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Friday, September 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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NFL | Bodiford finds new life after nearly losing it all

Seattle Times staff reporter

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Shaun Bodiford hit rock bottom on an empty stomach.

Sleeping one night on concrete outside a hotel in the Central District, in a Seattle neighborhood full of crack houses, having gone two days without eating, he awoke to find a crackhead standing over him.

He was 15 years old.

"Do you know I can kill you right now?" he remembers the crackhead asking.

Bodiford wishes he could find the man and thank him now. Thank him for the message — get up, get out and get something — and the mantra.

He steals a glance at the inside of his left forearm when he says this at the Detroit Lions practice facility Thursday. The tattoo is crude and barely readable, inked during time spent on the streets.

Sunday

Seahawks @ Detroit Lions, 10 a.m.

"Rise above all," it says.

So here stands the Lions' feel-good story heading into their opener Sunday against the Seahawks at Ford Field. The man who beat out Charles Rogers, the former No. 2 overall pick, just to make the Lions roster as a wide receiver, beat him on guile and on guts.

He's still rising.

Some would then conclude that Shaun Bodiford came from nowhere. But that's not exactly true. He actually came from everywhere — from the streets of the Central District and Federal Way, homeless at times, bouncing from house to house at others, often selling drugs to make ends meet.

"I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me," he says. "I want to earn respect."

His story starts at an apartment complex in the Central District, where Bodiford grabbed two garbage bags, filled them with clothes, a blanket and a toothbrush, and left home. He was 13 years old.

He remembers sitting down at a nearby bus stop, crying, considering his options. An older brother had a girlfriend who lived nearby. He ended up staying there for two weeks.

"Home" changed almost daily after that. Sometimes Bodiford slept outside, coats providing cushion, his blanket providing warmth. Other times he crashed with friends or friends of friends.

Bodiford did his best to stay in school. He hid from the word "homeless" there, soaking in the structure and the warmth, telling almost no one about his background.

One day he started bragging about his athleticism in the cafeteria. A Federal Way High coach overheard, challenged him to come play football.

"He saved my life," Bodiford says. "Treated me just like his own son."

Leon Hatch, now the head football coach at Mount Tahoma High in Tacoma, and Bodiford shared something important. Rough backgrounds.

Of his, Bodiford says three older brothers are still in jail. He won't say for what crimes. He will say that several family members were involved in gangs, crips and bloods residing on the same family tree.

Coach Hatch never let him slide because of that. He had rules when he took Bodiford in. Homework done before leaving the house. Treat people with respect.

The man is tough like that. The kind of guy who tore his ACL during his playing days, didn't tell the coaches and continued playing — Bodiford's favorite story. Hatch also insisted Bodiford call his mother and apologize, try to patch things up.

He did. And so far, they haven't.

Bodiford blossomed at Federal Way High under Hatch's supervision. Only to fall short of a qualifying SAT score. This served as rock bottom, round two.

"If I couldn't play football," Bodiford says, "I knew there was no hope for me."

He ended up at Butte Junior College in California, played defensive back and wide receiver, and later transferred to Portland State. He chose the school because coaches there were the first to offer him a scholarship in high school, because of trust.

Despite a decorated college career, Bodiford didn't expect to be drafted. He wasn't, but the Lions called 10 minutes after the draft ended. They invited him to training camp.

Bodiford threw his body around the field with such reckless abandon that fellow receiver Roy Williams, who describes Bodiford as "5-5, 122 pounds" (he's really 5 feet 11, 187), says he worried Bodiford would hurt himself.

The Lions even used one of their smallest players as the "wedge buster" — the goal being to break apart three large and angry men joined together as a "wedge" on kickoff returns.

"All he did is produce good tape every day," Lions coach Rod Marinelli says.

And then the worst thing happened to Bodiford during the best stretch of his life. He busted his knee busting all those wedges. He's worried now.

"This is the most pressure I've been put in my entire life, the biggest odds I ever had to overcome," he says. "I still feel like I have to prove myself right now. I can't play for my job. I'm stressed about that. Everything I worked hard for, it seems like it's going down the drain."

Which is only sort of true, and even then, only in the football sense. Now 24, Bodiford found something more important than football on his journey through the streets. He found himself, and soon, hopes again to find his mother.

"When I leave here, and we have offseason, I'm going to go there and take her off on a vacation," Bodiford says. "It's just going to be me and her. We'll start all over again."

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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