GREEN BAY - There was a time one of Sam Shields’ closest friends, a teammate in Green Bay for five seasons and through all kinds of ups and downs, thought the former Packers cornerback should retire.
And Tramon Williams didn’t just keep that opinion to himself. No, he shared freely.
This was months after Shields left the field in Jacksonville, concussed after a routine tackle. He was still having headaches. Still battling nausea. Still living with the symptoms of an extensive concussion history.
As long as he did, Shields’ return to football always felt distant, more dream than reality.
“At one point,” Williams said, “I was on the bandwagon with him like, man, you need to call it quits.”
That the Packers will see Shields on Sunday when they travel to play at the Los Angeles Rams amounts to a small miracle -- at least from the outside. Once a Pro Bowl cornerback, Shields’ career was left in ruin after a nothing-out-of-the-ordinary tackle against Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon late in the 2016 season opener.
Shields and former Packers defensive tackle Letroy Guion sandwiched Yeldon, colliding like a sports car meeting a train. Slow to get up, Shields eventually jogged off the field with 2:32 left in the fourth quarter.
“He’s going to have to come off for a play,” FOX analyst John Lynch said on the broadcast.
Instead, Shields never returned.
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It was the fifth documented concussion in Shields’ career, his second in 10 months. He missed the rest of 2016 and all of last season, and there was a time even he doubted a return was possible.
“I had no doubt that he can come back,” Williams said, adding he had multiple conversations with Shields during his recovery, with his former teammate seeking advice. “It’s just the fact when you have those types of injuries, especially with the dialogue that’s going on with concussions these days, do you want to continue to do it? And that’s the question. Do you want to continue to do it?
“After a certain amount of time off, he came to that conclusion and he went and got help for it, realized that he wanted to continue to do it.”
When Shields decided to resume his career last winter, the rust of missing almost two full NFL seasons wasn’t his biggest hurdle. First, he had to be medically cleared. A source who knows Shields said the veteran cornerback had a pool of five teams from which to choose. The group did not include the Packers, who waived him early in 2017 to recoup $9 million from the final year of his contract.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Tuesday that Shields preferred to return to the Packers. The team did not want to take the medical risk, instead signing Williams as a free agent last spring and further rebuilding their cornerback depth chart through the draft. Eventually, Shields whittled his list down to two: the Rams and Cleveland Browns.
There was no guarantee he’d even make the roster in Los Angeles. The Rams traded for All-Pro Marcus Peters in February, and a week later traded for Aqib Talib on the same day they signed Shields.
What looked like a low-risk, high-reward signing at the time has worked out well. After the Rams put Talib on injured reserve in late September, Shields moved up the depth chart. He has played 181 snaps (42.5 percent) this season, and his one interception came in his second game.
“I’m just happy he’s healthy,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I know the last time I saw Sam was the 2016 NFC Championship game, and he was still recovering. I’m just glad he’s healthy, and what’s best for him and his family.”
It isn’t just that Shields has returned to play. He has been an asset for the Rams. Now 30, Shields has shown this season he still has the quick-twitch speed that once made him the Packers' top cornerback.
Shields, who almost exclusively played the field’s perimeter in Green Bay, started this season playing mostly in the slot but has since moved outside after Talib’s injury.
Shields started one game this season, playing all 74 snaps when the Rams hosted the Minnesota Vikings on a Thursday night in Week 3. Troy Hill, a fourth-year corner, has started the past three games, but Shields still rotates off the sideline. He has played roughly a third of the snaps the past three weeks.
The Rams haven’t matched Peters against the opponent’s top receiver much this season, though it’s uncertain whether that will change against Davante Adams this week. Receiver Geronimo Allison said he doesn’t expect the Rams to match, but if they do he’ll likely get the most snaps against Shields. Allison’s time in Green Bay overlapped with Shields' only briefly as a rookie in 2016.
“He still looks like Sam,” Allison said. “He’s very quick, twitchy. He knows the game.”
Williams, who has been diagnosed with one concussion in his career, said each player has to make his own choice when to walk away from the game permanently because of head injuries. At his stage in his career, the 35-year-old Williams said he’d likely retire if concussions became a problem. But he could understand why Shields wanted to continue playing, given he’s five years younger with much more career time potentially ahead of him.
Now that Shields is back, Rodgers said he isn’t surprised to see him play well after two years away from the game. In his time with the Packers, Shields was one of their most athletic players in recent memory. Rodgers compared Shields’ speed to that of All-Pro safety Nick Collins, whose career ended prematurely because of a neck injury in 2011.
“Other than Nick Collins,” Rodgers said, “he’s the fastest guy I’ve seen on the field, and I’d love to see those guys race in their prime. I’m happy for Sam being out there, and he’s a talented player. So I’m not surprised he’s playing well.”
PackersNews.com's Pete Dougherty, Olivia Reiner and Tom Silverstein discuss several players' returns to practice and the rise of the LA Rams. Packers News