Charitable HOFer Will Shields Turns Attention to Midwest Innocence Project


Article by Vahe Gregorian, The Kansas City Star
Reprinted with permission

It’s been five years since former Chiefs guard Will Shields was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That makes for a rare and fine legacy in itself.

But nearly 20 years after Shields was awarded the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award in 2003 for public service through his standard-bearing Will To Succeed Foundation, what actually defines Shields is how he has applied the influential platform.

Thinking in terms of “the community that you serve” is so essential to Shields’ makeup and such testament to how he was raised that he’s apt to flip the question on you if you ask why.

“If you’re in a position to help others,” he said, “why not?”

That mindset speaks to exactly why so many athletes shouldn’t “stick to sports” — particularly amid the seismic movement for social justice in the wake of the gratuitous killing of George Floyd beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

From Patrick Mahomes and Tyrann Mathieu to Maya Moore, from the good works for decades of Johnny Robinson to the actions of Christianna Carr and many others just locally, the resonance of their deeds and voices for just causes connects and galvanizes in vital ways.

Whatever Halls of Fame they may be in or one day enter, the ultimate context of their names and identities, like all of the rest of us, is what they did to help make the world a better place.

Which explains how Shields and his wife, Senia, came to be involved with a particularly pertinent crusade now: The Midwest Innocence Project, and what it calls its mission “to educate about, advocate for, and obtain and support the exoneration and release of wrongfully convicted people in the Midwest.”

Per the MIP’s website, “Studies estimate that between 2% and 7% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent and that 1 in 25 death row inmates is innocent. For context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison.”

(Full disclosure: Thanks to an appeal from our friend Ashley Scoby, who is on the organization’s Next Gen Board, my wife, Cindy, and my KC Star colleague and friend Blair Kerkhoff and his wife, Karen, have supported the Midwest Innocence Project the last few years by hosting fund-raising dinners in our home)

Shields will serve as the honorary chairman for a July 30 virtual gala that will include a conversation with MIP executive director Tricia Rojo Bushnell and Dr. Yusef Salaam, one of the so-called Central Park Five who served nearly seven years in prison before the wrongful convictions were overturned in 2002.

Their story of the group now better known as The Exonerated Five was told in a 2019 Netflix mini-series, “When They See Us,” that compelled Mahomes at the time to Tweet “When they see us is hard to”

In itself but also in terms of its wider implications.

“What happened in New York City happens right here, happens right here in the Midwest and continues to happen, and there are things we can do to prevent them and fix those injustices,” Bushnell said.

The virtual gala will be free and open to anyone (and feature closed captioning and translation through American sign language) able to access the Internet.

The technology and presence of Salaam, Bushnell hopes, makes for considerable audience appeal despite the pandemic.

And exposure provided by Shields’ involvement could further energize engagement with the crucial enterprise fundamentally attached to the wider movement for social justice.

“To have someone that people know and respect and adore talk about why our work is important to him …really helps us reach people who maybe wouldn’t have heard of us before,” she said. “And especially when we talk about … Will and Senia, their commitment to the community is longstanding, right?

“So to have folks who are already doing great work say they value our work really gives us a boost (and even more) credibility.”

Shields and his wife launched his foundation shortly after the Chiefs selected the Nebraska star in the third round of the 1993 NFL Draft, and its initial focus was on battered and abused women and children. But it long has extended itself further with dozens of other groups.

Meanwhile, Shields and his wife seem to have their minds set to scanning for other ways to help and recognize the moment.

Days after the COVID-19 coronavirus began shutting down the nation in mid-March, they joined the likes of Mahomes and Chiefs teammates Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce in donating meals to families in need.

In the case of the Shields’, the gift was for 96,000 meals to Harvester’s and the Jewish Family Service Food Pantry.

When it comes to promoting Midwest Innocence, a friend of Shields’ who sits on the MIP board invited Will and Senia to the main event last year. They were moved by it and wanted to know more.

While Shields certainly had a grasp of the big-picture issues, he was particularly struck to learn that some who are wrongly convicted and whose innocence is demonstrated can remain in prison because of procedural red tape.

That was the case for Ricky Kidd, who last year was released after spending 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit … including several years after Bushnell said various issues of procedure and judgment were all that kept him from a true new day in court.

What Shields heard from Kidd, who works to support MIP while developing his own platform, “I Am Resilience,” appalled him.

“I was like, ‘Are you joking?’” Shields said.

Shields also could well have been speaking of the current plight of, among others, Lamar Johnson, for whom the MIP last Sunday held an “Innocence Is Enough” rally on the steps of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis.

“Everything that you see about what happened to Lamar,” Bushnell said, “is why we see the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Johnson has been in prison since being convicted of murder in 1995. But numerous outrageous issues with the conviction ultimately emerged, compelling St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner to call for a new trial “based on newly discovered evidence of innocence, perjury and false testimony so prejudicial that the outcome of the trial is unreliable.”

That was filed a year ago on a case that Bushnell says was built on manufactured evidence, creation of a false motive, a credible alibi disregarded and an eyewitness who was paid to say he could identify men in ski masks. And plenty more yet, now including confessions from the true perpetrators.

But the state of Missouri basically continues to hold up justice instead of trying to uphold it, his chance at freedom awaiting a decision from the Missouri Supreme Court.

“How can that be?” Bushnell said. “How can we still say that that’s justice when somebody that everyone says is innocent is still waiting there because there’s an argument about (procedures)?”

With so much to be addressed and solved, and casting attention on it all is a key part of that.

Attention that those with major platforms, such as high-profile sports figures, can help provide.

Even if it’s a different sort of challenge for the still-active athlete.

From Moore, the superstar basketball player who in what Shields called an “amazing and powerful” act stepped away from the game in her prime to help free Jonathan Irons …

To Mahomes and Mathieu advocating for Black Lives Matter.

“I think it helps to have those influencers … to bring light to issues that need to be filtered, changed and fixed,” Shields said.

Especially if you’re trying to live up to a calling when you’re in a position to help others.