Shawn Scales: A Life of Adversity
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #17
When you think of great receivers in Virginia Tech football history, names like Carroll Dale, Ricky Scales, Sidney Snell, Mike Giacolone, Donald Wayne Snell, Mike Burnop, Antonio Freeman, Bryan Still, and Andre Davis come to mind.
You typically don't think of Shawn Scales, but in 1996, Scales led the Hokies in receiving, with 30 catches for 510 yards and 4 touchdowns. In the wake of Bryan Still's departure for the NFL after the 1995 season, Scales became Jim Druckenmiller's favorite target, and in addition to those regular stats, he hauled in a TD pass from Druckenmiller in the 1996 Orange Bowl.
Scales was a redshirt junior in 1996, and in 1997, his season -- and college career -- were cut short by injury. He was injured in the fifth game of the 1997 season against Miami of Ohio, in a 24-17 loss that started a disastrous finish to what turned out to be a train wreck of a season.
Scales' 1997 injury was originally diagnosed as a sprained ankle, but that diagnosis was later changed to a "displaced tendon" -- an injury whose mere name is painful -- and he never made it back into playing shape, despite logging a few minutes in the Gator Bowl at the end of the 1997 season.
But what many Hokie fans remember Shawn Scales for is not his football career, which was solid but not history-making stuff, but rather, his life. Living in a home with a mother who was addicted to drugs and a brother who dealt them, Scales somehow made it out of those circumstances, into college Ö and on to a relatively normal life.
So where did he go after he left Tech, and where is he now? We'll get to that in a minute, but first, let's go back to the beginning.
"It Was Either That, or Stay Home and Starve All Day"
Shawn Scales is from Prince William County, Virginia. His father left home when Scales was two years old, leaving Scales with his mother and his older brother, Raymond.
But in reality, as he got older, Scales was more alone than that. His mother was doing drugs, suffering an addiction that would span decades, and when Raymond matured, he started dealing. That left Scales home a lot, to fend for himself, from an early age.
In 1988, when Scales was twelve years old, he started asking his middle school coach, Richard Fry, for lunch money. Fry started to sense that something was wrong in the Scales household, and after a discussion with his wife one night, Fry invited Scales over to his house for dinner.
The dinner turned into Scales spending an entire weekend at the Fry house. Then later, another weekend, and another. And in January of 1989, in the middle of his ninth grade year at Woodbridge High School, Scales called Fry and told him that he "needed to get out." When Fry showed up at his door, Scales was waiting with a suitcase.
Scales lived with the Frys from January of 1989 to the end of his tenth grade year, in mid-1990. When the Frys moved to Manassas, Scales stayed with his stepfather during his eleventh grade year (his mother wasn't there), and during his twelfth grade year, he lived with the family of his friend and high school basketball teammate, Brion Dunlap.
Having been exposed to the drug culture at such a young age, Scales could have easily fallen into it, but he didn't. He looked around himself, saw what was happening to the people around him, and ran away from it, living on the kindness of friends and coaches for years, never having a home of his own.
"At that time, it was probably just my way of finding a nicer, more comfortable place to be," Scales said of his quasi-nomadic existence, in a recent interview with the TSL Extra. "The fact that it was tough didn't really bother me. I really didn't have a choice. It was either that, or stay home and starve all day. I was there at home, by myself, quite a bit."
His escape from a destructive lifestyle surrounded by drugs was partly a demonstration of his determination and force of will, and partly happenstance. Scales told Washington Post reporter Angie Watts in 1996, "I saw where the people close to me were headed and I knew that it was a short-lived life, and one that I didn't want to be a part of."
But he also admitted to the TSL Extra in our interview that he just wasn't cut out for that life. "See, my brother was really outspoken. He wanted to be the center of everything, so it was easy for him (to be a part of the drug culture). I was a very quiet person, didn't say a whole lot. To be in that business, you can't be a quiet person. You have to speak out, and I wasn't that type.
"But the thing that I did do was play basketball. And I played it well for my age. So that was my outlet. And the other thing that I did was, I went fishing all the time. So I was never around when they were doing all that drug activity."
During his time at Woodbridge High, Scales received support from many different people that he met along the way. There was Edwina Drake, Scales' high school English teacher, who gave him $25 a week; Drake actually gave the money to Scale's basketball coach, Will Robinson, who passed it on to him, but Scales knew where it came from.
There was Coach Robinson, who was the first to tell Scales, in the ninth grade, that he could earn a college scholarship if he applied himself. There was Woodbridge AD Don Brown, who once gathered money from faculty members to send Scales to an optometrist to get contact lenses that he needed.
And when Scales, who developed into an all-state wide receiver and defensive back, failed to qualify academically out of high school, people in the Woodbridge and Manassas communities pitched in thousands of dollars to help Scales pay the $12,000 tuition to Fork Union Military Academy for a year.
On to Tech
Scales attended FUMA for the 1992-1993 school year, played football, and wound up getting a scholarship offer to Virginia Tech, a place he fell in love with the instant he saw it. He redshirted during Tech's 1993 season, and then injuries and a stint on academic probation slowed his 1994 and 1995 seasons.
In 1996, though, with Antonio Freeman and Bryan Still gone to the NFL, Scales stepped up and became Tech's top receiver and Druckenmiller's favorite target. Scales and Cornelius White each had 30 receptions that season, but Scales led the team with 510 yards (17.0 per catch) and 4 TD's.
Against Pittsburgh that year, he had 3 catches for 95 yards and 2 TD's, which came in a two and a half minute stretch and turned a 17-14 deficit into a 28-17 lead; he caught 4 passes for 71 yards in a 21-7 road victory over Miami; and he scored Virginia Tech's last TD of the regular season when he took a 17-yard reverse into the end zone against Virginia.
He also led the Hokies in kickoff returns, with a 26-yard average. The diminutive Scales (5-11, 191 pounds) had proven himself to be a playmaker, and he was looking forward to his senior season.
At that point, he was thinking about the NFL. "I was really thinking that. I was to the point where I was feeling confident in my ability to play the game. I caught the ball well, and I was returning kicks well."
The 1997 season started out well. In the first four games, with the Hokies going 4-0, Scales caught 10 passes for 217 yards (21.7 yards per catch) and 2 TD's.
In the fifth game, against Miami of Ohio, Scales was having another good game, catching 3 passes for 81 yards, but then disaster struck. He was injured with what was diagnosed as a sprained ankle, but when the injury persisted, his ankle was re-examined, and the diagnosis was changed to a detached tendon in the ankle.
Scales was done for the season. He battled back and rehabbed and played in Tech's crushing 42-3 Gator Bowl loss that year, catching one pass for 13 yards, but he never completely healed during the 1997 season.
The NFL and Beyond
Scales' Virginia Tech career was over, and thus began a multi-year odyssey that has seen him spend time with the San Francisco 49ers (fall of 1998), the Pittsburgh Steelers (fall of 1998 to fall of 1999), and the Frankfurt Galaxy of the World Football League (summer 1999).
He signed with the Niners as a free agent in 1998, and he lasted until the final cut. The Steelers picked him up, put him on their practice squad for the 1998 season, and then assigned him to Frankfurt, where he spent the 1999 season. Frankfurt won the World League championship that year, and Scales still holds the World Bowl game and career records for kickoff return average (he returned 3 kicks for 107 yards in the 1999 World Bowl game, averaging 35.7 yards per return).
"Football-wise, I thought the experience was good," he says of his three months in Europe. "The facilities that we had were great, so I had places to go and relax and be by myself when I needed it. Personally, I thought it was good for me, because I had never been out of the country, and you read about other places, but you usually don't get to see them."
But injury reared its ugly head again, and it would cost him another shot at an NFL career. And when he returned for Steelers' training camp in the fall of 1999, he wasn't full speed. "When I went into camp with the Steelers," he recalls, "I had tendonitis in my Achilles tendon, and that's detrimental for a wide receiver. So I wasn't real thrilled about what was about to happen. It was inevitable. There wasn't anything I could do. Again, I went until the last cut."
He signed briefly with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League in 1999, and signed for just a few days with the Albany Firebirds of the Arena League in 2000. But mostly, he just knocked around, working for Wal-Mart and doing other such jobs.
Scales felt as if his football career was over, but then he tried a stint with the Prince William Monarchs of the Mason Dixon Football League, a semi-pro league that has 17 teams in a 7-state area in the mid-Atlantic.
He tore it up. In the 2001 season, Scales dominated the league from the wide receiver position. He only played in seven games out of the ten-game season, but he led the league in receiving with 46 catches for 1,128 yards and 19 touchdowns. Prince William QB's had 32 touchdowns last season, with Scales catching well over half of them.
Teams in the MDFL, as it is called, only play in front of several hundred fans at a time, but averaging close to 25 yards per catch and nearly 3 TD's per game, says Scales, "Put the taste for the game back in my mouth."
Scales tried out with some Arena Football teams, but was not able to make a roster, and in early 2002, he caught on with the Richmond Speed of arenafootball2.
And then, an old friend visited. That's right: an injury, in just the third game of the season.
"Injuries don't come freakier than this," he recalls. "I'm running a route, and when I planted to make a cut, my foot got stuck in the turf. One part of my leg went in one direction, and another part went in another. Nobody even touched me. I tore the ACL. They said I probably have a grade 1 MCL tear, too, but they tested that, and it's pretty strong, so it's not the big deal, the ACL is."
Another injury, in a career full of injuries. Scales is starting to get the point.
"Iím really leaning towards just hanging up the shoes. I rehab well. I know that I could come back from this strong, because I'm mentally tough. But I'm 29, I haven't had a real solid career. It would be two years before I could rehab and then develop anywhere, so I'm thinking, 'What's the point?'"
Scales is now at Osbourn Park High School in Manassas, where he is working in the Security office and helping out coaching football and basketball, the two sports he is so good at and loves so much.
"A buddy of mine (Osbourn Park football coach Brian Beaty) wanted me to coach. He asked me to come up here, and I decided to, and they found a place to put me. I'm helping coach both football and basketball.
"I have a really good rapport here at the school with the kids. They all look up to me, they know where I've been, and where Iím coming from. They look up to me as a role model, so I'm really thinking about hanging up the shoes and just being a coach and at some point, teaching."
There's just one small snag with that. Scales doesn't have his degree from Tech yet. "I'm still one class short (from a degree in Human Nutrition and Foods). I'm in the process now of trying to get it done. The class I need to take is only offered at Tech. I'm working on some things, because I want to get some other certifications while I'm doing that."
The fact that the class is only offered in Blacksburg poses a bit of a problem, but Scales will get that figured out.
"I'm not worried, because I'm still young. The only thing is, I have to find a career. I have an idea of what I want to do and what I'm going to do, but now I just have to get there. And part of that is taking that class (and graduating)."
Scales was once asked to speak at a Woodbridge High School graduation, in 1997, five years after he had graduated from there. He considered it to be a great honor, but he also knew that it was his status as a Virginia Tech football player that led him to that honor, not just his ability to rise up from his past.
"I thought, if I wasn't playing football anymore -- because that's how they saw me -- then how would I handle that? I worried about that."
Now that football, barring something miraculous, is out of his life, Scales is about to find out what it will be like to not be playing anymore. The good news is, both his brother and his mother are doing well. Drug addiction is a never-ending thing, but both of them have been clean for a while.
Raymond, who once called Shawn his "hero" during Scales' time at Tech, finished serving a prison term for drug-related two years ago, and to this point, he is handling his return to society well.
"I can't say enough things about my brother," Scales says. "For someone who was locked up for seven years, you really think they become institutionalized and can't survive out here anymore. But I've gotta give it to him. The man has done wonders.
"I got him a job at Wal-Mart two years ago. I told him up front that I didn't know how Wal-Mart was about hiring convicted felons, and I told him to just talk to them and be honest. And now, he's done so well with Wal-Mart that I can't stand it," he says with a laugh. "He's been working for them going on two years now, and he's got himself a brand new car, and he lives in a townhouse that he's paying for by himself, so he's really established himself back in society.
"The first six months (after his release), I was worried, because he was telling me, 'Sometimes it's really tough. You just want to pick up the phone and make that one call.' But he has fought that temptation off. He's big in church, and he and I talk quite a bit about his past, to keep him level. He lives right around the corner from me in Culpeper."
Scales' mother, Louise, who has suffered from drug addiction for over 30 years, has changed the focus of her life after all these years.
"Mom's doing well," Scales says. "She has cleaned up quite a bit, and I'm very impressed with her, also. I feel good about her future, because I think now it's more important to her to keep her family around. At one point, I wasn't sure about that, because she was trading us off to do whatever she wanted to do. I'm not saying we weren't a priority for her, but when you're addicted, that addiction is your first priority. But now, we're more of a priority, and she wants us to be around more often. She's doing very well."
Life hasn't been easy for Shawn Scales. But through it all, he has learned to be self-reliant, and after what he has been through, nothing scares him.
"It's definitely made me stronger, and it's made me smarter, too," he says of his background.
"I said a long time ago that I was going to write my own destiny and set my own future. No one can tell me that I'm going to wind up in the streets. No, you set your own life."