Sullivan Awards are given to two different types of people: graduating seniors and community members—people on the college’s faculty or staff or even friends of the college with no official affiliation. Deterrian Shackelford (better known to friends and football fans as “D.T.”) received his award in 2015 in sort of a gray area between the two. He was a student at the University of Mississippi at the time, but he’d already finished undergrad three years earlier and had since earned a master’s degree with an eye toward a doctorate.
And while Shackelford certainly exemplified the humble servant’s heart recognized by Sullivan, he had a hard time keeping a low profile. He had been a starting linebacker for the university’s beloved football team and spent many Saturdays playing on national television around the Southeastern Conference.
Shackelford’s accomplishments came even as he missed two years of football with a torn ACL requiring two separate surgeries. He filled the void left by football by finding ways to serve others. Using his local celebrity status in Oxford, Mississippi, he brightened people’s days at a local nursing home and a children’s hospital. He volunteered to read to young children in schools and worked in a food pantry. He even spread the servant spirit among his teammates, leading them on mission trips to Panama and Haiti.
Once his football career ended, Shackelford knew his real work had only just begun. He started a career with the university’s athletics foundation. But Shackelford’s passion was still service, and he’s continued in that work by speaking to student groups to motivate them to do good work and build good character.
“A lot of these kids are attracted to the sport of football,” he says. “It’s just popular. But I want to show them that once you’re done with your athletic career, you can continue to be impactful in people’s lives. That’s something that sticks. A lot of them want to know how you played and who you tackled and who you sacked, but more kids look at what you do once you’re done with that, and, for me, that’s what matters the most. I don’t care about how many tackles I had. That doesn’t matter now. What matters are these kids. They are the now.”
Shackelford’s talks encourage kids to building strong character, overcome adversity, and develop kindness and empathy. He both discourages bullying and teaches kids how to respond to unkind words or actions. He travels all over Mississippi and to neighboring states to spread his positive message. It requires a lot of time and effort on top of the demands of his job, but he feeds off the energy in the room.
“At one point, somebody was able to instill in me morals and values and character and the things that you really need in life,” says Shackelford. “For me, this is about giving back. The money, the popularity, I’d trade all that stuff to be able to come in here every day and speak to these youths and really make an impact on their lives.”
All that practice, as well as his special gift for connecting with children, has made him excellent at his chosen second vocation.
“Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Shackelford says.
When it comes to caring, Shackelford sets a high bar with his example.