During his illustrious 14-year career as a member of the Chiefs, Shields’ accomplishments are as impressive as they are diverse.
On the field, the numerous accolades he received and records he broke are revered in Chiefs lore. But what Shields was able to do for the Kansas City community off the field is why he is spoken about with such reverence among those who know him best.
His “Will to Succeed” foundation has helped more than 100,000 individuals since its inception in 1993, and it was the driving force behind his Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, which is the most prestigious honor an NFL player can receive, back in 2003.
According to Shields’ former teammate, quarterback Trent Green, it was the Chiefs community relations department that was the driving force behind getting Shields that honor.
It wasn’t something that he was seeking because, in true Shields fashion, he wasn’t doing work in the community for the recognition. He would have been just fine not receiving any notoriety for what he was doing.
It’s an intrinsic motivation to better his community and to be a positive and contributing member of the Kansas City community that motivated Shields.
“Will Shields was as fine of a total complete package as a person and a player that I ever coached,” Vermeil said. “Nobody I’ve ever met in coaching has given more back to the community than him.”
For Shields, the origin of understanding what his platform as an athlete could do for those in his community went back to high school, where he remembered a speech given by former NFL player Hollywood Henderson to his team.
“He gave the story of ‘don’t do all of the things that I have done,’” Shields recalled. “He said ‘I had a good career and I’ve done some great things but I’ve also had some bad times and some down times.’”
As a high school junior who was trying to shape a path for his future, combined with being a top college prospect with Division I football offers, Shields took Henderson’s message to heart.
A few years later at the University of Nebraska, where Shields had committed, he found himself with a platform to make the kind of difference that Henderson made with him.
“[Former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne] sort of put it to light,” Shields explained. “We were just college athletes, but he’d say ‘Hey, you need to go out and do speaking engagements,’ and I’d say ‘Coach, I’m just an offensive lineman from Lawton, Oklahoma.’
“And then he’d go, ‘but you’re a Husker.’
“Once you’re a Husker it makes a difference, especially being in Nebraska,” Shields explained. “You can go and talk to these kids and tell them where you’ve been, where you’re from and what you’re going to do.”
“Some of these kids dream of being at that point.”
“We went out and did a speech and I was going, ‘Wow, these kids really do relate to where I was and what I wanted to do.’ I’m giving them a little knowledge before they get there so they can make better decisions as they go on.”
Just like that, Shields had found himself in the shoes Henderson had worn just a few years earlier.
Besides the public speaking engagements, Shields began to help those around him in other ways at Nebraska as well.
“Will was one of our first mentors in the TeamMates Mentoring Program here at Nebraska,” Osborne said.
This program, which was founded in 1991 by Osborne and his wife, Nancy, had the goal to “provide support and encouragement to school aged youth” and to help “youth graduate from high school and pursue post-secondary education.”
According to their website, teammates.org, the program, which began with Shields and 21 of his teammates at Nebraska back in 1991, has been a huge success.
Today, TeamMates includes 130 chapters serving more than 7,000 students in grades 3-12. TeamMates successfully partners with local school districts from the largest urban schools to some of the smallest and most isolated rural schools, via teammates.org.
For Shields, the platform given to him at Nebraska to help others reminded him of where he came from and opened his eyes to what was possible.
“It all goes back to where you grew up,” Shields said. “Seeing all of the different people who struggled and needed help, and now being able to be in that position, that was something that was unique to me.”
Shields was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993, which was the same year he started his “Will to Succeed” Foundation.
“What was really unique is that my wife and I started it by ourselves with just our lawyer,” Shields recalled. “At that time, there were 17 different athletes doing things in the [Kansas City] community, so we had to do as much as we could to do our part to be a part of the community.
Shields and his wife Senia were named the Philanthropists of the Year by the Kansas City Council on Philanthropy in 2005. The KC Council on Philanthropy helps non-profit professionals and volunteers make a difference in the community.
Shields was also recognized nationally as the first NFL recipient of the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance Award in 1999. He received the Henry P. Iba Citizen-Athlete Award in 2005, joining previous winners of the Iba Citizen-Athlete Award such as Ozzie Smith and Karl Malone.
“It ended up getting to the point where we ended up with a board of like 20 people who were working on different events,” he explained. “We saw it grow and grow and grow.”
Despite the success of the foundation and the credit Shields’ received with the Man of the Year award, he doesn’t feel like he should be singled out.
“For me, it’s not my award,” Shields explained. “It’s for everyone that’s ever worked with the Will to Succeed Foundation. It’s their award, I just so happen to be the one who can put it in my house.”
According to the foundation’s website, “WilltoSucceed.org,” the organization currently sponsors over a dozen programs and initiatives where the organization, as well as its founders, are "hands-on" participants in all activities, as well as contributing financial support.
"If there's one kid who we can impact, then our efforts are all worthwhile,” Shields states on the website. “If one child makes better life choices and his or her life turns out for the better, then we have succeeded."
One of the kids Will and his wife, Senia, definitely had an impact on throughout the last few years is former Kentucky basketball player and the Sacramento Kings first-round pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Willie Cauley-Stein.
Cauley-Stein grew up in Spearville, Kansas, and it was through an AAU basketball connection that he befriended Shavon Shields, one of Will and Senia’s two sons.
Due to academic reasons, Cauley-Stein and the Shields family decided that it would be best for him to move from his grandparents’ home in Spearville to Olathe, and live with their family.
Shields received the inaugural “Arthur S. Arkush Humanitarian of the Year Award” presented by Pro Football Weekly in ’99 which recognizes “an NFL player whose contributions to the community and charitable causes are both outstanding and hands-on.” Other winners of the Humanitarian Award include Derrick Brooks (Tampa Bay), Tony Richardson (Kansas City) and Roy Williams (Dallas).
“Will and Senia basically treated [Cauley-Stein] as one of their own children,” “Voice of the Chiefs” and friend of the Shields family, Mitch Holthus, explained. “That meant tough love, but it gave him the chance to succeed. To Willie's credit, he grew up a lot at Kentucky. I know as an athlete, but I also think as a person.
“But now he gets the chance to be in the NBA as a first-round draft pick and, in my opinion, none of that would have happened without Will and Senia Shields.”
While Pro Bowls, All-Pro teams and his numerous franchise records can be quantified through time, the impact of what Shields and his family have done for the Kansas City community can’t be.
Shields also has 68's Inside Sports, a training facility in Kansas City that welcomes everyone from NFL players and college athletes training for the Scouting Combine to regular people just trying to get a little healthier.
“During the 2011 lockout, that's where most of the Chiefs players were working out,” Holthus said. “Jon McGraw, Andy Studebaker, there were a lot of guys using that facility.”
Holthus, who can also be found working out at the facility, loves the makeup of the place.
“I love the cultural diversity there; you have all kinds,” Holthus said. “Will wants it to be that way.”
The decision to draft Shields back in 1993 was one that was obviously made for what he could do for the team on the field, but his lasting legacy in Kansas City is what he’s done away from it.
The ripple effect can be felt across thousands of families who have benefitted from his foundation and all of his other ventures.
“The easy part was staying,” Shields said of staying in Kansas City after his retirement. “For me, that was really important. I’ve got kids and they grew up here. We’re basically rooted here. It’s got a strong hold on our heart.”