The Tylenol wasn’t doing shit.
It was three o’clock in the morning on some night in January 2017. I forget which one. I’d had a lot of bad nights around that time, but this one was the worst. I couldn’t sleep. It felt like my brain was cramping, or like it was trying to break out of my skull or something. I was rolling around in my bed, whipping my body back and forth, trying to escape the pounding inside my head.
Next thing I know, I’m curled up in the fetal position, shaking and crying.
I had spent the previous couple of months literally living in the dark, sitting inside my house in Sarasota, Florida, with the curtains closed because I couldn’t handle the sunlight. Anything in the house that lit up was turned off. I couldn’t look at my phone for more than a few seconds. And forget about watching TV.
I tried listening to music, but sound had the same effect. I even tried turning the bass down — I went straight treble — and I still couldn’t handle it.
You ever sit alone, in silence, in the dark, for weeks at a time, where all your mind can do is wander and think whatever it wants?
Believe me, you’ll think up some scary shit.
I was thinking about how maybe this was gonna be my life now. This was it. It would just be me, in the darkness, trapped inside my own head … forever.
One thing I didn’t think about was football.
Actually, scratch that … I was thinking about football.
I was thinking, F**k football.
I didn’t even care about it anymore.
I just wanted to get my head right.
But I couldn’t.I was thinking, F**k football. I didn’t even care about it anymore. I just wanted to get my head right.
Now it was 3 a.m., and I was curled up in a ball, sobbing uncontrollably.
I needed help. I needed medicine. I needed God.
I needed my mama.
It’s funny. It doesn’t matter who you are or how old you get. Even when you’re a grown-ass man and you got money and you got your own kids and shit …
Sometimes, you just need your mama.
She lived right down the street, so I called her up, and I remember just moaning into the phone.
“Ohhh, shit … make it stop … ahhhh, please help me … please come, Mama!”
“I’m on my way, baby.”
That’s all she said.
Five minutes later, she was there with me, sitting on my bed, stroking my forehead like I was a little baby, telling me everything was gonna be O.K. She asked if I wanted some Tylenol, and I told her I had already taken some but it wasn’t doing anything. So she went into the kitchen and made me some soup because … moms, right? They be thinking soup can fix anything.
But the soup didn’t help. Nothing did. Nothing could stop the pounding. I knew that. All I could do was wait. It would pass.
People have been asking me why.
Why come back? After five concussions and basically missing two full seasons — and after being in that dark place and knowing that one hit could potentially put me back there — why risk it? Why come back?
Well, first off, I’ve been back playing and hitting for a while now, and everything’s been cool. And I plan on everything staying cool — knock on wood.
But the reason I came back is …
Love for this game.
I know it’s hard for some people to understand because … it is just a game. And I guess the best way I can explain it is to ask you to think about something you love. Something you live for. Something that’s as big a part of you as anything. Something that defines you. Something that makes you feel powerful. Something that makes you feel special. Something that makes you feel alive.
I know you got something like that in your life, and you’d probably sacrifice everything for it. Everybody’s got their own shit.
Football is my shit.
That’s why I came back. To finish what I started and pick up where I left off on the football field in Week 1 of the 2016 season when I came up and laid a hit on T.J. Yeldon, and it was lights out.
I was only down for a second, and honestly, when I got up, I felt O.K. I was a little woozy, but overall, I was straight.
The trainers wanted to take a look at me anyway.
This was before they had the little blue tent on the sidelines, so they took me into the training room to check me out. I walked off the field and disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel, still feeling O.K. Then I walked into the training room and back into the light … that’s when everything hit me. It was instant headache. I guess the adrenaline had worn off, because all of a sudden it was like I had a giant heart beating inside my head. My vision started fading in and out as my head throbbed, like I was seeing strobe lights.
I was buggin’ out, man. I’d had concussions previously, but I had never felt anything like this.
I sat on the training table, closed my eyes as hard as I could, put my head in my hands and started rubbing and squeezing it to try and stop the pain.
Then I just started crying — I mean sobbing like a little baby.
I looked up at the trainers, like, What the f*** is wrong with me?
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
For the next few weeks, my head was constantly hurting. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I had to call the trainers in the middle of the night sometimes to bring me sleep medication. They would check up on me and track my progress. Some days they’d bring me in and give me these little tests where they’d show me a shape — like a triangle or something — then they’d have me focus on some other task. When I was done, they’d ask me to go back and remember the shape they had shown me.
They kept giving me this test over and over, and I just couldn’t remember the f***ing shape, man.
One time I got so pissed about it that I got up and left the facility. I went home and sat by myself in the dark.
About a month later, the Packers put me on IR. I felt like I had to get out of Green Bay, so I went home to Sarasota to be with my family and my three daughters.
But things just got worse.
There were so many days and nights when I’d be home by myself in the dark, crying on my bed, my head just blasting. It felt like it was never going to stop.
That was my life for about three months. I had good days and bad days, but the night in January when I had to call my mom to come over was the worst. That was rock bottom.
A couple of weeks after that, I was sitting in my house in the middle of the afternoon in the dark when I got a phone call from my agent.
The Packers had released me.
I guess I was wrong.
This was rock bottom.
I’ll be honest with you: When the Packers released me, that shit hurt. Even though in my mind I was basically done with football, and I knew that their decision was just business, I was still sad as a motherfucker.
I just felt like they hadn’t given me a chance, you know? They just put me on IR, then I didn’t hear much from until they cut me loose.
And that was that.
I’ve never had any hard feelings about it all, though. I’ll always have love for the Packers. They gave me my chance as an undrafted free agent. They paid me when it was time for me to get paid. The fans were always crazy supportive — they still show me love today — and I loved all the guys I played with and the people I met in the organization. So the fact that they just cut me loose like that … I don’t know. I mean, I get it. Business is business, right?
I just didn’t like the way they went about that business.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
But in a weird way, getting cut was a turning point for me. It opened my eyes to the fact that if I was going to get better, I was gonna have to have to get off my ass and actually do something about it — and I’d have to do it myself. I didn’t have no team to help me. No trainers to call. It was gonna be on me. And whatever I had been doing — sitting in the dark and just waiting for shit to get better — damn sure wasn’t working.
I started doing some research. It was tough because I couldn’t look at my phone or computer screen for more than a couple of minutes. But over the course of a few weeks, I came across a lot of people who had been dealing with the same things as me.
I found this one woman who was out in L.A., and she had worked with doctors at UCLA, where they had some of the best programs for people dealing with post-concussive stuff like I had. I reached out to her and told her my situation, and she straight up told me that I needed to come out there ASAP.
A week later, I went and met her in L.A.
I spent the whole summer out there working with the neurologists at UCLA, and man … I wish I could explain everything they told me. I learned so much. But the main thing I learned was that what I had been doing — staying at home all day in the dark and just waiting for my head to get right on its own — was the worst thing I could have possibly done. They told me that my brain was like any other muscle. And when you pull a hamstring or something — sure, you gotta give it some time, but then you have to rehab it. You have to work it.
They had me doing all these crazy drills, like I’d be running on a treadmill while they asked me a bunch of different questions or gave me math problems to solve. They were basically retraining my brain to multitask. After a while, they even gave me that test the trainers had given me back in Green Bay — the one with the shapes — to see how I had been progressing.
This time, I actually remembered that shit!
It was a long process. I had some good days and some bad. There were nights where I couldn’t sleep because of migraines, and nights where I slept great. But as the months went on, I started having more good days than bad, until, eventually, I started to feel like my old self again.
In November — after about six months at UCLA — I went back home to Sarasota.
I remember the first time I went back into my house. It was the middle of the day, and I walked in, pulled the curtains open for the first time in I don’t know how long, and just let the sunlight in.
I thought about my daughters and how they had their dad back. About my parents, who had stuck by me through everything.
Then I thought about football.
And I thought, Maybe it’s not over for me.
That video is from January 3, 2018. My first day back on the football field since Week 1 in 2016.
There had been moments when I thought I was 100% done with football. But I never turned in my retirement papers because I didn’t want to make that kind of a decision while I was in such a crazy state of mind. I didn’t want it to be an emotional decision.
And I know that video above might not look like much, but man … just being on the field, digging my cleats into the grass, moving my body and sweating from something other than a paralyzing migraine….
I knew right then that Sam Shields was gonna be back.
So I got back on my grind and had my agent put the word out.
“I’m baaaaack,” I told him. “Better let ’em know!”
Two teams showed interest in working me out: the Browns and the Rams. I had seen the things the Rams had done in 2017, and I thought, Man, I could really be a part of that.
Usually, when a team brings you in for a workout, it’s for one day. You come in, you work out, and their people call your people if they’re down.
The Rams kept me there for like three or four days. They ran all kinds of tests to make sure my head was right and I was healthy enough to play. I had already been cleared by doctors, but the Rams did their due diligence, for sure.
Then, on the day of my actual on-field workout, I thought there would be a couple of people — maybe the head coach, the D-coordinator and the DBs coach — but the whole damn staff was out there. I asked one dude why so many people were there, and he said, “We’ve all seen you play, and we love your game. We just wanted to be out here to watch you.”
The first drill we did was a ball-tracking drill. I lined up, the coach hiked the ball, I stayed low and backpedaled out, and when the coach brought the ball up to his shoulder to indicate pass, I flipped my hips, turned and ran.
As I was running, I heard somebody yell out, “That’s it!”
It was Coach McVay.
“That’s all we need to see,” he said. “We’re good here. Call your agent and let him know we’re ready to sign you.”
I was like, “Shiiiiiiit, I’m ready, too!”
That was that. I came back the next day and met with the staff, and everybody was extra real with me throughout the whole process. No bullshit. They told me right off the bat that they were about to trade for Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, so they’d be pretty stacked at corner. But I hadn’t put pads on in 16 months, man. I wasn’t even thinking about defense. I just wanted to get back on the field on special teams and prove to myself and everybody else that I could still ball.
I told them straight up, “You give me an opportunity, and I’m gonna ride for you.”
And we did the deal.
Courtesy of Sam Shields
I’ll never forget training camp my rookie year in Green Bay in 2010. I was an undrafted guy who had only been playing corner for one year — I switched over from receiver before my senior year at Miami — and I was having a lot of trouble learning the defensive schemes. I would get called on in meetings and not know the answers to basic questions about different coverages. The coaches wouldn’t even give me reps in practice because I didn’t know the plays.
I went back to my room one night after meetings and my roommate, Morgan Burnett, was there.
“I can’t do this shit,” I told him. “I just can’t! I’m gonna quit.”
He was like, “Nah, man. You’re not gonna quit. You’re gonna stay. You can learn this shit, and I’m gonna teach you.”
After that, every day during camp, Morgan stayed up late and studied with me. And I don’t know if he said something to the other guys or what, but one day at practice I was over with all the DBs — Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Jarrett Bush and the rest of the vets — and they were like, “Hey, man, we got you. You’re gonna get this.”
And they took me under their wings.
Then my secondary coach, Joe Whitt, came to me one day with some flash cards. He had taken this stack of little white cards, and on each one he had drawn up an offensive formation on one side, and on the other, the defensive audible we were supposed to call against that formation. And I’m telling you, that shit worked. Between the flash cards, working with the vets and hitting the playbook harder than I ever had in my life, everything started making sense.
Those guys — the vets in Green Bay and my man Joe Whitt — man, without them? I don’t know if I would have ever made it in this league.
They taught the kid how to play.
I remember all this so vividly now because I remember how it all felt — being the new guy, learning a new defense and how to play with new teammates, playing special teams to prove that I belonged. And I felt the exact same way when I took the field for the first time with the Rams this past offseason.
I felt like a rookie all over again.
But with the advantage of that veteran wisdom.
And you know what? It’s been fun, man. Especially after everything I’ve been through. The headaches. The stress. The frustration. All that I had to cope with. It was just a lot. What I went through, I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy.
So to be here, right now, with this team? Man … I just feel blessed.
Honestly, this team reminds me a lot of that Packers team we had back in 2010. It was a fun, exciting team. We had a tight defense, just like we got here in L.A., and we had an offense that was lighting it up. It’s a little different now, though, because I think we snuck up on some people back in 2010. Now, this Rams team … we’re 7–0 and everybody’s talking about us. Teams are coming at us every week, giving us their absolute best, trying to knock us off.
And that’s a lot of fun, too.
Peter Read Miller via AP
My whole goal was to get back on the field on special teams and just be ready if the team needed me on defense. Now, with Talib out, they’ve needed me a little bit. And honestly, I’m still climbing back. It’s been a long two years, man. And I’m just now getting my groove back. I’m this close to being all the way back.
And that’s why I came back. For the camaraderie and being around a group of guys like we got here in L.A. For a chance to be on a team that can compete every week. A chance to be back, doing the thing I love most.
A chance to ball out again, man.
Right now, I’m just riding the wave. And the way we prepare and the way we show up on Sundays … this team we got right here? I think we can ride all the way to the Super Bowl. I honestly believe that.
I just feel blessed to be a part of it. Blessed to be back. I’m happy to be riding this wave. It’s been a good one.
So I’mma just keep ridin’ it.