SB Nation

Michael Graff | February 3, 2016

Higher and Higher

Former Panther Shawn King’s career went up in smoke. Then he found another way to get high…

Photo: Craig Jones /Allsport

Higher and Higher

Former Panther Shawn King’s career went up in smoke. Then he found another way to get high…

by Michael Graff

On the second Sunday in January 1997, while his Carolina Panthers teammates bundled up to face a minus-17 wind chill in the NFC Championship in Green Bay, defensive end Shawn King turned on a television set at a rehab facility in Charlotte. He was a force of a man, 6′3 and 290 pounds, and one season earlier he was the 36th pick in the NFL Draft.

His weakness was marijuana.

He failed a drug test within a day of signing his rookie contract in 1995 and landed in the NFL’s substance abuse program. He was forced to take regular drug tests, and he took them honestly until he devised a plan to beat the system. Throughout his rookie year, King stayed sober and filled empty Gatorade jugs with clean urine and stacked them in his garage. That offseason, he started slipping clean samples into the cups when the test administrators weren’t looking. The strategy, gross as it was, worked beautifully for most of the 1996 season. But few acts of mischief ever go unnoticed. Most of the season, the test administrator was a guy who “didn't bother to even look your way once I got the cup,” King says. “He would start filling out labels for the samples and getting ready to get out of there.” But near the end of the year, King ran into a test administrator who wouldn’t look the other way. “He wanted to see you pee in the cup, no ifs, ands, or buts.” He had to take the test legitimately, and when the results came back, he got caught.

Photo: Erik Perel /Allsport

The Panthers were enjoying a dream 12-4 season in their second year of existence. They didn’t need this kind of distraction from a backup defensive lineman. They gave King a choice: He could go to rehab and get clean, or he’d be kicked off the team. They told a different story in public, though. Dom Capers, coach of the year that season, said King was being suspended for being tardy tor workouts and missing weightlifting sessions.

The explanation made the team look great in the eyes of the national media, especially when you compared the Panthers to the Cowboys, their opponent in the NFC Divisional Round. The defending world champions from Dallas had gone through controversy after controversy that season, from future Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin’s suspension for cocaine possession to a young woman’s allegations that offensive lineman Erik Williams raped her. The franchise known as “America’s Team” was instead becoming a symbol of everything that was wrong with undisciplined athletes in America in the 1990s, an era when things like gangsta rap and grunge music were also being held up as symbols of what was wrong with America. There were lots of things going wrong with America in the mid-1990s, apparently. But the Panthers? Buddy, they’d boot you for being late to a meeting.

Carolina beat Dallas 26-17 on a sunny, 65-degree January Sunday in North Carolina in that Divisional game. Good beat evil. Discipline beat lawlessness. And Shawn King went to rehab the next week.

He had plenty of time to think there, and he didn’t come up with anything good. He believed, wholeheartedly, that using marijuana wasn’t worth the punishment he received. He’d smoked since he was 14 years old, but he turned down other drugs because he didn’t think they were safe. Weed, though? Hell, that should be legal anyway, he’d tell people. But now it was costing him a chance to participate in some of the biggest moments in an athlete’s life.

He’d watched his teammates win one playoff game without him already. He didn’t know if he could handle another. Within a few hours of entering rehab the week after the Dallas game, he made a deal with himself: If the Panthers lost in the conference championship, he’d finish his stay in the facility. If they won, though, if they somehow knocked off the Packers in that miserably cold bowl of twirling yellow towels and pompoms on his television, if they took a trip to the Super Bowl without him, Shawn King was going to kill himself.

“Tonight is going to be a bad night for the devil in Charlotte, North Carolina!” the bodybuilder on stage shouts. It’s a Sunday night in mid-November at The Praising Place Church of God in east Charlotte. All 200 or so seats are full for tonight’s show of the John Jacobs Next Generation Power Force team.

Jacobs is the man on stage. He’s friends with Chuck Norris. In fact, one of Jacobs’ most impressive claims is that Norris saw one single Power Force performance and accepted Christ right there and then. Jacobs is an evangelist who’s been taking teams of strong men around the country for a quarter-century or so, using them to break boards over their heads and rip phone books in half and chew through license plates, all in the name of God. The idea is to give people a show in hopes that they’ll see His power and accept God into their hearts. And maybe give a few donations to the church and the Power Force.

The team also spends quite a bit of time in schools, delivering a message that focuses more on motivation than religion. In any setting, Jacobs’ team was huge in the 1980s and 1990s, riding a post-Reagan tide of evangelical fervor to sell out arenas around the country. The crowds have dwindled, but the sanctuary is passionate tonight. Many people in the church are wearing Panthers shirts and jerseys, celebrating the team’s victory over the Tennessee Titans earlier in the day, a win that pushed them to 9-0.

The church’s senior pastor is wearing a jean jacket and stonewashed jeans and a T-shirt. He opens the service by telling the attendees that it’s ok to dance and scream and holler tonight. “When I move my feet, when I open my mouth, then the darkness flees,” he shouts. He says that Jacobs’ Power Force has helped 1 million people become accepted by the Lord. “The kingdom of God is expanding,” the senior pastor says.

Jacobs, now 56, limps on stage on shaky knees and delivers the line about it being a bad night for the devil here. Then he asks the attendees a question typical of a preacher, a question that at once empowers people to have their own answer yet leads them all to have the same answer, the only answer: “If God is for you, who can be against you?”

He introduces tonight’s two Power Force team members. He says they’re brothers who were born and raised in Louisiana. The Monday Night Football theme song begins to play in the background. One of tonight’s strongmen played briefly in the Chicago Bears organization. His name is Jerome King, and he’s going to chew through a phone book for them, among other things, praise Jesus. And the other played for the Carolina Panthers. His name is Shawn King.

Was it selfish of King to wish for his teammates to lose that day? Was it weak? Do you think he brought it on himself?

Nineteen winters later, tears spill down King’s cheeks as he remembers what happened while he watched that NFC title game from rehab.

Photo: Michael Hebert/Getty Images

His mentor, undersized linebacker Sam Mills, intercepted Brett Favre in the first quarter and returned the ball to the 3-yard line. Then Kerry Collins hit Howard Griffith for a touchdown. The Panthers, a 12-point underdog, were winning 7-0. The Packers came back with a Favre touchdown, but then Carolina’s John Kasay kicked a field goal. King’s teammates had not only scored first in the game, they’d responded to the Packers’ points, too.

This is one of those “Where were you when …” moments for Panthers fans.

King was in rehab, weighing his suicide options.

“I remember sitting in that room and thinking, ‘This is it. This is it,’” he recalls recently at a restaurant in Charlotte. He bites down on his napkin before continuing. “I was such a coward, I didn’t want to cause any pain to myself. I worried that if I did it with a gun, I would just mess myself up. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I just knew that if they went to the Super Bowl, I didn’t want to be here.”

Thank God for Brett Favre and Chris Jacke.

Favre pumped a 6-yard touchdown to Antonio Freeman to make it 14-10 in the second quarter, and the Packers kept going from there. Jacke added three field goals and an extra point the rest of the way, giving the Packers a 30-13 win.

“I don’t know if I was happy; I don’t really know what I was feeling,” King says. “But I was so glad they didn’t win that game. I wouldn’t still be here if they had.”

Where do you find happiness? Where do you find peace? A child? A God? A drug? A sport? Better yet, if you’ve found happiness and peace at all, does it matter where you found them?

Shawn King trots onto the stage at the Praising Place wearing a tank-top and a weightlifting belt. He’s still ripped, and even at more than 280 pounds he has a V-shaped upper body that many men of 43 could only wish for. He smiles at the crowd. After he and his brother perform a few smaller feats — little stuff like bending a metal rod over his head — he takes an HDX carpenter’s hammer and announces that he’ll break the fiberglass shaft over his leg. He grabs the head of the hammer with his left hand and the handle with his right. He presses it against his thigh. He knows exactly where the breaking point is, but even now, after a decade with the Power Force, it takes him a few minutes. He starts sweating. He pauses, straightens up, and sucks in a breath.

As he makes one more attempt, Jacobs speaks into the mic.

“It is so hard to snap a hammer,” Jacobs tells the congregation of Christians. “I want to dedicate this to anyone who’s going through a tough time. I want this to represent heaven being there for you.”

Everybody stands and cheers for King. The steady beat of the club music and the hands waving and shouting at a muscular man on stage makes this seem, at times, like a scene from a bachelorette party.

Finally, the hammer snaps. The congregation high-fives and points at King to tell him he’s amazing. He points to the sky, then takes the microphone to tell his story.

When he was a young boy, King would wake up on weekday mornings and walk to school in West Monroe, Louisiana. Before he left the house, he’d step into his parents’ bedroom to say goodbye to his father. The old man always watched television from a burgundy-upholstered recliner that sat next to his bed. He’d raise a coffee mug to his boy and tell him to have a good day.

The mug was filled with Seagram’s Seven.

Dad didn’t think his son knew. His son knew.

I thought it was normal to watch your dad beat on your momShawn King

When King came home from school, he’d hear the results of his dad’s day of drinking. He’d sit in his room and listen to his mother “screaming for her life,” as her husband beat her. Then King and his little brother, Jerome, would take their beatings.

He thought this was normal. In fact, he thought he was lucky. Most of his friends were poor. He grew up in a single-story house on an oak-tree-lined street right near the high school. His mother worked for State Farm. His father somehow held a job with the power company despite being an alcoholic. They were middle class. They had a pool table.

“I grew up around a lot of kids who didn’t have their mom and dad,” King says. “I knew how fortunate I was. I just thought this was the stuff you had to go through to be fortunate. I thought it was normal to watch your dad beat on your mom.”

When King was 11, his father was working on a power pole when a live line crashed down on him. It sent a shock through his left arm and out through his leg. King’s father lost his left arm that day, and he still doesn’t wear shorts because of the way his calf muscle looks after the shock blew it out.

King wasn’t a perfect kid anyway. He remembers his first crime was stealing plums off of neighbors’ trees. Looking back now, the reformed man of God sees the plums as a sign of bad things to come. As he became bulkier and taller, shooting from 5-feet to 6-feet and more, the misdeeds grew.

He graduated from West Monroe High in the same class as Willie Robertson, the star of Duck Dynasty. (King still talks to Robertson every few months or so. “Willie’s the same as he was, man. He just didn’t have that beard back then.”)

Photo: Mike Windle/Getty Images for dcp
Willie’s the same as he was, man. He just didn’t have that beard back then.

Playing in a stadium where a water tower with “West Monroe” painted on it overlooks the field, King starred on the football team as a tight end. LSU recruited him. A college freshman basketball player named Shaquille O’Neal showed King around campus on his recruiting visit. He signed early and enrolled early, during what would’ve been the second half of his senior year of high school.

He was a 17-year-old boy and out with football players at a place called the Gator Bar in Baton Rouge when he laid the foundation for a reputation that would follow him for years. He was drinking. The football players were making fun of him for being a kid. He drank more to show them he was a man. He picked up a pack of matches and lit one after the other, flicking them at the bar. A bouncer took the matches away. King was within arm’s reach of a big bowl full of other matchbooks. “But I wanted my matches,” he remembers. He punched the bouncer. Fights broke out all over the bar.

That was the first time King went to jail.

A few weeks later, at the Louisiana state high school all-star game, King decided he was too much of an adult for things like high school curfews. After all, he already had college girlfriends. He went wandering the halls of a dormitory the night before the game. He grabbed a fire extinguisher, shoved the hose under the door of another player’s room, and unloaded it.

He got kicked out of the all-star game for that one. The next day, his father showed up holding a lawn chair, ready to watch his son’s crowning high school athletics achievement. King walked up to him in street clothes. His father asked him what the hell was wrong with him.

“All I knew,” King says now, “was that I was big enough that he couldn’t whip me anymore.”

Have you heard the one about Shawn King punching Shaquille O’Neal?

King and Shaq were friends when he got to college in 1990, King says, “but it didn’t take long for me to notice that me and him liked the same girls.”

By the fall of 1991, most of the reasons King came to LSU were gone. He’d moved from tight end to linebacker as a freshman. He played a few games. Then, after the season, the coach who’d recruited him, Mike Archer, was fired. Archer and his assistants had promised to be like fathers to King. “And just like that they were gone,” King says now. Curley Hallman took over the LSU job before the 1991 season. Hallman and King never got along. By November of that year, King had stopped going to class completely, hoping to fail out so he could transfer elsewhere.

Photo: LSU/Collegiate Images/Getty Images
Someone spread a rumor to Shaq that King wanted to fight him

Nothing in college is more important than relationship status, and what transpired that November sounds like something out of a teen movie. Here goes: King started to hang out with a young woman. Shaq liked her, too. Already on his way to being the biggest star in the history of the campus, Shaq told the young woman he wasn’t happy that she was spending time with King instead of him. Here’s how King remembers it: “She told me that Shaq said he feels ugly because she wanted to talk to me and didn’t talk to him.”

The drama continued. Someone spread a rumor to Shaq that King wanted to fight him for trying to steal the young woman away from him. One night in the fall of 1991, O’Neal walked across campus and into King’s dormitory looking for him. To this day, King believes they would’ve just talked it out. But Shaq went one floor too high. He knocked on a door. It wasn’t King’s room, but that of Anthony Marshall, a football player who would go on to play for the Bears. Marshall didn’t care for Shaq. Someone swung. The other swung back. Within seconds, all the big young men in the residence hall — football players and basketball players — were racing to the room.

Stories form crooked branches in cases like this one. Truth fades into the memories of people who have slanted views. It’s hard to tell what actually happened that night. But what King remembers — after about a quarter-century that included a lot of pot and hard football hits and many broken hammers in the name of God — is seeing one of Shaq’s friends, a basketball player named Clarence Ceasar, running down the hallway. King didn’t like Ceasar, not one bit. In fact King believed Ceasar was the one who spread the rumor that he wanted to fight Shaq in the first place.

King grabbed Ceasar. He beat him pretty good. King was one of four football players arrested that night. No basketball players went to jail. But Hallman and LSU basketball coach Dale Brown got into a shouting match in the hallway. Brown stepped into Hallman’s face and said, “Listen, rookie…” according to a 1994 story published in Sports Illustrated.

Years later, LSU fan message boards still spread rumors from the fight. In one thread from 2008, a poster said King “pulled Shaq’s shirt over his head and beat the tar out of him.”

King says that never happened. But his LSU career was over before the following fall.

The robbery was supposed to be simple. This was after King transferred to Louisiana-Monroe for his junior season. When he arrived, he couldn’t believe how loose the rules were. No curfews. Nobody telling him he couldn’t have women in his dorm room. With all this partying to do, he needed money.

One day he hopped into the driver’s seat of his white Chevrolet Chevette. His friend Lawrence Davis took the passenger’s seat. King handed Davis his .380 pistol. The plan was to have Davis run into the house where known bookies lived, rob the bookies, then run out, and they’d drive off in the Chevette.

The plan worked, right up until Davis opened the door to the house. A few minutes later King saw Davis sprinting out with two people chasing him. King drove the car toward him and pushed open the passenger’s side door. He yelled for his friend to hop in. But Davis looked at him and ran the other way. King couldn’t understand it. He inched forward and watched his friend stop running, watched him put his hands on his knees to try to catch his breath, and watched the men catch him and grab him. They called the cops and King drove off. A few days later, Davis was out on bond when King saw him again. King asked him why he didn’t get in the car.

“I didn’t want to get you in trouble,” Davis said.

Who’s helped you get to where you are? Has anyone ever sacrificed something to allow you have the life you have now? Who didn’t run to your passenger’s side door?

King believes his friend saved his future that day. Davis served 12 years in jail for armed robbery. He died three years ago at 40 years old from an overdose. King, meanwhile, turned his attention to football, and by the end of his senior year, he was projected as a fourth- or fifth-round pick. He was just the fourth Louisiana-Monroe player chosen to play in the Senior Bowl, and after the game experts had him going as high as the first round in the 1995 draft.

That spring, Warren Sapp from the University of Miami was the top defensive line prospect. But Sapp failed a drug test at the NFL combine, sending him down on everybody’s list. He landed 12th overall. Four other defensive linemen went off the board before King was selected with the fourth pick of the second round, 36th overall, by the expansion Carolina Panthers. For all of his transgressions before and after, this will always be true: Shawn King was the first rookie defensive lineman the Panthers ever drafted.

He didn’t know how to write a check when he signed his rookie contract of $750,000 a year, but he knew how to roll a joint. His friends warned him not to smoke before he reported to training camp, but if you’re a guy who’s already escaped an abusive father, survived being run out of your first college, and avoided being arrested in an armed robbery, you start to think you can get away with things.

King lit up the day before his drug test. He took something to cover it up. He doesn’t remember what it was; he’s taken a great many things to cover up marijuana in his life. Either way, it didn’t work. He was placed in the NFL’s drug treatment program before he played a game. At the time the first offense didn’t come with a press release or a public statement. In fact, King’s only penalty was that he was stripped of four game checks.

He bought a house on a lake just over the South Carolina line, not far from Charlotte. It became a party house. Friends came to visit. An old buddy from Louisiana, Rodney Harris, flew up to stay with him. One night, King gave Harris money to go to a strip club. On his way home, Harris was a mile away from the lake house when he ran off the road and hit a tree and died.

Every time he took a mandatory test, he snuck in a cup of the stuff he’d been saving in his garage

One friend in jail and one friend dead, King became a homebody. He wished for the days when he could smoke weed in his house without worrying about tests or suspensions. Throughout his rookie year, he saved clean piss in bottles in his garage, planning for his future.

That offseason, he took up smoking again. Every time he took a mandatory test, he snuck in a cup of the stuff he’d been saving in his garage. He did this into the 1996 season. The Panthers were one of the big stories in the NFL that year. They caught fire late and ran to the NFC West division title. King made a few big plays along the way, including a 12-yard touchdown after a fumble recovery in a shutout victory over Tampa Bay in Week 14. It was part of the Panthers’ season-ending, seven-game winning streak, earning them a 12-4 record and a bye in the playoffs.

After the last game, King showed up for another drug test with a sample of urine he’d saved from the year before. Once again, the enforcement officer that day watched him closely. King was unable to use the clean urine, and had to take the test.

When he learned he would be suspended, he was embarrassed. Then he was mad. As far as he was concerned, most of the league was smoking, and he was paying a price while they were having fun. The NFL’s relationship with drugs at the time was strained, though. In March of that year, Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin had been arrested for cocaine possession. He didn’t fail a drug test, but the league suspended him for five games. In fact, according to the book The Year of the Cat, by Scott Fowler and Charles Chandler, at the end of the 1996 season, six of the most recent 19 players who’d been busted for drugs were Cowboys.

King would’ve been known as the 20th player, but he says the Panthers told him to remain quiet until the investigation was done. They gave him the ultimatum about going to rehab.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have now passed laws to legalize marijuana in some form, but in the mid-1990s, drugs were drugs, and in NFL terms, marijuana was the same evil as cocaine or heroin.

The program either pushes you to drink or to do a drug like cocaine that will get out of your system in 2-3 days

The difference, though, is that marijuana is easier to detect. King watched several players in the drug program switch to harder drugs that were less likely to show up on tests. That’s right, better to snort coke or shoot heroin or pound a couple 40s and test clean than take a toke and test positive. King was terrified of cocaine. He’s had asthma all his life, and he was just a teen when Maryland basketball player Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose after being taken No. 2 overall in the 1986 NBA draft. He was certain that if he tried cocaine, he’d die after snorting the first line.

Aside from one brush with ecstasy in the late 1990s, King stayed monogamous with marijuana.

“The program either pushes you to drink or to do a drug like cocaine that will get out of your system in 2-3 days,” King says. “I went in with a lot of guys who were in for marijuana, and they came out addicted to cocaine.”

He was suspended for the first six games in the 1997 season. He played the rest of the year. In the preseason in 1998, he says he tore a biceps muscle trying to tackle Jaguars running back Fred Taylor. Other reports have him failing another test. Either way, he missed the whole year. The Colts took him in 1999, and he missed four games because he was late to meetings. Then he failed one more test, and the league put him out for the entire 2000 season.

Tired of the embarrassment, he retired. In six years as an NFL player, he played in only 48 games. Depending on whether you believe the 1998 season was lost due to injury or drugs, he was suspended for either 26 games or 42. Either way, he missed nearly half his career.

That should be the low point, right? Bring on redemption! you might think.

But wait.

When he’s preaching in front of a church group, King slides all of that — LSU and the Panthers and the Colts and the suspensions — into a folder of “troubles.” Or, “I went through some stuff.” He hardly goes into detail at all. He defines those days, though, as the time in his life when he didn’t know God.

One day when he was 17, he tells the wide-eyed church crowd that night in November, a preacher at his Southern Baptist church in West Monroe was talking about heaven and hell and pointed at King and told him he wasn’t holy enough. “These are the words I heard come out of his mouth: You are not good enough for God,” King preaches. “So at 17 years old, I made a decision never to go back to church again.”

The fight with the bouncer over matches? Busting up Clarence Ceasar and getting kicked out of LSU? Driving the getaway car at an armed robbery?

Logan Cyrus /
I went through some stuff

“I had a lot of anger issues,” he preaches. “But when I got to LSU … I knew the anger was out of control because any time I was out with my friends, if anybody pushed the wrong button, I was willing to give up everything I’d worked for and everything I’d dreamed about.”

Stories are kind of like drugs — the narrator is the user, and the more you mess with them, the more they affect your memory. King has told the sanitized version of his story so many times, he’d forgotten many of the details until we talked about them this fall.

The turning-point event in King’s life, though, remains the same every time he tells it.

Jordan King was born two months early in November 2000. Shawn King was at the end of his final year-long suspension in the NFL. After a few weeks in an incubator, the baby came home with his dad and mom to their house in West Monroe. King realized then that football didn’t matter all that much to him — a realization many people around him came to years earlier — and he decided to stay home.

When Jordan was 2 years old, he was lying in bed with his father and breathing hard. King thought it was just a cold. Then Jordan crawled up to his father’s shoulder with tears in his eyes. King took him to the hospital. Doctors said Jordan’s lungs were underdeveloped and that he’d have to stay a few nights. King went home to get clothes for the stay. When he was there, doctors called to say Jordan had gone into cardiac arrest.

I remember turning to a God I didn’t know and saying, ‘This is all I can bear. If he goes, I go. I’m not going to stay here.’

King ran back to the hospital, where doctors had stabilized his boy. Soon they told him they’d have to medevac Jordan to another hospital that could better serve him. The hospital was three hours away by car. The helicopter took Jordan, and King went home to pack more clothes. He was digging through his closet, throwing shirts and shoes and cash into the bag, when he made another deal with himself.

“I remember looking up in that closet and turning to a God I didn’t know and saying, ‘This is all I can bear. If he goes, I go. I’m not going to stay here.’”

He drove through the night. When he got to the hospital, doctors met him at the door and told him his boy would survive. They wound up staying in that hospital for four months, and at some point, King decided that the conversation with God in the closet should keep going. Soon he was saved. A few years later, he was on Jacobs’ Power Force team.

As King wraps up the story and sermon at The Praising Place, the congregation shouts “Amen!” back to him. His last words are, “Thank you, God.”

Then he grabs two axes and holds them high above his head. The trick is that he will hold them by the handle and use his wrists and forearms and triceps to tilt the blades toward his face, then back up, over and over. After 10 reps, he starts to groan. After 20, his massive arms start to tremble. He’ll do it 37 times.

The first words spoken on stage after King says, “Thank you, God,” are these, from Jacobs: “If he has one slip, these axes could go plunging through his eye socket.”

One last feat of strength for the night.

It involves handcuffs.

Shawn King walks off stage with his arm around a police officer and opens a door to a hallway that leads to the church offices. The officer, who says he has 27 years of experience in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, was selected from the crowd to help with this trick, because who better to handcuff a man than the law?

In the back, King wraps duct tape around his wrists, and the officer locks him in on the third click of the handcuffs. Click. Click. Click. The officer opens the door and leads King into the church. The congregation rises to its feet. The dance-style music blares. They clap and shout, in rhythm with the beat, Go! Go! Go!

King’s brother, Jerome, shouts, “Break the chains, Shawn! Break the chains, Shawn!”

King grimaces. Veins show like rivers on his bald head. More clapping with the music. More grimacing. More veins.

“Don’t ever give up on Shawn King,” Jerome tells the crowd. “He’ll never give up on you.”

A man in the front row with a bright yellow shirt whips out his cell phone to record the spectacle with his left hand, while pumping his right fist like he’s in an old episode of The Arsenio Hall Show. Jacobs sits in a chair watching. King lets out a deep roar.

The chain snaps. Jerome throws a towel on his brother’s head to wipe the sweat.

The congregation rejoices, hooting and hollering and acting a little crazy. After a few seconds of this, Jerome interrupts and snaps them straight, back to the normal and quiet and virtuous churchgoers they are:

“Bow your heads with me now.”

There’s no trick to this, King insists. It’s not magic. It’s not even the power of God. It’s something more simple: growth.

“Once you’ve broken something once,” he says, “you understand how much pressure you need to put on it to break it without hurting yourself.”

Here’s Shawn King — 43-year-old man of the Lord, survivor of depression and suicidal thoughts, former NFL defensive lineman, fan of marijuana, breaker of chains. Father.

He lives in a brick ranch house on Sharon Amity Road in Charlotte, not far from the main intersection in one of the few middle-class neighborhoods remaining near the center of one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. He’s divorced now, but his ex-wife lives just a few miles away. They’re both raising Jordan, a shy 15-year-old who plays for the Myers Park High School varsity football team. King is an assistant coach for the team, of sorts. He doesn’t call plays or do film sessions, and he doesn’t always make it to the start of practice. But whenever he’s there, he’s the most positive person on the coaching staff, just a big man in a visor and sunglasses, walking the sideline offering encouragement to anybody he can find, coaches or players or cheerleaders or parents or whoever.

Logan Cyrus /

He never scowls, just smile after smile after smile. Watching him console and celebrate the kids on the team, it’s hard to picture him as the young man with anger problems who pulled Shaq’s shirt over his head and beat the tar out of him — that’s how that story went, right? Or a young man who was going to kill himself if his team made it to the Super Bowl without him.

His number 96 Panthers jersey hangs in a frame on his living room wall. On an afternoon in late December, the Discovery Channel is on the television. A stick of incense is burning in a wooden holder that’s sitting on the hardwood floor. King has just finished raking the yard and filling nine bags with leaves.

“Yeah, man, and Jordan didn’t help me with a single one,” King says, waving his hand at his son. “He just stayed back there playin’ his video games.”

“Man, I was sleepin’,” Jordan says. “Had a long day.”

Today was the last day of school before the Christmas holiday break. “Man, you didn’t even have a full day,” King says, laughing at the next generation of him.

King moved here from Louisiana two years ago to be closer to Jordan, who was living in Charlotte his mother. King is one of several former NFL players who settled in the city to raise children — others include Randy Moss, Dre Bly, and London Fletcher.

King joined a group of plaintiffs in a recent class action lawsuit against the NFL, claiming he suffered mental and physical problems from concussions suffered while in the league. He is still waiting to be tested to see if he has football-related neurological issues. He saw the movie Concussion over the holidays. The most unnerving parts, he says, were the scenes of the former players switching from happy to depressed, almost without warning.

“I’m in pretty good place now,” he says. “That really scared me, man.”

Logan Cyrus /

Here’s how good a place that is: Sixteen years after that January Sunday when he sat in rehab and vowed to kill himself if his Carolina teammates made it to the Super Bowl, King says he can’t wait to root for this year’s Panthers in Super Bowl 50 this weekend. In fact, he has a Power Force program that morning in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and he plans to hustle back to Charlotte — about a six-hour drive — to watch the game with a few old teammates.

King didn’t watch football for three or four years after he quit, but during that time when he found God, he says he realized he brought most of his problems on himself. “Hate the sin, not the sinner,” he says now.

King’s mother died eight years ago. But just before that, his father got saved and sober. Now the two men talk three or four days a week.

Mostly, though, his life is about the Power Force and Jordan. They grab pizza at the Pizza Peel restaurant near their house so often that the father says they ought to buy stock in the place. King also has a daughter, Rudy, who lives in Alabama. Rudy is the half-sister of Jordan. Her other half-brother, born to a father other than King, is Cam Robinson, an offensive lineman at Alabama.

“They’re the reason I live,” King says of Jordan and Rudy. “I did Shawn King a long time ago. I don’t want to do that anymore.”

King rises up from his couch and picks up the burned-out incense stick and drops it on the end table. He slides the wooden holder behind his framed diploma from Louisiana-Monroe. Although he says his views on marijuana haven’t changed, he won’t admit to smoking. He gives too many speeches to too many kids around the country with the Power Force, he says, to be known as a marijuana user. He worries it would be a distraction from his message, which is that everybody can make his own choices.

Looking at the person he is now, though — the man with the big voice and the beard shouting words of encouragement on the sidelines to kids, the man who makes congregations around the country stand and shout, “Amen!” the man laughing with his sniffling, sleeping, video-game-playing teenage son on a relaxed Friday afternoon just before Christmas — who cares what it is that’s making him content? Whether you think watching strong men break hammers over their knees is a sign of God or a silly sideshow or even just a trick to get you to tithe, whether you believe in the story of Jesus or don’t, whether you’re in favor of legalizing marijuana or not, whether you have kids or never will, here is a former defensive lineman who has twice thought about committing suicide, and he’s now free of chains and happy as hell.

Who are we to be the judge?

Logan Cyrus /

About the Author

Michael Graff, a Maryland native, is a writer in Greensboro, North Carolina. His work appears regularly in Our State magazine and the Greensboro News & Record. He was the author of "Man and Bull," published on SB Nation Longform in October. A full bio and more stories can be found on his website, And he’s on twitter @michaelngraff.