A generation of Black coaching talent the NFL lost

RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. — The boxes started showing up, one by one, in the garage of Clarence and Nancy Shelmon’s house outside San Diego midway through the 2011 National Football League season. Nancy opened them and recognized their contents: photos that once adorned the walls and desk of Clarence’s office at San Diego Chargers headquarters, playbooks from previous seasons, various keepsakes and mementos from the career of a lifelong football man.

“Clarence, are you trying to tell me something?” she asked her husband, at the time the Chargers’ offensive coordinator. “Have you quit?”

His answer: “I’m just preparing.”

But by that point, he had already made his decision: At the end of that season, Clarence Shelmon, football lifer, would be walking away from the sport, walking away from the NFL, walking away — at 59 — from the only job description he had known since he was straight out of college in 1975: football coach.

His dream of becoming an NFL head coach, which he had harbored for 21 years as an assistant in the league — the last 10 of which, with the Chargers, produced five playoff appearances and just one losing season — was officially deceased.

Primary cause of death: pride. Secondary cause of death: institutional bias.

“In terms of the [NFL’s] hiring practices, there didn’t seem to be a real good path to my aspirations,” Shelmon recently recalled in his living room. “… When you know you’ve gone as far as you’re going to be able to go, not based on your abilities but just based on how [others] look at you — as a man of color — then there comes a time when [you decide], ‘I shouldn’t have to take this.’ When you have the stress and knowledge of all that goes on, it’s a burden that you carry. … So, if you don’t like it, leave. And that’s what I did.”

Black Out

This football season, The Washington Post is examining the NFL’s decades-long failure to equitably promote Black coaches to top jobs, despite the multibillion-dollar league being fueled by Black players.

Shelmon, 70, is part of the lost generation of Black NFL coaches, the ones whose careers suffered for the league’s failures in racial equity.

“When you work hard and you’ve been successful, you think there should be an equitable path for you,” Shelmon said. “[When] you have success and nothing changes, it can be daunting — mentally, physically and emotionally.”

But the toll goes far beyond the unfulfilled dreams of countless Black coaches denied the opportunity to lead an NFL team. Each lost opportunity can cost a coach millions of dollars in lifetime earnings, given the vast difference in salary between a mid-level assistant and a head coach. Less measurable is the cost to Black players, who make up nearly 60 percent of the NFL’s labor force but miss out on valuable mentors and role models who could help shape the course of their careers.

“The part that’s missed a lot of times is [that] we needed people like Clarence as Black players — someone we could relate to and talk to,” said Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who played under Shelmon for eight years in San Diego. “It’s a hard profession, and having someone to be able to guide us through being a professional is sometimes lost. People like him are critical.”

To hear these coaches’ stories is to be reminded of the universality of discrimination in the Black experience in America — where the median White household has 7.8 times the wealth of the typical Black household, according to 2019 data from the Brookings Institution — and that inclusion matters not only for the numbers or even the principle but because livelihoods, legacies and dreams are at stake.

Days after the Chargers’ 2011 season ended with an 8-8 record and a second-place finish in the AFC West, Shelmon walked into the office of head coach Norv Turner and informed him of his decision. The team put out a brief news release announcing his resignation along with a terse statement from Shelmon, the first sentence of which read, “I’m just done.”

Team management did nothing to try to change his mind, Shelmon said — not that it would have done any good. And within days, the Chargers had named his replacement. The NFL, it turned out, went on without Clarence Shelmon, just as it goes on without everyone who leaves after giving all they could.

Shelmon would never let anyone see the pain his decision brought him — though he was at peace with it, it still meant giving up a life’s ambition — but people close to him knew.

“I saw him dying, part of him, knowing he was not going to get the opportunity. That’s a devastating feeling,” Tomlinson said. “It wasn’t his fault the NFL wasn’t ready for Clarence Shelmon to be a head coach. That’s a loss on the league — because that guy could have impacted so many more guys than he did.”

When the next NFL season got underway in September 2012, Clarence and Nancy Shelmon were on vacation in the farthest locale she could find from San Diego: South Africa.

‘Life, unfortunately, isn’t truthful’

Clarence Shelmon’s coaching occupation spanned 37 years, the closing 21 of them in the NFL — for the Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys and Chargers.

As a running backs coach, Shelmon mentored two Hall of Famers — Emmitt Smith with the Cowboys and Tomlinson with the Chargers — plus running back Chris Warren and fullbacks Lorenzo Neal and John Williams, each of whom made multiple Pro Bowl appearances.

In the five years (2007 to 2011) he spent under Turner as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator — a position that has served as one of the top breeding grounds for future head coaches — the team won three division titles and finished in the top five in scoring offense each season.

But during those five years — and, in fact, in all his years in the league — Shelmon never got so much as an interview for a head coaching job. That’s despite the fact his final nine years came during the Rooney Rule era, after the NFL, in 2003, put in place a mandate requiring teams to consider minority candidates for head coaching jobs.

“You want to put guys in position where they get an opportunity to be considered for a [head coaching] job,” said Turner, a former offensive coordinator himself who spent 15 seasons as an NFL head coach, when asked about Shelmon’s career track. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of factors that go into hiring a guy. There’s only 32 teams, and there’s usually six to eight openings [per hiring cycle]. And there’s a lot of capable, qualified guys. A lot of times they’re getting hired by guys they’ve worked with before.”

Asked about Shelmon’s capabilities and qualifications as a head coach, Turner said, “Clarence would have been outstanding.”

It wasn’t as though jobs weren’t available or that Turner lieutenants were excluded from them. His San Diego staffs from that period produced three future full-time head coaches, including a Black man (Steve Wilks) and a Latino (Ron Rivera).

All told, nine colleagues who served on the same staffs as Shelmon during his NFL career, as coordinators or assistants, went on to get full-time head coaching jobs. All but two were younger than him. Only one, Wilks, was Black. Five of the nine posted losing records as head coaches, with four being fired after two or fewer seasons.

Rob Chudzinski coaching trail

Sources: Post reporting, Sports Reference

Rob Chudzinski coaching trail

Sources: Post reporting, Sports Reference

Rob Chudzinski coaching trail

Sources: Post reporting, Sports Reference

And then there was Shelmon’s young partner on “Football Night in San Diego,” a weekly show on the city’s NBC affiliate for which Shelmon served as an analyst from 2012 to 2018. In 2013 and 2014, he was paired with a former backup quarterback named Kevin O’Connell, who was in his late 20s when he retired from playing and was giving broadcasting a try.

By 2015, O’Connell had moved on to coaching, landing a job as the Cleveland Browns’ quarterbacks coach. By 2019, he had become offensive coordinator for Washington. And in 2022, at 36, he was named head coach of the Minnesota Vikings — going from first-year assistant to head coach, a journey Shelmon never was allowed to complete during a 21-season NFL career, in just seven years.

“It’s just so unpredictable,” said Rob Chudzinski, who spent four seasons working alongside Shelmon in San Diego, first as tight ends coach under the late Marty Schottenheimer in 2005 and 2006, then as tight ends coach and assistant head coach under Turner in 2009 and 2010. More than 15 years younger than Shelmon, Chudzinski was named the Cleveland Browns’ head coach in 2013.

“It’s all about what year and what team and what job,” he added. “Those jobs are hard to come by. Sometimes it’s whose name gets hot at a certain time. It’s impossible to predict who’s going to get what job and when.”

Asked what part race played, Chudzinski said he preferred not to discuss that.

Rivera, who was defensive coordinator for the Chargers at the same time Shelmon was offensive coordinator and who is now the head coach of the Washington Commanders, said the lack of diversity remains “a major problem” for the NFL.

“It is the responsibility of everyone in the NFL,” he said, “to help fix this issue and even the playing field.”

Back in the early 1980s, when a young Shelmon coached under Lee Corso at the University of Indiana, he grew close with a backup quarterback named Cam Cameron. In part because of Shelmon’s example, Cameron followed him into the coaching ranks after graduation, starting with an entry-level graduate assistant position at the University of Michigan.

LEFT: Cam Cameron was named head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2007 after being offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers for five seasons. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images) RIGHT: Cameron lasted one season in Miami, going 1-15. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

But somewhere along the way, Cameron climbed past Shelmon on the career ladder and in the early 2000s became his boss as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator, with Shelmon serving as running backs coach. Cameron’s ascension to the head coaching job with the Miami Dolphins in 2007 created the opening that gave Shelmon his first shot at a coordinator job.

“Why would I get a head coaching opportunity and he didn’t, when he taught me the game?” Cameron asked rhetorically. “I’m not a finger-pointer kind of guy, but I have to ask: Why is that? And how can we work together to get to where we can all have those opportunities, Black or White?”

As disappointed as he was that his own aspirations fell short, Shelmon said he was happy for his colleagues who were given a chance.

“Those people are good guys, good coaches,” he said. “I don’t begrudge them. … But I’m not going to sit here and say they were any better than me. I could certainly do what they did, if not better. Life, unfortunately, isn’t fair. And for me, it just wasn’t fair.”

At that, Shelmon paused and chuckled.

“For them, it was.”

‘There’s no rhyme or explanation why’

Since Art Shell of the Los Angeles Raiders changed into the first Black head trainer of the NFL’s trendy historical past in 1989, simply 24 different Black coaches have joined him, out of just about 200 head coaches employed. Much extra commonplace used to be the Clarence Shelmon tale.

For every Ray Rhodes or Dennis Green or Tony Dungy who managed to grab one of those head coaching jobs — with their accompanying glory, power and fame (however fleeting), not to mention salaries that could reach 10 times what they earned as assistants — there were untold others who were denied the opportunity, their names largely lost to history. But that’s not the case for members of their own community, who raise those names in praise as if describing a parallel universe where all of them got their rightful due.

“Emmitt Thomas and Sherm Lewis and Ray Sherman,” said the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Todd Bowles, one of three Black full-time head coaches currently in the NFL, rattling off the names of three predecessors who deserved a chance. “There are a lot of guys who hadn’t gotten an opportunity that I thought were outstanding coaches.”

When or if progress comes to the NFL — and none appears close at hand, given that there are the same number of Black full-time head coaches in 2022 as there were in 2003, the year the Rooney Rule was implemented — it will be too late to help these men.

“There’s no rhyme or reason why Clarence Shelmon wasn’t a head coach,” said longtime NFL assistant Terry Robiskie, whose career peaked with interim head coaching stints for Washington in 2000 and Cleveland in 2004. In both cases, he was passed over for the full-time job. “There’s no rhyme or reason why Jim Skipper wasn’t a head coach. There’s no rhyme or reason why Willie Shaw wasn’t a head coach, [why] Lionel Taylor wasn’t a head coach.

“There’s so many. There’s no reason why I couldn’t be.”

Ray Sherman served as offensive coordinator for four teams and was a fixture of the head coach interview circuit during the 2000s and early 2010s. Frequently, news reports about his interview with this or that team contained the qualifier “in order to satisfy the Rooney Rule,” which required teams to interview at least one minority candidate for each head coaching vacancy. He never got a job offer and said the blame lies with “old-school owners” who aren’t willing to have a Black man be the public face of the franchise.

“These guys don’t want to hire Black head coaches,” said Sherman, now 70 and preparing to be the wide receivers coach of the Las Vegas franchise in the relaunched XFL in 2023. “They’ll hire you as a position coach, hire you in scouting, but they won’t give you the keys to the car. I used to get bitter, but I put it behind me.”

Ted Cottrell was a defensive coordinator for four teams in the late 1990s and 2000s, his teams making the playoffs in seven of his 10 years in the position. In 1999, his Buffalo Bills ranked first in the NFL in yards allowed. It wasn’t enough to put him in a head coach’s office.

Cottrell, now 75, said he interviewed for eight head coaching jobs during his 24 years in the NFL, but only twice did he consider the team’s interest to be serious: with the Indianapolis Colts in 2002, when the job went to Dungy, and with the San Francisco 49ers in 2003, when the job went to Dennis Erickson. Most of the other interviews, he said, were conducted to satisfy the Rooney Rule.

“There were times they’d interview you,” Cottrell said, “and they’d already picked the guy.”

Cottrell and Shelmon worked together in San Diego and became coordinators at the same time, in 2007 — after the Chargers’ 14-2 finish the year before led to head coaching jobs for offensive coordinator Cameron (with Miami) and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (with Dallas). Cameron and Phillips are White.

Shelmon and Cottrell are Black, and both would top out as coordinators, earning no consideration for head coaching jobs even after the 2007 Chargers went 11-5 and advanced to the AFC championship game, where they lost to the New England Patriots. It remains the last time the franchise, now representing Los Angeles, went that deep in the playoffs.

Cottrell was fired by the Chargers midseason in 2008, replaced by Rivera, who would become the head coach of the Carolina Panthers three years later. Cottrell has not worked in the NFL since, bouncing around minor league and developmental circuits such as the United Football League, the Alliance of American Football and most recently the Spring League.

He said he still wants to get back into the NFL, but he knows whatever chance he had of being a head coach is gone.

“You’re thinking: ‘Okay, I’m qualified. I’ve put my time in.’ And you’re denied the opportunity,” Cottrell said. “It takes its toll. You’ve done the things you’re supposed to do. You ask yourself the question: ‘What did I do wrong, that I can’t get this opportunity like everyone else?’ It’s bothersome. It eats at you. It eats at your family.

“You’ll say, ‘It’s okay.’ But it’s not okay.”

Missing out on ‘generational wealth’

If the psychic and emotional toll of seeing a life’s dream denied is substantial, so, too — and much more measurable — is the financial toll. Assistant coaches in the NFL are highly compensated, relative to the general public, but the wealth gap between them and the select few chosen to be head coaches is massive.

Salaries of NFL assistants are typically not made public, but Shelmon said his were in the low six figures as a running backs coach, jumping to $600,000 in his first season as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator, then $850,000 in his fifth and final year in that position, 2011.

Consider the salaries as head coaches of some of the colleagues who passed Shelmon on the way up.

Cameron signed a four-year deal worth a reported $10 million with the Dolphins in 2007. Typically, NFL coaching contracts are fully guaranteed — minus subsequent salaries if that coach gets rehired by another team — meaning Cameron would have received the full $10 million despite lasting just one year.

Chudzinski’s Browns contract in 2013 was reportedly for four years and $14 million; he, too, was fired after just one year, at which point $10.5 million was still owed to him.

Today, according to people familiar with the salary structure for NFL coaches, the wealth gap between head coaches and everyone else is even wider, with mid-level assistants on average earning around $500,000, coordinators making roughly $1.5 million and head coaches being paid about $5 million.

In different phrases, 5 years as a coordinator vs. 5 years as a head trainer may just value anyone in the group of $17 million.

“Your wealth increases exponentially as a head coach,” Shelmon mentioned. “You’re talking about generational wealth.”

According to Thomas M. Shapiro, a professor of sociology and public policy at Brandeis University and author of the book “The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality,” that disparity reverberates across a lifetime — and even beyond.

If you assume a $20 million difference in career earnings between a longtime head coach and a longtime assistant, Shapiro said: “The [gap] is quite significant in the life chances associated with top income-earners that translate into family wealth — homes, best health care, business and investment opportunities, kids’ college, down payments for kids’ first homes. They and their children have chances, multiple — not just one chance to fail, like most of us. This is where ‘quantity of more’ translates into ‘quality of life’ — from where they live, who the kids grow up with, their social circles, networks, prep schools, status. I like to remind audiences that wealth is not the goal — it is a means to loftier and human goals.”

Shelmon doesn’t take his own good fortune for granted, especially the financial realities that allowed him to retire when he did. He loved football as much as others of his generation, but unlike most, he didn’t need it. He and Nancy, a CPA who had worked herself up to partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, never had children and invested wisely, leaving them on the type of financial footing that meant they no longer required his NFL coordinator’s salary.

The Shelmons bought their stately, four-bedroom house in the upscale San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe, its one-acre lot replete with gardens, fountains and a koi pond, in 2005. Today it is worth $3.5 million, according to Zillow.

He is thinking more of his less financially secure brethren, those who didn’t have the wherewithal to walk away at a relatively young age as he did. Like many in the industry, they moved between different assistant coaching jobs every couple of years, either because they were fired or they were chasing a head coaching opportunity that never came.

“There are a lot of men in this league who work hard and have had a tremendous amount of success and never got the opportunity. And for different reasons, they want to stay,” he said. “I love the game. I like the NFL. I have no animosity towards the NFL. But some of those guys have families. … I understand why they stay.”

‘A part of him died’

In the early weeks of 2000, Shelmon were given a atypical name from a chum and fellow NFL trainer.

“Why are you turning down the Saints interview?” requested the pal, whom Shelmon declined to call.

Shelmon, at the time the Cowboys’ running backs coach, didn’t know what his friend was talking about, but he soon found out: The New Orleans Saints, Shelmon said, had asked the Cowboys for permission to interview him for their offensive coordinator job — a promotion that could have positioned Shelmon for a future head coaching role.

But Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Shelmon said, had denied the Saints permission without informing Shelmon about the inquiry. According to Shelmon, once he found out, he confronted Jones in the owner’s office.

“I said, ‘Jerry, I hear the Saints called to inquire about me as the offensive coordinator,’ ” Shelmon recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah, Clarence, they called.’ I said, ‘But you didn’t tell me.’ He said: ‘Well, I knew you weren’t going to be calling the plays. They just wanted you to come and work with their running game.’ ”

The NFL’s anti-tampering rules would prohibit the Cowboys from blocking Shelmon’s opportunity today, but those regulations were less stringent 22 years ago. The Cowboys did not dispute Shelmon’s account, saying their actions were within the league’s rules and that the team valued Shelmon enough to want to keep him. Jones, through a team spokesperson, declined to comment.

Whether Jones’s maneuver was within the rules is immaterial to Shelmon. “Either way,” he said, “it was still wrong.”

Instead of Shelmon, the Saints hired Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach Mike McCarthy. Six years later, the Packers hired McCarthy back as their head coach; he spent 13 years in the top job, winning the Super Bowl following the 2010 season, and is now in his third season as coach of the Cowboys, his career earnings sitting comfortably in the tens of millions of dollars.

Shelmon is a native of Bossier City, La., about 2½ hours from Dallas. When he took the position as the Cowboys’ running backs coach in 1998 — choosing it over a similar opportunity with the Colts, he said — he did it to be close to home and to work with Emmitt Smith, the future Hall of Famer who was already a four-time all-pro. But there was a third reason: When Shelmon was deciding between the Cowboys and the Colts, he chose Dallas, he said, in part because Jones had promised to help advance his career toward his ultimate goal of becoming a head coach.

“That always stuck with me. I’ll never forget it,” Shelmon said. “I thought that was wrong, particularly when [Jones] said if I come there, he was going to help me with my advancement.”

That incident was the first of two that opened Shelmon’s eyes to the ways in which NFL teams fail Black coaches, even if it was cutthroat competitiveness — as opposed to racial animus — driving the decisions. The other occurred in San Diego after the 2006 season. Cameron, the Chargers’ offensive coordinator, had landed the Dolphins’ head coaching job and soon inquired about bringing Shelmon with him as offensive coordinator.

There was one problem: Shelmon, who had been promoted to offensive coordinator when Cameron left, was under contract for 2007. And with the Chargers transitioning from Schottenheimer, who had been fired unexpectedly after a dispute with ownership, to Turner, upper management was unwilling to let Shelmon out of his contract. The team would later say it was reluctant to let him go because of his prowess as the architect of its running game.

NFL rules allowed the Chargers to deny permission for a lateral move, but there was a complicating factor: The Dolphins, under Cameron, wanted Shelmon to be the primary offensive play caller. In San Diego, everyone knew Turner would be calling the plays. In effect, the Miami job would have been a significant promotion. Cameron said he would have tripled Shelmon’s salary and made him an assistant head coach. The play-calling duties and elevated title probably would have placed Shelmon in better position for future head coaching opportunities.

“There was this sort of unwritten rule in the NFL that if you didn’t call the plays, it was going to be hard to get a head [coaching] job,” Shelmon said. “Now, let’s face it: That only was applicable to certain people. There are a lot of [White] guys in the league that did not call plays [as coordinators] that are head coaches. But I know for me, I was going to have to call the plays if I was going to eventually be a head coach.”

Cameron wound up calling the plays himself in 2007, with the Dolphins suffering through a disastrous 1-15 season that resulted in his firing.

“I got a rude awakening about how guys could not get out of contracts, even if it’s a great opportunity for them and their families,” Cameron said. “Anything good that ever happened to me in coaching was the result of mentors I had like Clarence. … There’s no telling what would’ve happened if I got Clarence to come with me to Miami.”

Shelmon did not explicitly tie the Cowboys incident or the Chargers situation to racism, and that sort of back-channel blocking of coaches’ mobility long has been common in the NFL. Cameron said he was victimized himself during his career.

Chargers owner Dean Spanos, through a team spokesman, declined an interview request from The Post regarding Shelmon.

In San Diego, Shelmon had become close with Tomlinson, the dynamic running back and 2006 NFL MVP who had come to regard Shelmon as an unparalleled football mentor and a second father.

“Nobody taught me more in an individual setting than Clarence Shelmon,” said Tomlinson, now a special assistant to ownership in the Chargers’ front office. “I learned more from him about defenses, schemes, all the things we’re trying to do as an offense than from anyone. He taught me how to know what everyone on the field was doing. That was foreign to me. I just focused on my job: ‘Why do I need to pay attention to what everyone else is doing?’ He said, ‘This is going to make you a better all-around player.’

LEFT: Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson spent eight seasons with Shelmon in San Diego. (Chris Carlson/AP) RIGHT: Tomlinson won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award for the 2006 season. He credits Shelmon as a mentor. (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

“He also taught me how to be a man, how to balance work and home life. He talked to me about my branding, about conducting myself around the corporate world. And he and Nancy had been married forever, so he was a role model in that respect. I was engaged to my now-wife at the time, and he was critical for me in that regard, in being better at my relationship with her.”

In the early part of 2007, however, in the aftermath of his lost opportunity with the Dolphins, Tomlinson noticed a change in Shelmon.

“A part of him died in a sense: the belief in what the NFL was supposed to be about — a meritocracy, a fair chance, that if you work hard enough, you’re going to get what you want,” Tomlinson said. “He deserved that shot [after] all the years, all the production of his players. I could tell that it took a lot out of him.”

Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton, after turning to coaching himself, spent six years working as wide receivers coach alongside Shelmon with the Chargers; in the last of those six years, 2007, he worked under Shelmon after the latter was promoted to offensive coordinator. What Lofton saw was a man with all the tools and experience to be an NFL head coach.

“He had the passion. He had the desire. He had the intelligence,” said Lofton, now 66. “And he had the presence for when you stand in front of a room and be the guy to lead guys out there to win on Sunday.”

Perhaps because of the cachet his name carried in the league, Lofton received three interviews for NFL head coaching positions, he said, but no job offers. He left his coaching career behind in 2008 for broadcasting — “I just didn’t see a pathway forward to where I was going to become a head coach,” he said — and is now an analyst for CBS.

“You wonder, ‘If not now, when?’ ” Lofton said. “For Clarence to walk away at 59 — once [the game] starts to course through your veins, it’s tough to give up. He had a passion that was unquenchable. … You want that chance. You’re watching other people get elevated around you, and you wonder: ‘What about me? When is my chance?’ ”

‘There has to be a fundamental change’

In Bossier City, Shelmon grew up in a house without running water or electricity. The schools were segregated until the last semester of his senior year. He went to the Black school. His mother, a janitor, cleaned classrooms and bathrooms at the White one. On weekends, she mopped and vacuumed the houses of White people, sometimes bringing home their discarded newspapers, which is how Clarence learned of the world beyond Louisiana.

“I watched her work these two jobs her entire life,” he said of his mother, “and we were never on any public assistance, such as welfare. She worked her butt off for us, [and] she asked for nothing to be given to her. And I wasn’t going to ask for anything, either. But she also wasn’t going to take nothing. And I wasn’t going to take what was happening [in the NFL]. So I think I got that from her.”

When Shelmon decided to leave the league, that was the principle he stood upon: He deserved better.

“I was raised [to believe] that if you don’t like something, and if you don’t feel like you’re being treated fairly, … then you make sure that you put yourself in a situation [where] that’s not something you have to rely on,” he said.

By the end, he said, his continued employment in the NFL would have made him partially culpable — “along with the people who were responsible for the hiring,” he noted — for perpetuating a system that denied him one opportunity after another.

“When I look in that mirror, I have to like what I see,” Shelmon said of that period. “And I wasn’t liking what I was seeing.”

He counts his NFL career as just the fifth- or sixth-most-important accomplishment of his life — behind, off the top of his head, the college scholarships he funded for kids from Bossier City and the charitable work he did in San Diego, among other things. More than the statistics of the famous running backs he coached, Shelmon takes pride in the fact that he helped Lorenzo Neal, Darren Sproles and LaDainian Tomlinson register to vote for the first time.

Upon retirement, Shelmon had three goals: learn to play a musical instrument, learn a new language and join the board of a community organization. He did all three: saxophone, Italian and the San Diego Food Bank.

“He didn’t miss [football] as much as I thought he would,” said Nancy, who is also retired. “I think he missed the technical aspects of plotting a game plan and beating a team. But you have so little time to enjoy the victories, and the grind is just unbelievable. I expected it to be harder for him than it was.”

As a female executive in an industry once dominated by men, Nancy could empathize with her husband’s struggle against the prejudice that kept him from reaching the top of his profession. The big difference: The accounting industry has adapted to the times, with women and minorities making up 54 percent of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ new partners in 2022.

Football largely has not.

“I find the NFL so frustrating because it’s these old White men” who own the vast majority of teams, she said. “And that’s the difference: Corporate America has had to adapt from a profit standpoint, and there is nothing that has motivated the NFL owners to adapt to the way the world is.”

Nothing that has happened since 2011 has led Shelmon to think he made a mistake walking away when he did. In the first few years, he turned down a handful of opportunities to return to the NFL as an assistant, but it’s unlikely any of them would have led to a head coaching job. The 2022 season began with fewer than half as many Black head coaches (three) as there were at the start of Shelmon’s final season of 2011 (seven).

If anything, the situation is worse now, and Shelmon, starting his eighth decade on the planet, doesn’t have much confidence in the situation improving during his lifetime.

“You can’t legislate or mandate hiring practices — because those guys own the team. It’s their team. They can do what they want with it. And that’s fine,” Shelmon said.

“There has to be a fundamental change in somebody’s heart. … Until the owners decide that they’re going to look at a person who looks like me and not see my skin [color] and just say, ‘Hey, this guy can do the job,’ regardless of what he looks like, then it’s not going to change.”

About this tale

Editing through Jason Murray and Joe Tone. Copy enhancing through Michael Petre. Photo enhancing through Toni L. Sandys. Video through Jorge Ribas. Video tale enhancing through Jessica Koscielniak. Graphics through Artur Galocha. Design and building through Brianna Schroer and Joe Fox. Design enhancing through Virginia Singarayar. Project control through Wendy Galietta.

Leave a Comment