Bearcats defensive end Elijah Shuler battled tragedy with the help of his biological and football familes this season and returns to his home state this weekend as an unbelievable two months come full circle.
CINCINNATI -- In the locker room at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., a wild, party atmosphere broke out which only can be prompted by a dramatic national TV victory in enemy territory. And this celebration of beating Virginia Tech ranked among the all-time greats at UC.
High-5s replaced by hugs, singing the fight song, singing Get The Dub, jumping around and dancing engulfed all corners of the locker room. The type of pandemonium talked about at 25-year reunions.
This moment was perfect for junior defensive end Elijah Shuler. The kid known for his constant smile, energy and unrelenting positive attitude knows how to enjoy himself. There he was, smack in the middle, loving the first major victory of his Cincinnati career and enthralled by the endorphin rush.
"That was one of the most amazing games I've been a part of my entire life," Shuler said.
Amid the blur of the moment, coaches told Shuler to hurry up and shower because his mom was in from his hometown of New Bedford, Conn., awaiting him. He was excited, too. The son with a tight family unit hadn't seen his mother in quite some time because of the crazy football schedule.
Only, once breaking from the locker room and down a hallway in the underbelly of the stadium, he entered into a special office in the security corridor. His mother Brenda was there as Butch Jones and position coach Steve Stripling filed in as well with the team chaplain.
She had news. It wasn't good.
Earlier in the day, Shuler's father died. His brother found him slumped over in his bed and couldn't save him.
Isiah Shuler was 66.
"Went there, gave her a hug, kissed her," Shuler said, recalling the nightmarish moment. "She just hit me with it. She said your father passed away. And, I didn't even believe her at first. Everything shut down. I just broke down."
Shuler was close with his father. Isiah's reputation as a happy guy and phenomenal cook rubbed off on his son. Pops, as Elijah called him, taught proper southern cooking and how to make the best mac and cheese imaginable. Isiah loved washing his care, caring for his garden and appreciating the details in life. Elijah was worried about his dad who had been in the hospital, but recently released. Elijah just held a conversation the previous day about how relieved he was it appeared Pops would be OK.
Once home, a bad reaction to medicine he received turned into the worst case scenario.
For two weeks following that day, Shuler retreated to his home in New Haven, Conn., to assist with the funeral and support his family.
During the football season, the whole world of a student-athlete lives in a bubble - sometimes literally. The outside world ceases to exist. Football saps free time and focus. Instantly extracted from football reality, he suddenly faced one of life's toughest moments.
"My main concerns went straight to my brothers," he said. "I have one natural older brother and then my mom adopted two younger brothers. My focus went to them because they were actually there. My older brother actually found him and tried to give him CPR because he just graduated as a nurse. So my main concern went right to my brother -- how's he feel? He just got his nursing license and first thing he tries to do is save his father and it doesn't work."
Shuler didn't tell his mother he committed to Cincinnati out of Pierce Junior College in California. Two weeks before his March 20 birthday he sent a text message to Stripling informing he's coming to UC. Later that day, he told his mother of the decision.
Other visits were planned, but not needed. He loved the family atmosphere of Jones and the Bearcats. He loved how everyone cared so much about each other.
Little did he know just how important the family atmosphere would be to him.
Upon landing in Connecticut for the funeral and arrangements his phone filled with over 100 text messages and voicemails, most all from Bearcats teammates.
"Just them supporting me telling me they are there for me, they love me," he said of the messages.
No day more clearly proved that fact than Sept. 29 against Virginia Tech. Yet, those are the moments Jones molds his football philosophy around. His philosophy of creating a cohesive, family unit that supports itself both by players and coaches stand alone at his core belief system in a team. Dealing with adversity dials into every press conference, locker room speech and recruiting trip.
Supporting Shuler wasn't just something Jones wanted to do, it was something the entire team believes they have to do. It's part of being a family. It's part of Cincinnati football.
"The great thing is that's why we talk about the foundation of our football program being structured around the core value of family," Jones said. "(Shuler and I) have spoken a few times, because I've lost my father. And my father was my hero. He was everything to me. But just having that open line of communication having the support system in place from not only his coaches but his peers, teammates, that's really helped him. Plus, he's got a great mother, he's a high character individual. Just love everything about him."
A discussion arose early in the year whether Shuler should redshirt. He played sparingly, if at all most games. Stripling and Jones loved the energy and motor on the 6-foot-3, 258-pounder. His burst around the end only needed refining of technique and experience. Allowing two more years in the system would be beneficial.
Yet, two weeks after he returned home from Connecticut and the funeral he desperately desired a return to football. When Walter Stewart went down with an injury that would end his season, the Bearcats needed Shuler as well.
Come game week against Toledo, his role included more snaps on defense as part of the rotation. Shuler played differently now. The motivation changed.
As he taped up for his first games following his father's passing, he knew he wanted to place on his wrist what already blanketed his heart. Every game he writes the same seven large letters on his wrist: RIP Pops.
"I always look back to it every play," he said. "I probably will do it for as long as I play football just because it was so significant in my life."
'I WISH EVERYONE WAS LIKE THAT'
Shuler displayed glimpses of why coaches recruited him. He recorded six tackles, two pass breakups and one TFL during conference play.
The numbers weren't game-changing for the Bearcats, but they were for a college student recovering from tragedy.
"That was the key thing," Shuler said. "All my tears are gone. I just needed to take my focus off and put it into something else, into school, whether it is on the field or off the field I needed something else to take that away from me. Getting on the field, hearing your name on the speaker knowing that your father is up there watching you, really means a lot."
While inwardly, Shuler endured the grieving process, outwardly, anybody unaware of his story, would never know. The kid with the wide smile and easygoing attitude never ceased supplying the positivity Pops installed in him.
Nobody knew better than Dan Giordano. The senior defensive end was assigned Shuler in the Big Brothers program Jones utilizes. When Shuler first moved to campus in the summer, Giordano hung out with him, showed him the ropes, looked out for him and helped him feel at home. A bond quickly developed, but that wouldn't stop Giordano from acting like a true older brother during practices.
"I am so hard on that kid," he said, laughing thinking back at a few on-field conversations. "He plays right behind me and that is the identity of our d-line when I'm not in. He's got to hold it down. Whose going to start next year? I am harder on him than I ever was on anyone and he just keeps coming with a smile. Sometimes it aggravates me a little bit. I am yelling at him, how could he be happy? I wish everyone was like that."
Though few see a struggle, Shuler labors through the tough days. Thanks to his football family, they come fewer and farther in between now. He also calls his mother regularly to check on her and his brothers.
He won't need to call this weekend. As UC travels to play against UConn, he'll be dipped into a slice of home for the first time since his father's funeral. Cousins, aunts, uncles, friends all plan on showing up at the game to support Shuler.
His football family and real family will converge for the first time since Virginia Tech. Of course, regardless of win or loss against the Huskies, Shuler now knows better than anyone on the field he can handle whatever adversity unfolds, from the all-time high to the all-time low. Even if they arrive simultaneously.
He only needs the support of his two families --- and a little tape for his wrists.
"When I was back home I was telling all my family members how great this team is, how it is a real family and (my mom) is so happy I made my decision to come here," Shuler said. "I love this team so much because they are there for the good times and the bad times."
We want to hear from you, please shoot me an email with any comments or questions and I'd personally like to thank Elijah Shuler and everyone at UC for sharing his unbelievable story with me. Email me at email@example.com or hit me up on Twitter at @pauldehnerjr.