms and eventually began his own business in the early 1990s. It thrived around raising red worms, which live in the upper four inches of soil and are primarily used for composting. He steadily grew his business by sending out brochures and advertising with convenience stores in central Pennsylvania. By 2005, the business was online and the operation was expanded to a farm in Florida.

“The Internet changed everything,” Jim said.

The farm has truly been family run, with Jim and Patricia giving most of their children their first jobs as laborers. After the two eldest Shaw sons were through with their playing days at Penn State, both helped their father grow his business in the late 2000s. Two daughters, Ann and Mary, took jobs on the business side of the operation.

The mornings started before 8, and after home schooling was done, there were worms to farm for David. He dug hundreds of feet of trenches as a teenager. He laid pipe underneath the family pond. He roofed the barn that holds hundreds of bins of soil and worms. He packed on mounds of muscle.

“When we first started, we had no equipment. It was all manual labor. It was all grabbing these drums, throwing them over your shoulder. That’s why I got pretty strong: Picking up 200-pound drums when I was 13 years old, putting them over my shoulder,” David said.

David Shaw, above, made a quick impression as a freshman on Maryland left tackle Michael Dunn. “I was just so surprised by his strength,” Dunn said. “I knew then that he could be a really good player.” (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Country strong

He also learned how to train on the isolated plot of land, although it was often elementary and crude. The family’s home was heated at the time by 50-pound bags of coal, which also provided a shoulder weight for Shaw during his summer running drills around the hills of the property. The most difficult exercises began as he became a serious Division I prospect at Spring Grove High, where he played on the team while home schooling. Shaw’s father would tie a 100-pound bag of grain to a rope swing and throw it at his son as he exploded out of his stance time and time again. His brothers would come home from college and put him through the same workouts they went through at Penn State.

By the time Shaw arrived at Maryland, he had surprised a number of his teammates not just with his background but with his brute strength. One example came when he was a true freshman and facing 6-5, 312-pound left tackle Michael Dunn in a midseason practice in 2014. Dunn thought it would be a chance to coast for a play, but Shaw stunned him with a bull rush that knocked Dunn back onto his heels.

“I was just so surprised by his strength,” Dunn said. “I knew then that he could be a really good player.”

Shaw is just hoping to put together a full season as a junior. He played in seven games before suffering a season-ending knee injury during his freshman year and he only lasted four games last season because of an elbow injury.

The transition from home schooling to college was challenging, and some of Shaw’s teammates would look at him strange when he woke up around 8 each weekend morning as a freshman. Dunn said he has noticed that Shaw “has his morals that he abides by.” He is quiet by nature and is unafraid to get away from the scene in College Park and return to his roots as often as he can.

Shaw carries the look of a traditional farmer with his burly build, long blond hair and thick beard, and he certainly wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty with red wigglers with his father in July.

Those were moments he sometimes missed while he was rehabbing his injuries over the past two years. After working together one Saturday morning in July, Shaw and his father drove a few miles into Spring Grove to have breakfast at Papertown, a well-known dairy bar. After eating a heap of eggs and thick pancakes — maintaining his weight when he returns to the worm farm is not a problem — David stopped to glance at one of the trophies displayed in the restaurant. It was a photo of his brothers standing with former Penn State coach Joe Paterno. He has watched both join the family business in the years after football, and even though he is still undecided about joining Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm full-time after college, he will always be a part of it wherever he ends up.

“It’s definitely there. I’m trying to pursue football as far as it can go,” Shaw said. “But if it happens, it’s an option.”