By Angela Noel
April 6, 2017
“How’s your son? How’s Jackson?” Danny asks me, almost every time we meet. Danny and Jackson have something in common. They’re both “only” children. Often I’ve wished for a better way to describe my son’s lack of siblings. Being an only child has cultural baggage for both child and parent. Even the way we describe only children, as if they are by turns selfish and lonely, feels messed up to me. Particularly because my experience with the sibling-challenged has universally been positive. Several friends of mine grew up without a sibling. Each of them are among the most independent, generous, outgoing, thoughtful people I know. Danny is no exception.
Danny grew up watching Lifetime movies and Judge Judy after school with his indomitable grandmother. They’d share a bag of popcorn and perhaps a thuringer sandwich and sit on the couch together to watch the shows after he’d finished his homework. From her, Danny learned the importance of standing up for himself and for others. She’d tell him, “Don’t take shit from anybody.” She’s also the grandmother you call at four a.m. when you shouldn’t be driving. “She was the most loving person . . . always agreeing with me,” Danny recalls with a smile. Though, Danny admits, he still can’t watch scary movies–the kind with stalker ex-husbands and Meredith Baxter-Birney.
His grandmother pitched in to watch young Danny while both his parents worked. The “pitch-in” mindset formed a core tenet of Danny’s youth. Julia Lythcott-Haims is the dean of Freshman at Stanford. In her TED Talk on how to raise successful kids–without over-parenting she references the results of a study done by the Harvard Grant Study. She says it turns out, ” . . . professional success in life comes from having done chores as a kid.” It’s a mindset that says, “I will contribute my effort to the betterment of the whole . . . that’s what gets you ahead in the workplace.”Danny, in charge of mowing the lawn, cleaning and doing the dishes–even making dinner for the family–knows all about doing his part. But contributing at home is only part of Danny’s story.
His dad, Tim, practices law and is the general counsel for the Minnesota Federated Humane Societies. Fighting for animals, and against animal cruelty, matters to the Shields. Other social issues, like the recent Women’s March in Minnesota, matter, too. A picture with mom, Barb, dad, Danny, and a protest sign, show the Shields doing more than armchair quarterbacking. An apt metaphor (if I do say so myself) considering football played a significant role in Danny’s youth.
Doing the Work
He decided he wanted to be the starting quarterback at Holy Angels. Along with encouraging his academic success, his parents supported Danny’s drive to work for what he wanted. Holy Angels had already produced one NFL player, why not another? Though without aspiring to join the big leagues, Danny chose to attend the rigorous high school program both for the academics and the athletic opportunity. He played football and baseball for the school, and went on to play baseball in college. “I compete with myself to be the best I can,” Danny says, his shoulders lifting in the tiniest shrug. Danny’s not interested in being better than anyone else. Competition is part of athletics, but it’s not about winning for Danny. It’s about doing the work, asking the question of himself, “Can I be a little bit better today?”
· Danny Shields Quarterback #16 Academy of Holy Angels Minneapolis 2008 Football Highlight Tape
Many of the kids he competed against in high school for spots on the team are part of his posse today. Ten or so good friends, all about the same age, having BBQs each Saturday during the summertime. “If I need them, they’d be there for me.” From all these examples, peers and parents, Danny didn’t hesitate when a recent volunteer opportunity to help a school in a lower-income neighborhood with their annual field day arose.
Connecting to Hope
Kids at Bethune Elementary have a high rate of homelessness. Too high. Food insecurity. Language barriers. These kids face challenges many of us will never know. One of the biggest issues isn’t money, or even food. It’s hope. Some of these kids are the easiest to forget. One day they’re in school. The next they’re not. But that’s not what Danny saw when he went to help the teachers and administrators run athletic events for the kids to try. The one-mile run, the obstacle course, the ball-toss–teams of students with laughter in their eyes ran and jumped across weedy grass, while volunteers and a few parents cheered them on. Danny wanted to do more than just participate on a single day.
“They just have this spark, you know.”
Danny’s own eyes light up when he talks about the Bethune kids. “They’re pretty amazing.” Danny made a commitment to help the kids with their homework every week. “They just need a little support, a little extra guidance. They have all the talent, they make the effort. You never know who they can grow up to be.” Danny’s delight in working with these kids, the things they teach him as he helps them read the words on the page or subtract lines of digits, radiates from him–as if he’s back on the field at Holy Angels, throwing a touchdown pass. These days, instead of aiming a ball to a wide-receiver, he’s connecting children to hope. No one could ask for more.
Danny’s nice-guy superpower comes from the many examples of his past, and his willingness to contribute the best of himself to others. Maybe some only children see themselves as the center of the universe, but not Danny Shields. The only universe that matters to him is the one where everyone, animals, children, grandmothers, and the occasional unusual sausage sandwich can sit together and enjoy the show.
If Danny can do it, so can I. So can you.
Be awesome in real life.
Your turn: What motivates you to serve others? Who have your mentors been?