Lions’ Kelvin Sheppard keeps his hair, keeps his faith to be himself as coach

Detroit News

Allen Park — Kelvin Sheppard didn’t have immediate interest of going into coaching after his eight-year NFL career came to a close, but several months into retirement, he got the itch.

As he navigated opportunities at Vanderbilt and LSU, Sheppard called former coach and friend Dan Campbell for counsel. Acknowledging long-term goals to reach the highest levels of the professional, Sheppard revealed he thought it might be best to cut the trademark dreadlocks he had sported through college and his NFL career.

For Sheppard, perception is reality. Black coaches long have struggled to earn an equitable share of head-coaching opportunities, but among those who have been able to break through the glass ceiling over the years, none had long hair or tattoos.

A prime example for Sheppard is former defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who was passed over for multiple coaching opportunities. Some believed his long, braided hair played a part in those decisions.

Horton eventually cut his hair, but never landed a head job, last coaching defensive backs for Washington in 2019. Recently, he joined Brian Flores’ discrimination lawsuit against the league.

Sheppard preemptively wanted to change his image, taking away a controllable reason for a future employer to not hire him. But Campbell, who had long hair as a player and cut his locks before going into coaching, strongly discouraged Sheppard from doing the same.

A year later, after a season as LSU’s director of player development, Campbell hired Sheppard as an assistant coach in Detroit.

“I went through it and he’s like, ‘Thinking about cutting your what? What? Are you crazy? First of all, I love your hair,'” Sheppard said. “He’s like, ‘But seriously, Shep, if I’m hiring you, if anybody’s hiring you, they’re hiring you because of you. You got those jobs because of who you are, not because of somebody you’re trying to become.’ And that resonated with me.”

Sheppard not only listened to the advice, but was emboldened by it.

“At the end of the day, it gave me that confidence,” Sheppard said. “This was a man who I highly respect, highly regard as one of the best coaches in the NFL tell me ‘Are you crazy? What are you talking about right now? Look, you’re you. You’re hired and being considered because you’re you.’ And that just resonated with me, and I try to carry that down to my players as well.”

Campbell is known for — and frequently praised — for his authenticity. Sheppard said the coach hasn’t changed at all in the eight years they’ve known each, and the fact he encourages his assistants to be themselves trickles down through the roster, fostering a positive culture with the Lions.

Sheppard highlighted running back Jamaal Williams as a prime example.

“Some people are probably like, first of all, ‘What is that on your head pregame?’ His Pokemon durags, his satchels,” Sheppard explained. “But when he’s able to do that versus somebody telling him ‘Hey, take that off your head. I don’t want you dancing pregame,’ well, you’re not going to get the same Jamaal Williams that pours his heart and soul into the game, and in turn, pours his heart and soul into your team and is one of your best leaders.

“If you take that away from Jamaal, Jamaal isn’t a leader on this team, because then he can’t express himself the way he wants too. …If you aren’t able to be yourself you’re never going to allow that person to reach their full potential.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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