At the EXOS training facility in San Diego, a 340-pound man is crawling on the floor. He looks like the world’s largest baby. An agility cone rests on his broad back and a lacrosse ball is carefully perched atop the cone. Although he might be the most powerful man in the gym, Danny Shelton is moving gradually, even delicately, across the room.
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t have enough weights in the weight room to load up the guy,” says EXOS performance specialist Roy Holmes. “He’s physically just strong. And he has a great awareness of his body and how he is supposed to move.”
A former defensive tackle at the University of Washington and a projected first-round NFL Draft pick, Shelton might be strong enough to carry the entire weight room on his back, but his greatest strength is his resolve. The big man has been playing in the shadow of tragedy for the past four years.
Shelton grew up in Auburn, Washington, as one of five siblings. The family is tight-knit, and Shelton chose to stay close to home by attending college in Seattle. One month before he was to start, he and his brothers were involved in a fight that left his second-oldest brother dead and his oldest brother in critical condition with a bullet lodged in his lungs.
Shelton managed to escape the gunfire, but his life was changed forever. When summer practice began a few weeks later, Shelton was still coming to terms with the tragedy.
“I felt like a troubled dude. I had everything boggled in my head,” Shelton says. “I didn’t really let anybody in. I stayed away from my family. I remember giving [former head coach Steve Sarkisian] a hard time. Arguing with him. But I also remember him still being there for me and still pushing me to be my best.”
Sarkisian and his staff stuck by Shelton, and the player responded by making progress both on and off the field. In his sophomore year, Shelton says, “I got myself a girlfriend, got myself a dog and tried to be more responsible. I kept myself busy and tried not to get caught up in the past.”
When new head coach Chris Petersen arrived in 2014, Shelton took an even bigger step forward. Petersen ordered Shelton (and his teammates) to read the motivational book, The Energy Bus, and it had a profound effect on him. Shelton says, “[The book] changed my perspective on being a leader. It made me want to set a positive image for the younger guys. From working with Coach Petersen, everything changed. I don’t deal with adversity the way I used to. I’m able to move forward and be positive.”
During his senior season, Shelton became the dominant player his coaches knew he could be. He led the nation with five fumble recoveries, recorded 16.5 tackles for losses, and racked up nine sacks.
Today, Shelton is one of the top defensive line prospects in the NFL Draft. He’s trying to approach the big change that lies ahead with the same focus and balance he displays when crawling across the floor, keeping the ball atop the cone on his back. His true goal is to show others they too can overcome adversity. “Honestly, I just want to be a role model—keep my life in order, keep it simple,” he says. “I want to be consistent with this positive energy, vibe and image, and hopefully the younger guys will follow.”
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