This is a story about hair, and the power that comes with it — though it really has little to do with hair at all.
Second-year Detroit Lions linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard has been growing his hair out for the better part of 14 years. He has long dreadlocks he occasionally wears up on the field — which he briefly considered cutting when he began coaching in 2020.
Sheppard had just finished his playing career as a journeyman linebacker, playing eight NFL seasons for six different teams, including the Lions.
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He thought he was done with football when he retired in 2019, but six months later, the sport had roped him back in. Sheppard took an administrative job at Vanderbilt, but quickly left to work for his alma matter, LSU, as director of player development.
Knowing he wanted to get into coaching, and realizing he wouldn’t stop until he was a head coach if he did, Sheppard called then-New Orleans Saints assistant Dan Campbell for advice.
Sheppard played for the Miami Dolphins in 2015, when Campbell finished the season as the team’s interim head coach. The two grew close that season and stayed in touch in the years that followed.
Sheppard told Campbell he was thinking about cutting his hair, figuring he’d need to do that eventually to be taken seriously by decision-makers if he was going to become a head coach.
“I’m a realist, as you all know. I’m very honest,” Sheppard said. “I looked up and I do my research. I don’t go into any situation blindly, and when I did my research I looked and saw how many coordinators or head coaches, African-American ethnicity, has ever had tattoos and dreads. You guys do your homework and tell me what the answer is. It’s none.
“You have Ray Horton (formerly the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator) with braids. The stigma on Ray was — the quote-unquote stigma, I don’t know if it’s facts or reality, what held him back from being a head coach? His hair, so he cut his hair, still didn’t get a job. So within all that, I’ve had that in my mind. I had aspirations. I want to be a coach. Anything I attack I want to reach the pinnacle of it, so I do my research, I look at that and those are what the facts were at the time. So it’s not me being paranoid, those were the facts. So if I’m going into something, I want to know the facts. Those are the facts, so I reached out to Dan from that point of view when I knew I wanted to coach.”
Campbell told Sheppard he was “crazy” for thinking about cutting his hair. He said he loved Sheppard’s dreads, and more importantly, he said he wanted Sheppard to always be himself.
“He’s like, ‘But seriously, Shep, if I’m hiring you, if anybody’s hiring you, they’re hiring you because of you,’” Sheppard said. “’You got those calls because of who you are, not because of somebody you’re trying to become.’ And that resonated with me.”
A year later, when Campbell called back to ask Sheppard to join his staff in Detroit, Sheppard broached the topic of his hair again.
Should he cut it? What would the organization think? Maybe it was the right thing to do.
“He’s like, ‘We already buried that bridge. You’re not cutting your hair, I love your hair too much,’” Sheppard said. “But at the end of the day, it gave me that confidence. This was a man who I highly respected, highly regarded as one of the best coaches in the NFL telling me, ‘Are you crazy? What are you talking about right now? You’re you. You’re being 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, because you deal with things in society in and outside of a football facility where the facts are the facts. Like people can hide it, but it’s real so you might as well say it. So I think when I’m able to voice facts and always keep it real with my players, it allows them to then be themselves, and then I think in turn it’ll become a bigger thing than football because people will hopefully live this way outside of the game.”
For as stirring as he can be motivationally, and for as much knowledge as he has gained from his own 11-year playing career, Campbell’s best attribute as a head coach is his authenticity.
He is completely comfortable in his own skin, and that has empowered those around him to be comfortable, too.
Coaches such as Sheppard can be blunt and honest and wear their hair however they like, and players don’t have to be afraid to hide their personalities.
“I’ve been in programs and, hey, some you win, some you lose, so it’s not right or wrong. Everybody has different philosophies,” Sheppard said. “But I’ve seen, like here, Jamaal Williams, some people are probably like, ‘First of all, what is that on your head pre-game?’ His Pokemon durags, his satchels. 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 to. It’s just, man, I’ve been around that and that is awful, in my opinion, in a work space, in life. Like, if you aren’t able to be yourself, you’re never going to allow that person to ever reach their full potential.”
Campbell’s authenticity does not guarantee the Lions will reach their full potential, this year or in the future. At the end of the day, he and his program will be judged solely on how many games they win.
That’s life in the NFL.
But Sheppard, who played for the Matt Patricia-era Lions, said Campbell’s genuineness has the Lions on the right tack.
“I haven’t seen him change at all, and that’s why I tell people that is what makes him special and makes him one of one,” Sheppard said. “Because no matter when he was the tight end coach, he coached the same way. He had the same philosophies. He talked to the players the same way. And that’s the mistake a lot of people make. They become a person of power and feel like they have to change. They get certain titles and feel like, ‘Oh, now I’m in charge. I got to …’ No, just be yourself, I promise you. If you be yourself, you keep it real with people, I guarantee they’re going to one, respect you, but two, they’re going to get the most out of you.”