GREEN BAY - Sam Shields has played through an injured shoulder, an injured calf, a hurt shin and injured ankles — twice.
He’s survived the dreaded hamstring injury and has banged up his knee, but in 90 NFL games in six NFL seasons, the Green Bay cornerback says the worst injury he’s ever had was a concussion.
Shields explained this Monday after an off-season practice — making it the first time he’s talked extensively in months about his injury and recovery. The concussion he suffered on Dec. 13 in the Packers game against Dallas caused him to black out on the field and caused headaches so bad that he missed three regular-season games at the end of the 2015 season and the NFC wild-card game on January 10.
“When I went out there to try to work out at first, I still felt it in my head,” Shields said. “Just running, doing physical things, your brain’s moving. That’s your head, your brain. It’s real scary.”
He finally felt better the week before the playoff game at Arizona and was cleared to return to the field several days before the game.
Shields played well in his return, with four passes defensed and three tackles. It matched the level of play he had in 12 games last season, where Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he was “playing the best of his career.”
“I overcame that concussion and I felt good, but I missed a few plays,” Shields said. “After four weeks of not practicing, I don’t want to use that as an excuse but that does help. Practice.”
Shields said this was the third concussion he’s had. He had one in college at Miami (Fla.) and suffered another as a Packer against St. Louis in 2011.
“I caught the interception in the end zone and boom,” Shields said.
He picked off Rams quarterback Sam Bradford but when Shields attempted to return it, he was tackled hard by receiver Brandon Gibson and suffered the injury. He missed one game.
It’s not unusual for players to feel more severe symptoms with every new concussion. That’s the point of the concussion protocol — to make sure a player is healed and functional before he returns to the field.
“Concussions — one minute you feel better, the next minute you don’t,” Shields said. “You never know. I didn’t want to risk something serious happening and then my career would be over with. I don’t like them. The headaches are tough.”
Many defensive backs have tried to play differently in recent years with tighter rules and tougher fines levied against them, but they have an increased awareness of the potential long-term health problems associated with concussions.
As much as Shields would like to protect himself from the brain injury, the cornerback said he hasn’t altered his style of play much.
The concussion he had against Dallas may have been unavoidable anyway — his head hit the Lambeau Field turf.
“All I remember is going after the tackle and my head hitting the ground. And that was it. I blanked out,” Shields said. “I try to keep my head from getting in there, but it’s kind of hard. It’s a physical sport.”
Shields said he feels great now, and he’s been working with the Packers in all off-season practices.
Midway through practice in the Don Hutson Center on Monday, quarterback Aaron Rodgers aired out a nice deep ball that receiver Jeff Janis plucked from the air over Shields. But had this been a real game, the speedy, nimble Shields would have played the defense much differently.
“I would have had that,” Shields said. He was not joking. “I would have had it. Trust me.”
Shields sees no reason why he can’t match the three interceptions, 13 passes defensed he had of last season. He considers the 2011 and 2012 seasons his best as a complete tackler and coverage corner.
The goal is to play more of the same way. He’s still running a ton in the off-season — sprints, stairs, distances — to keep himself in shape, and admits that at age 28 it’s more work than it used to be.
“It’s slowing down for me a little bit,” he chuckled.
Not that he has to worry about it; he’s been one of the fastest defensive players since he entered the league.
Otherwise, he’s the same old Shields. He’s quiet and keeps to himself. When Shields broke up a pass meant for receiver Davante Adams last week, the entire defense erupted on the sidelines. But not Shields. When another free ball was not intercepted later, nearly everyone reacted. Not Shields.
He takes a knee on the sidelines and studies everything on the field, unless he’s talking to his close friend and teammate safety Morgan Burnett.
“That’s my brother, it’s deeper than just football; I know his family, he knows my family,” Burnett said. “The kids consider him their uncle. We came in together. Our whole experience in the NFL has been together.
“With Sam playing out there, you definitely feel confident, because you know he will have your back no matter what. By knowing that, it makes you want to go out and play extra hard.
“He has your back so you want to return the favor.”