• Rehab Medical

NFL's Tim Shaw on Living with ALS

Updated: Jan 22, 2019

Dear 22-year-old Tim,

I want to tell you some things I think you, a senior linebacker at Penn State, should know — about your future, about life. But it’s going to be a little tricky. See, I’m only 34 years old, but it’s difficult for me to speak. It takes a lot of effort. It’s a struggle. But in its own little way, it’s also a blessing because it makes every word I say — not more important, just … more purposeful.

When you only have so many words, you tend to choose them wisely.

So I’ve decided to write you this letter because I have so much to tell you. I want to explain to you why it’s so difficult for me to speak — the diagnosis, all of it — and what my life is like now, because one day you’ll be in my shoes, living with the same struggles.

But I want to start with some good news.

You’re going to the NFL.

And … you’re gonna get a new guitar.

The Panthers are going to take you in the fifth round of the 2007 NFL draft. You’ll play a little bit on special teams as a rookie, and when you report for your second season, you’ll bring your crappy old beginner’s guitar — I think it’s called a Johnson or something? I can’t even remember — to training camp with you. There will be a kicker on the team named Rhys Lloyd, who also plays guitar. The two of you will kill time in the evenings during camp playing together in the dorms.

One night, Rhys will say, “Tim, you’re in the NFL now. You need a better guitar!”

But you won’t feel like you’re in the NFL. You’ll feel like you’re on the fringe — a special teamer who’s fighting every day for his roster spot. There’s no guarantee you’ll even survive training camp.

So you’ll make a deal with him: If you make the team, then you’ll buy a new guitar.

But don’t go looking for the nearest Guitar Center just yet, Tim, because you won’t make the team. You’re going to get cut.

That will be a big blow, but you’ll do what you’ve always done, and you’ll keep working. You’ll catch on with Jacksonville for a year. You’ll spend a year in Chicago. Then, in 2010, you’ll find yourself in Tennessee, trying to make your fourth different roster in your first four years in the league.

Not exactly how you envision your NFL career playing out, I know.

Along the way, even though you’ll make a couple of rosters, you still won’t buy yourself that guitar. Because there’s being on the team, and then there’s making the team. And you’re not looking to just be in the NFL.

You’re looking to make it.

So you’ll wait.

Well, you’re gonna make it with the Titans. Like, really make it. You’ll be a captain on special teams and even see some time at linebacker. You won’t just earn a roster spot, you’ll solidify it. You’ll finally find a home in Tennessee.

That’s when you’ll call up your friend Michael in Chicago — a guy who gave you guitar lessons when you were with the Bears — and tell him you’re ready. Ready for a real guitar. And you know just the one you want.

A Martin HD-28.

Michael will call up a buddy of his and get you a good deal, and it’ll be the best $1,700 you’ll ever spend.

That guitar will become one of your prized possessions.

Your three seasons in Tennessee will be incredible. It won’t be the career you always hoped for, but you’ll be living your own little piece of the NFL dream. Life will be pretty good.

Then, in 2013, at 29 years old and during the off-season after your third season in Tennessee, you’ll start noticing something happening to your body.

It’ll start with weird muscle twitches. Your right hand will flinch, or you’ll get what feels like a spasm in your right bicep. You won’t think much of it, but within a few weeks, your muscles will be bouncing all over the place.

Then, while you’re visiting Mom and Dad up in Michigan, you’ll be helping unload groceries from the car when you’ll pick up a gallon of milk, and it’ll slip out of your right hand and spill all over the garage floor.

No big deal, right? Butterfingers. It happens.

But it won’t feel like a normal mistake. Deep inside, something will be telling you it’s much more.

Time will tell you that you’re right.

When you get back to Nashville for training camp, you’ll be in the weight room on the pull-up bar and your right hand will start slipping off. On the bench press, your right arm won’t go up nearly as fast as your left.

In a preseason game against the Falcons, there will be a run play where you’ll slide over and meet the ball-carrier in the hole. You’ll be in perfect position. You’ll lay a big hit on him, too. But your right arm won’t hang on, and the guy will slide right past you and keep on running.

During the last round of roster cuts in training camp, you’ll be called into your head coach’s office.

Your performance on the field will have slipped so much that the Titans will cut you.

You’ll try to catch on with another team, but whatever is happening to your body will make it so that you won’t be the same player you once were. So no team will pick you up.

In March, 2014, you’ll file your retirement papers, and the dream will be over. You’ll accept it, too. You’ll be ready to move on. Ready to live the rest of your life.

But life will have other ideas.