USC FOOTBALL

From garnet to camo for Shaw?

jkendall@thestate.comJuly 6, 2013 

— His injured left foot is finally healed. His cracked shoulder blade is a distant memory. His veteran arm is fresh thanks to a spring practice spent on the sidelines healing.

Still, Connor Shaw isn’t fully healthy. South Carolina’s senior quarterback was sporting two fresh wounds in late June when he visited with a reporter from The State newspaper. On his left arm were two, quarter-sized burns. They are not a reminder of his past on the gridiron but a glimpse into his future on a very different field.

Shaw got the marks by lying on freshly spent, and thus very hot, shell casings from his AR-15 assault rifle during an impromptu, five-hour shooting session organized by friends with a military background. This was Saturday, June 29, hours before Shaw took his now widely publicized leap from an airplane.

Both activities are a part of Shaw’s growing interest in the military, which he plans to join whenever his football career ends. That won’t be for at least another season, as he is preparing for his 21st start as the Gamecocks quarterback when the season opens Aug. 29 against North Carolina.

“Football is still my priority,” said Shaw, who is 17-3 as a starter. “I am going to take football as long as it’ll take me. Whenever that may end, that’s when I’ll go into Officer Candidate School.”

The son of a successful high school coach in Georgia, Shaw once planned on going into coaching as soon as his playing days were through.

“I think I want to go into coaching eventually, but I have been so passionate about the military,” he said. “I think it’s just the discipline, the strict regimen and structure, very similar to what is going on now. I am the type of person that I really honestly don’t know what I would do with free time. There is something about being part of something bigger than yourself, very similar to a team.

“I’m just switching uniforms.”

Shaw’s interest in the military was sparked in 2011 when Columbia native and Iraq veteran Steven Diaz spoke to the team and served as honorary captain for the Auburn game, Diaz believes. Diaz was injured in Iraq and in 2010 helped found Hidden Wounds, which helps soldiers and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

“I think that just sparked something in him,” Diaz said. “I think Connor has just always been very pro-military and interested in it.”

Meeting Diaz gave Shaw an outlet for that interest, and he quickly became a regular at Hidden Wounds events. The organization even began using Shaw’s name and photo to promote events, Diaz said.

“The university put an end to that real quick,” Diaz said.

Still, Shaw showed up, shaking hands, soliciting stories and posing for photographs.

“A lot of the veterans who come out you can see it in their face that they really enjoy it, and I think Connor finds it a very humbling experience,” Diaz said. “I don’t even know if he even gets it yet what that means to people. I think he just genuinely likes to hang out and say thank you to veterans.”

Six months after meeting Diaz, Shaw had another chance encounter that helped turn his interest into an obsession. In April 2012, Shaw met South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson at the NFL Draft party of former Gamecock Travian Robertson, a friend of Shaw who worked in Wilson’s office.

“As we started talking, I became increasingly aware of his interest in the military,” Wilson said. “It’s what he always wanted to talk about. He was just very enthusiastic about his interest in it. I mean, really enthusiastic.”

Wilson, with 17 years of National Guard experience and three brothers involved in the military, has become Shaw’s “mentor” in all matters military, Shaw said. The quarterback has rummaged through and borrowed from boxes of military books and documentaries in the attorney general’s home and used Wilson’s connection to further investigate his intended future and become more involved in support organizations.

In June, Shaw attended a deployment gathering for a South Carolina National Guard unit at the Marriott downtown, Wilson said.

“He sat in front of a room full of people and told them how much he appreciated their service and how much he hoped to one day be in a uniform like theirs and be doing what they are doing,” Wilson said, “which I found interesting because every man in that room was thinking, ‘I want to be wearing the uniform you wear doing what you’re doing.’ ”

Later in the month, Shaw attended the Wilson family’s going away party for one of Alan Wilson’s brothers who was deploying to Afghanistan and then went to Fort Jackson with Wilson’s family to watch as the unit’s members boarded planes for the Middle East.

“He got a South Carolina state flag and had several players sign it,” Wilson said. “He gave them the flag and said, ‘Just so you know, Gamecock Nation is thinking about you guys and praying for you.’ ”

Shaw recently spent nearly two hours in Wilson’s office visiting with the parents of Lexington serviceman Ryan Rawl, who was killed in Afghanistan in June 2012, and A.J. Durham, who served under Rawl and was injured in the attack. Shaw now wears a wristband with a tribute to Rawl given to him by Rawl’s parents.

“It puts things in perspective,” Shaw said. “It makes my problems seem that much smaller.”

When Wilson’s brother was deploying for duty, Shaw promised the soldiers he would salute after each touchdown he scores this year as a tribute to the country’s military, Alan Wilson said.

“I absolutely think being a football player will help make me a better soldier one day,” Shaw said.

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