Those guys are pretty cool

Professional athletes have a hard time staying out of the spotlight. Their every move is watched and scrutinized beyond reason, in and out of the forum of athletics. More often than not, it's the negative stories that make it to the front pages in big, bold headlines. Tales like the following, sadly enough, rarely get the publicity they deserve.

You see, while fans and critics were hammering the Raiders following the season-opening loss to San Diego and their Week Two stinker in Baltimore, a young boy in my Northern California neighborhood was dealing with his own personal loss, one which pales in comparison to anything ever put up on a scoreboard.

This 12-year-old boy, Shawn, is one of a half dozen or so kids living on my street who regularly fill the afternoon air with laughter as they bounce around from yard to yard, house to house.

On Labor Day weekend, the laughter stopped for Shawn, his older sister Nicole, and their mother Renee.

During the holiday weekend, while most of America was enjoying barbecues and coolers full of refreshments, Shawn and his family were planning for a funeral. On Sept. 1, Shawn's stepfather, Danny, passed away sometime during the early afternoon while sleeping in a back bedroom at the family's home. Shawn and Nicole discovered the body while Renee, their mother, was away at work.

In the days after, the neighborhood tried to rally around the family and offer support. Shawn, who has always been somewhat shy by nature, didn't necessarily withdraw but it was clear the strain he felt as a result of the tragic event.

Thin as a reed with dark hair that sometimes hangs into his eyes, Shawn is a pretty good athlete, easily one of the best on the block. He and other kids, including my own son, spent many a summer evening playing football in our front yard. Basketball, though, is his game and he's got a pretty mean jump shot to prove it.

But death was an opponent Shawn had never crossed paths with before. At any age, it is never easy to deal with loss. When slapped in the face of children, it can be downright crippling.

That was my concern as I made my way to the Raiders' facility in the days leading up to their season-opener against San Diego. It was a concern I later expressed to several players inside Oakland's locker room, all of whom expressed their prayers and support for Shawn and his family.

Later, while talking with Raiders director of media relations Mike Taylor, I asked and received permission to bring Shawn to the team's facility at a later date.

And so it was, three days after the 27-0 loss to the Chargers, that Shawn and I sat together in my car and made the 45-minute drive south to Alameda. Wearing black jeans, a black T-shirt and sunglasses, Shawn sat quietly for most of the trip, occasionally looking up to check out the San Francisco skyline.

By the time we reached the Raiders headquarters, the team's morning workout was over and the locker room was opened to the media. Few players came in, which is normal after a loss, let alone one of the magnitude they suffered on national television against San Diego.

So as we stood around waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting, I started to wonder if this whole trip idea would end up a complete flop. After all, what kind of excitement can a kid get from staring at empty lockers?

With 35 minutes of access left, the first player arrived. Linebacker Kirk Morrison was a walking interview from the moment he came in, taking up almost his entire lunch break in the process. After finishing up, Morrison grabbed his backpack and made for the linebacker meeting room.

I stopped Morrison before he reached the door and explained Shawn's situation. Morrison never thought twice about getting lunch; instead he walked over to Shawn and spent the next five minutes engaging the youngster in conversation.

Next up was linebacker Sam Williams. Then defensive end Derrick Burgess. Punter Shane Lechler grabbed Shawn and shared a laugh. Free safety Stuart Schweigert stopped by to shake hands.

Just that quickly, the shy kid who could barely raise his eyes to meet those of the players he was meeting was now smiling.

That's when Aaron Brooks walked in. Now you can say what you want about Brooks as a quarterback, but here's where he gets my vote for man of the year.

Not knowing me from Adam, Brooks hesitated when I approached him to tell the story. Without batting an eye, Brooks looked over my shoulder and saw the boy standing 15 feet away. "Shawn!" Brooks yelled, then motioned his hand in a wave. "Come here." The two shook hands and Brooks began rattling off question after question to Shawn. "You going to come watch us practice? Maybe you can help us work on throwing the deep ball, what do you think? What sport are you best at?"

Shawn, smiling, could barely work up a response.

Brooks continued until being tapped on the shoulder by a PR representative, who reminded the quarterback of a pending team meeting. Before he left, Brooks again shook Shawn's hand and said how much of a pleasure it was to meet him.

Now the story could end here and it would be just fine. Shawn was happy as it was, a feeling he hadn't had enough of lately.

Then came word from Taylor that Shawn could come out to watch the first 30 minutes of practice. As I stood next to him on the field, Shawn watched as Randy Moss came running by. Warren Sapp was next. There was his new friend, Brooks, throwing passes and working on his footwork.

After practice ended, Shawn was ready to call it a day but he was in for one final surprise. While the beat writers interviewed Raiders head coach Art Shell, who was dropping the news bomb that left tackle Robert Gallery would be sidelined with a partially torn calf muscle, Shawn stood on the perimeter of the circle and shifted back and forth from one foot to the other.

When Shell finished his interview, he began to walk away before being stopped by Taylor and briefed about the young man standing nearby dressed all in black. Shell turned to Shawn and walked towards him, offering his mitt of a hand as a welcome. For the next 10 minutes, Shell engaged Shawn just like Brooks had. "Look at your hands," Shell said, placing his against Shawn's. "They're huge. And I hear you're a basketball player. I played basketball when I was in high school. I always thought it helped me as a football player, the footwork."

The conversation continued, with Shell doing most of the talking while Shawn listened quietly and nodded his head.

Shell then excused himself and again shook hands with Shawn before turning and heading inside the team's building.

I packed up my things and Shawn jumped into the passenger seat of my car as we prepared to make the trek back home. We stopped briefly to get something to drink, then continued on down the road.

Now I should make it a point that before this day, Shawn was a fan of the San Francisco 49ers. I knew this ahead of time but didn't think it would be an issue.

But as we sat there stuck in traffic, Shawn looked up at me from behind those sunglasses he wore and spoke. "I like the Raiders, too," he said. "Those guys are pretty cool." Pretty cool indeed.

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