THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The headaches came and went, never once indicating when they might return. They kept him up when it was dark, stung a little harder when there was light and at times felt as if they would never end. Sam Shields, a Super Bowl champion and a Pro Bowl cornerback, thought he might never play football again.
"Throughout that year that I was out," Shields said, "I doubted a lot."
Shields has another chance now, on a Los Angeles Rams team that was already deep at his position but coveted him anyway. He hasn't played since Sept. 11, 2016, when a routine tackle caused his second reported concussion in a span of nine months and his fourth reported concussion in a span of six seasons. Shields missed the rest of that 2016 season, was released the ensuing February -- with one year left on his four-year, $39 million contract -- and spent all of 2017 wondering if he had lost this game forever.
"It’s been an in-and-out thing throughout that whole year, whether or not I'm coming back," Shields said on a conference call with L.A.-based reporters last week. "Then I feel good, then I don't feel good."
At his best, Shields was an electrifying outside cornerback with elite cover skills. He ran a 4.3 40-yard dash at his pro day for the University of Miami, but went undrafted because he had just recently switched from wide receiver to cornerback. He joined the Green Bay Packers and eventually became the heart and soul of their defense, compiling 18 interceptions and 45 pass breakups in his first six NFL seasons, from 2010 to 2015.
But concussions remained too prevalent, never more so than they were at the start of 2017.
"Right after the season," Shields said, "I was going through hell -- headaches, couldn't see the light, things like that."
Midway through the year, though, Shields checked himself into UCLA's renowned neurology department. He remained there for roughly six months and said he started "feeling better and better each day," to the point he eventually felt comfortable enough to give football another try. He began sleeping through the night and not feeling miserable the following morning. The headaches were dissipating.
The Rams expressed interest in Shields even after it became known he would sit out the 2017 season. If he did decide to return, general manager Les Snead said, "We wanted to be the first visit."
Shields visited with the Rams this month and spent a couple of days at their facility. Most of that time was dedicated to medical tests, but he also did some work on the field and impressed the team with his level of fitness. Snead said Shields is "full go" now. He will play without any initial restrictions, but will reside behind names such as Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Nickell Robey-Coleman on a depth chart that has grown exponentially since the offseason began, his role and his fit still very much undetermined.
Shields stated he would do whatever the team wants and would play the way he always has, even though the risk of another concussion seems so troubling for his long-term health.
He's trying not to focus on that part.
"I really don't think about it now because I feel better now, so it doesn't really go past my mind," Shields said. "I went through the testing and all that, and I feel much better. Now I'm trying to just keep it that way."
Shields doubted "plenty of times" whether he would do this again. But that was because he didn't know if the headaches would allow him to play; not because of the fears those headaches provoked. Shields' contract is worth about $1 million. The team isn't taking on much risk, but Shields himself is, largely because he believes he can be great again.
"Football is always in me," Shields said. "It's just like riding a bike. My whole big thing was just getting over the headache part, the head part. I've had the tests, I went over that, and I'm back normal. It hasn't left. Trust me."