Seattle Times staff reporter
AUBURN â€” The childhood bully became a high-school teddy bear.
But Auburn's Danny Shelton is still a terror on the football field.
At 6 feet 3 and just less than 300 pounds, Shelton dominates on the line with moves like a linebacker. Opposing coaches tell stories of him swatting away blockers with one arm and his legend on the wrestling mat grew quickly as he learned the sport just last season, reaching the 4A state semifinals at 285 pounds.
Tahoma coach Tony Davis remembers watching in awe as Shelton made a catlike move in one match.
"My jaw was on the ground," Davis said. "This is someone almost 300 pounds. You're not supposed to be able to do that. ... I've got to imagine the sky's the limit for him. He's a scheme-adjuster. Whether he's on offense or defense, you've got to locate him and then do something different than you probably want to do."
As a kindergartner, Shelton tried to do whatever he wanted.
"He was a troublemaker," said his mother, Oneone (pronounced OnayOnay). "He tried to take food from kids and beat them up."
The fourth of five children, Shelton lived with his grandparents in Samoa until he was 3 and didn't speak English when he came to live with his parents in California. It took him a while to adjust to his siblings.
"I kept yelling at them in Samoan," he said.
The parents divorced and Oneone brought the children to Washington, first Tacoma and then Auburn in 2000. Her brother, Steve, came with his family, too, and became a father figure to his niece and nephews.
The two of them kept Danny in line at school and got him involved in church activities. He still participates in some Samoan dance performances. As a seventh-grader at Cascade Middle School, he played organized football for the first time and found it the perfect channel for any pent-up frustrations.
"I get to build anger through the day, then let it loose when it comes to games and practice," he said.
He apparently masks his anger well. Teammates Nick Conlan and Dylan Rutledge call Shelton shy and a big teddy bear.
"He's the hardest-hitting nice guy you'll know," Rutledge said.
Shelton's two older brothers played at Auburn, and Danny frequently tagged along at practice. Coach Gordy Elliott noticed his intense interest in the game. While other 10-year-olds soon ran off to throw a ball around, Danny took everything in.
"Even then he was a student of the game," Elliott said.
And a big one. Too big, in fact. Danny was born with high blood pressure, which required a two-week hospital stay, and he weighed 320 pounds by the time he was 14. His mom took him to a specialist in Tacoma, who guided him toward a better diet.
Danny played on Auburn's freshman football team that season, "even though he was probably better than some of the seniors ahead of him," Elliott said. Shelton saw his first varsity action in the SPSL 3A final against Auburn Riverside and recorded two tackles. He appeared in the Trojans' two playoff games and became a full-time fixture on the line as a sophomore, when he started making recruiting lists.
"My sophomore year is when I blew up, I guess," Shelton said.
Auburn went 11-0 before losing in the 3A state quarterfinals to Skyline.
Back in the 4A ranks last season, the Trojans again finished 11-1. Shelton was named the offensive and defensive lineman of the year in the SPSL North Division, even though he missed parts of two games with a sprained foot.
"I don't think I deserved the awards I got," he said. "I don't think I did as good as I could have, and this year I'm going to make up for that."
Shelton said he made a goal for himself as a freshman to develop into the best lineman in school and state history. Those things are hard to gauge, Elliott noted, but said, "I can't imagine there have been too many that have the tools that he has."
Shelton, who just turned 17, was named the "Big Man MVP" at the UCLA camp this summer and has the Bruins on his top-four list, along with Washington, Oregon and California.
And while most tend to look at him as a prospect on defense, Elliott raves about his abilities on offense.
"At his age already, some of the things he can do on offense are things it takes college kids a couple years to learn," he said. "For his size, he's really athletic, that's what sets a kid like him apart from other big kids. If you're big, you're big, and sometimes you're able to do things in high-school football just because you're big. He would be as effective a lineman at 175 pounds with the same skill set. He could easily be a starting tight end for us. He's a total athlete."
Wrestling helped Shelton with his footwork, strength and conditioning. He also competed in track and field, placing fifth at state in the shot put and sixth in the discus. This year he has visions of wrestling and playing basketball, although that seems unlikely due to practice and scheduling conflicts.
More than anything, Shelton wants to finish business on the football field after what he felt was a disappointing climax to last year's season.
"Our goal together this year is to make it the best year and win state," he said. "We have the talent, and I think we're ready to do it. It's our last shot."
And for teddy bear Danny Shelton, anything less would be unbearable.