During the first episode of “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Detroit Lions,” we saw linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard tell a story about coach Dan Campbell. Sheppard had approached Campbell about the idea of his cutting his dreadlocked hair—believing that was a more professional look. Campbell immediately objected, per Sheppard.
“Dan was one of the first people to say, ‘Absolutely not. You’re Kelvin Sheppard. I’m hiring Kelvin Sheppard. I’m hiring Shep. I’m not hiring the guy you think is supposed to fill that position,’” Sheppard said in a testimonial during the show.
On Tuesday, Sheppard went into a lot more detail on this story. In it, he explained how his coaching aspirations led him down a tunnel of research: how many African-American coaches have dreads and tattoos?
“It’s none,” Sheppard said. “So, you had Ray Horton in Cleveland with braids. The stigma on Ray was—the ‘stigma,’ I don’t if it’s facts or reality—what held him back from being a head coach? His hair. So he cut his hair, still didn’t get a job.”
Sheppard also talked about how Campbell’s words stuck with him, and allowed him to feel more free to be himself wherever he coached—a blessing he tries to share with his players.
And when that opportunity to rejoin Campbell in Detroit just happened to come calling a few years later, he jumped on the opportunity.
“Until the lord blesses me one day with an opportunity to be (the) guy in charge–I don’t want to work for anybody else,” Sheppard said. “Because like I tell people—I really can’t tell you the difference in days when I work 8-9 hours and days I’m here 14-15 hours. And when you can find something in life that you can be fortunate to benefit financially from, but at the same time, emotionally, mental-health wise–like, coming here is fucking–it’s everything for us as coaches, because you enjoy it.”
The entire thing is an extremely powerful story, and the Lions provided video of it:
Here’s the full text of his answer:
“I’ve had a relationship with Dan, as you all know, dating back to 2014. In 2015, he took over as my interim head coach in Miami. It was just a thing where he was my head coach, I was the player–but I was one of the leaders on the defense, so we spent some time together, and we grew mutual respect. From there, it led to a friendship. Then I left there in free agency, and we just stayed in communication.
“2018, I kinda was running into a crossroad in my career. ‘Do I still want to play’ that type of thing as a player. He was one of the people I reached out to. I chose to continue to play (and) ended up here that year. After that, I got into retirement. Reached back out to him. We had numerous conversations and things like that. I told him I was not getting into coaching, and I had just dedicated all my time to the game of football, I’m about to take a break.
“Six months into that, I was right back in the mix trying to figure out what I can do in the game of football. He was just one of the people–Now I was very thankful to get an opportunities that came my way: Vanderbilt, LSU, so on and so forth. And at that time, I had to make a decision.
“Now, I’m a realist. As you all know, I’m really honest. I looked up and I do my research. I don’t go into any situation blindly. And when I did my research I looked and saw how many coordinators or head coaches, African American ethnicity, has ever had tattoos and dreads. You guys do your homework and you tell me what the answer is. It’s none.
“So, you had Ray Horton in Cleveland with braids. The stigma on Ray was–the quote-unquote stigma, I don’t if it’s facts or reality–what held him back from being a head coach? His hair. So he cut his hair, still didn’t get a job.
“So with all that in my mind, I had aspirations. I wanted to be a coach. Anything I attack, I want to reach the pinnacle of it. So I did my research, I look at that and those are what the facts were at the time. So it’s not me being paranoid. Those were the facts. So if I’m going into something, I want to know the facts, those are the facts.
So I reached out to Dan, from that point of view, when I knew I wanted to coach. And then I went through it and he’s like, ‘Thinking about cutting your what? What? Are you crazy? First of all, I love your hair,’ and he’s like, ‘But seriously, Shep. If I’m hiring you, if anybody’s hiring you, they’re hiring you because of you. You got those jobs because of who you are, not because of somebody you’re trying to become.’
“And that resonated with me. And this is prior to anything here, then you fast-forward to 2021. They called me–similar conversation came up. He’s like, ‘We already buried that bridge. You’re not cutting your hair. I love your hair too much.’
“At the end of the day, it gave me that confidence. This was a man who I highly respect, highly regard as one of the best coaches in the NFL tell me ‘Are you crazy? What are you talking about right now? Look, you’re you. You’re hired and being considered because you’re you.’ And that just resonated with me, and I try to carry that down to my players as well, because you deal with things in society and outside of the football facility where the facts are the facts. People can hide it, but it’s real so you might as well say it. I think when I’m able to voice facts and always keep it real with my players, it allows them to then be themselves. Then I think, in turn, it will become a bigger thing than football, because people will hopefully live this way outside of the game.”