Getting To Know: NT Shawn Worthen

Nose tackle Shawn Worthen made a quick ascent up the depth chart with hard work, and it was a work ethic that started early at home.

Shawn Worthen has been playing in the trenches long before he ever laced up a pair of cleats, strapped on shoulder pads or even pulled on a helmet.

While growing up, playing football was never a high priority on Worthen's things-to-do list. In fact, it couldn't be found on any list at all. Worthen liked to work so hard that his mother, Rose, had to engage in a heart-to-heart talk with her eighth-grade son.

Can you envision it? A mom pulling her teenage son aside to tell him to slow down, enjoy life, ease up on the workload and do the things kids do. Hardly a scene from American Pie II.

The irony of Rose Worthen's mother-to-son talk with Shawn was that he was only imitating her. Raising four children as a single mother, Rose knew only one way to make her family succeed — through hard work. So her routine was simple, yet grueling.

First, get the kids off to school. While the kids were away, Rose squeezed in a few hours of sleep. Once the kids got home from school, Rose made sure everything was fine, fed them supper and made them do their homework. In the evening, she went to work for Shawn's uncle's janitorial service.

It was that hard work ethic that obviously has rubbed off on her kin. "My mother's a very, very hard worker," Shawn said. "A lot of times, I used to go work with her and watch her mop floors, shine floors, buff floors — all that stuff. Watching her do that, seeing her struggle at her job, it inspired me to go to do what I had to do to not be in her position. I'm not saying I'm better than my mother; not anything like that — she just inspired me to work hard and do more for myself by what she did for us."

In Rose's case, there was no hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. She only taught her children the lessons and rules of life that she followed as well. Her blueprint was her children's as well.

"Being a single mother, she has been a shining example of what hard work and good work ethic will get you," said Shawn, who has two brothers and one sister.

As soon as Shawn was old enough to push a mop and sweep a floor, he, too, went to work for his uncle's janitorial service. Then came the infamous conversation he'll never forget. Rose offered Shawn some invaluable words to live by.

"She sat me down and we really had a deep conversation about me finding myself first before I could help others," Shawn said. "She said before I could help others I had to help myself. She really emphasized that I had to live for myself and be my own person and discover myself.

"She told me to go ahead and concentrate on being Shawn Worthen and make Shawn Worthen be the best he can be. To be a better family person, I had to first be a better individual. That's why I worked on going to high school and working hard throughout college. My mother was very instrumental in me getting my degree."

Before Worthen ever stepped on a football field donning purple and gold, he first marched down the collegiate aisle in cap and gown and received his well-earned degree. Last April, just two weeks after the Vikings drafted him, Worthen completed his final college courses that guaranteed him a signed diploma from Texas Christian University.

But once "Pomp and Circumstance" was completed, "Skol Vikings" could have just as well been playing. Immediately, the college graduate shifted focus from textbooks to playbooks, from classrooms to film rooms and football fields. First, a brief minicamp, then a swift offseason workout regimen, then training camp as a rookie in the National Football League.

It all happened so fast.

So fast that Worthen didn't even spend time as a backup. At least not yet, anyway.

Just a day before the first game of his NFL career, Worthen was informed he would be a starter, not a backup. When the New Orleans Saints brought their No. 1 offensive unit out onto the field, Worthen would be one of the 11 Vikings defensive starters, a rare honor for coach Dennis Green's rookie fraternity.

"I envisioned myself being a starter later in the season or maybe next year, but never did I expect to start in the preseason," Worthen said. "I'm very happy and glad that it happened."

So were the Vikings.

Against the Saints, in his professional debut, Worthen, the starting nose tackle, registered two quarterback sacks. He was almost as impressive in his second game, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I've made plays that have stood out more than others, but I haven't played my best game," Worthen said. "I could've done a lot better. I may not have another two-sack game (as he did against New Orleans) but I can play much better. I have a long ways to go before I'm a good nose guard."

In his coaching tenure with the Vikings, Green has overseen an impressive list of interior linemen that started with Henry Thomas and included Jerry Ball, and John Randle as well.

It has been suggested that last year's bottom-feeding Vikings defense needed a major overhaul. That meant letting Randle go to Seattle and not re-signing Tony Williams, either. What makes the Vikings' personnel decisions nearly impossible to second-guess is that its 2000 defense possessed the strength of a wet paper towel down the stretch when its bend-but-not-break approach failed in December against St. Louis, Green Bay and Indianapolis. Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning made the Vikings defense appear stationary, the pass rush seemingly nonexistent.

Worthen insists he knows nothing of last year's woes, refusing to discuss last year's troubles. He likes what he sees in 2001. "I wasn't here last year, but we're working hard as a defense," Worthen said. "We're concentrating. When we make mistakes we talk about it; we don't let it sit there and weigh heavily on us. Right now everybody's up-tempo, has good concentration and is working hard to be the best they can be and forget about last year."

Green, defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas and defensive line coach Brian Baker tinkered with the Vikings' front line and hopes to plug the gaping hole left on the interior line. Talance Sawyer and Chris Hovan return, but Fernando Smith is moving back to end. That leaves 2000 No. 1 draft pick Hovan and 2001 No. 4 draft pick Worthen (6-0, 316 pounds) in the middle of the mass.

"Right now, Worthen is the No. 1 nose tackle, and that's tough for a rookie," Green said. "He's a tough guy and is hard-nosed. He's always getting better and has a good chance to start for us."

You wouldn't have guessed on draft day. Worthen was so enthralled and in tune with the NFL draft last April that he decided to take a nap and let the chips fall while he was getting his Zzzzs. (Mel Kiper Jr. has that effect on some people).

"I was asleep, I wasn't too concerned," Worthen said. "I was just going to sleep the day away. My mother was the first one who called me and let me know I was drafted. I was like, ‘What are you talking about, nobody called me.' Then my agent called and the Vikings called me 10 minutes later. My mom was very ecstatic about the whole thing."

Worthen was too. Even if he didn't show it.

He had followed the NFL. He knew that he had been picked by an NFL franchise recognized as one of the league's elite. He was fully aware that the team that picked him in the fourth round was the same team that has been to the NFC Championship in two of the past three seasons.

"I knew the team," he said. "I've watched the team for years, back to the days when Henry Thomas played. I loved the Vikings because everybody loves a winner. I knew about the Vikings, but I had no idea they had an interest in me."

Ever since training camp began, the Vikings' interest has grown. Worthen insists this is only the beginning.

"I'll be honest with you, my whole game needs to get better," he said. "I'm still a college player, to tell you the truth. I'm getting better every day and listening to everything the coaches tell me, but I'm still a rookie. I'm going to be a rookie the whole year. The only thing I can hope to do is get better every day and try to improve and learn. I'm trying to redefine myself, redefine my technique and redefine everything I do." VU

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