LAFAYETTE, La. — When the gunshots rang out, Tyler Shelvin’s grandmother knew it was time to go, but first she had to find Tyler.
Until that moment, it had been a routine fall night. Deborah Silas was doing what she did every week — feeding the Northside High School football team after a game. That included the largest Viking of them all, Shelvin, a 383-pound defensive tackle rated as the No. 1 recruit in the state of Louisiana, per the 247Sports composite rankings.
But this instance was the rare occasion when her grandson wasn’t in front of her with a plate of food, causing a brief moment of panic.
“They started hollering, ‘They’re shooting! They’re shooting!’ And I didn’t know where Tyler was,” Silas said.
“[Luckily] he was in his car. He don’t go around trouble.”
Unfortunately, one need not seek trouble at Northside for it to find them. A 17-year-old girl was the victim who went to a hospital that night.
But even though Silas knew it was time to move her grandson elsewhere, it wasn’t clear where to send him. That changed when a local doctor who is an LSU booster reached out with a suggestion.
“The doctor called me and said, ‘I want to see him play but it’s not going to work. I don’t like the situation. Get your son out of there,’” Silas said. “I didn’t know where to go. Anywhere I’d have to go, I’d have to move. So he said, ‘Call Coach [Lewis] Cook. Coach Cook mirrors LSU’s program. He’s the best.'”
Cook is a football lifer in the area of south Louisiana known as Acadiana. He’s spent 43 years in the profession, including the past 20 at Notre Dame High School in Crowley. And one of the biggest players he has ever coached — literally and figuratively — was about to fall into his lap.
Big man, big transition
Lafayette is Louisiana’s fourth-largest city, ranking behind only New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport. Crowley is a farming community known as “The Rice Capital of America.”
When Shelvin and his grandmother moved into a rented house 25 miles west of their home, it felt at times like they were worlds away.
“Sometimes I ask him, ‘How did you do it?’ ” Silas said. “It was rough.”
Though his grandma isn’t one for country living, Shelvin was a little easier to please.
“I was already partly country lifestyle,” said Shelvin, who enjoys riding a dirt bike — yes, he has one he can fit on at his mammoth size — and fishing for catfish. “But that country lifestyle is different from ours.”
Though he felt alien at times, Shelvin adjusted despite not knowing a soul when he arrived in town.
“I knew nobody. They knew me. I don’t know how. But I made a lot of friends,” Shelvin said. “There’s really nothing [there]. It felt far away, but it really wasn’t. But they treated me as family. Parties, paintball, stuff like that.”
Making the grade
The biggest adjustment for Shelvin was in the classroom. His grades were an issue at Northside — so much so that Silas says Notre Dame’s principal was resistant to the idea of accepting Shelvin midway through his junior year.
“The principal was not at all for it. She did not believe that Tyler would make it,” Silas said. “I sat there and told her, ‘You don’t turn your back on no student.’ With support, parental support, your support, that child has the capabilities of making it. He may not. He may struggle. But why close the door? I can afford to move here and pay the tuition. I’m behind my child. I don’t believe in failure.”
Cook knew there was a mountain to climb before he could even get Shelvin on the field.
“He had a lot of work to do academically,” Cook said. “He put in extra time in the classroom. He had to take courses in the summer. And he still has work to do.”
Shelvin has to complete summer-school classes in June before he can enroll at LSU. But he credits the environment at Notre Dame for getting him on track to start college on time.
“My work ethic is better,” Shelvin said. “I started to realize what kind of game this was and became humble.”
Coach O’s top priority
|Top HS Player in Louisiana||Signed||Current Team|
|2015||Tyron Johnson||LSU||Oklahoma State|
|2014||Leonard Fournette||LSU||Jacksonville Jaguars|
|2013||Tre’Davious White||LSU||Buffalo Bills|
|2012||Landon Collins||Alabama||New York Giants|
|2011||La’el Collins||LSU||Dallas Cowboys|
|2010||Trovon Reed||Auburn||L.A. Chargers|
When Ed Orgeron was hired as LSU’s defensive line coach in 2015, landing Shelvin became his top priority. After all, the player combined two of his favorite concepts: defensive tackles and building a fence around Louisiana.
“Coach O would call almost every day telling me not to pay attention to Bama and all these other schools,” Shelvin said.
The attention stepped up another notch when Orgeron was promoted to full-time coach last November.
“The next day I went to church at 9, got back at 10 and his daddy told me, ‘Coach O’s coming,’” Silas said. “I said, ‘What? My house is a mess!’”
Silas ran to the store to get supplies to make gumbo for her surprise guest, who helped himself to three servings. Orgeron made a strong impression on Silas, which isn’t a surprise to anyone who has met both high-energy individuals.
“I liked Coach [Les] Miles, but he was more of a laid-back person,” Silas said. “Coach O? He’s from Louisiana, hon.”
The fact Orgeron visited the day after getting the job was not lost on Shelvin.
“It made a huge impression. I was excited,” Shelvin said. “I could tell right there that I was No. 1 in his heart to get me over there.”
If the in-home visit didn’t hammer that point home, Shelvin saw more vivid evidence when he visited Orgeron’s office. Shelvin’s name was at the top of the recruiting board.
“It makes me feel confident,” Shelvin said. “I was at the top of his board and you have everyone else down below you.”
Tyler Shelvin, elite athlete
Given that most of Shelvin’s high school matchups were about as even as Godzilla versus unarmed Japanese citizens, it would be easy to classify him as a big galoot who just overpowered inferior competition. It was especially easy to do so when he topped off at 383 pounds, giving him about a 100-pound edge over anyone he saw at Northside or Notre Dame.
But make no mistake. Tyler Shelvin truly is an elite athlete.
“He’s loaded with talent. The good Lord has really blessed him,” Cook said. “You don’t notice it first when you see someone that big, but he’s a great athlete. His footwork — if he was smaller, he could be a point guard.”
Improbable as it seems, Shelvin was a quarterback in middle school. Alas, his continued growth inevitably moved him onto the other side of the ball rather than onto a path as the second coming of former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen.
But he was almost certainly the nation’s heaviest kicker at Northside. Yes, Shelvin can kick field goals. Pretty far, too.
“I kicked from 60 yards pregame before [we played] St. Thomas More,” Shelvin said. “I was on the right hash talking to one of my friends. ‘Want to see this?’ I hit them back-to-back. I was just clowning around.”
Shelvin’s favorite football memory is drilling a 25-yard field goal with 20 seconds to go to lead Northside to a 3-0 win over Westgate.
That skill probably will never be on display at LSU, but the technique he learned as a defensive tackle will. Even though he always had the size advantage, the importance of playing the right way was always emphasized to Shelvin by his coach at Northside, former LSU linebacker Trev Faulk.
The man who gave those techniques to Faulk? None other than Pete Jenkins, the veteran defensive line coach whose second stint at LSU was from 2000-01.
“It wasn’t that hard to focus on technique. I use my hands every snap,” Shelvin said. “My coach learned from Jenkins, and what he learned from him he gave to us.”
Now Shelvin has a chance to immediately learn from the master himself. That’s in no small part because he has dropped almost 60 pounds since last football season.
“It took a lot of hard work,” said Shelvin, who gave up rice in his gumbo and began grueling Monday-Friday workouts.
The sacrifice of his favorite foods has been rough at times. After all, how is a guy who lived in “The Rice Capital of America” supposed to give up rice?
But come Saturday nights in Death Valley, Shelvin believes it will be worth it.
“If I make a sack in a game,” he said, “I know the whole stadium at LSU is going to be jumping.”