Kyle Shanahan’s dog needed to go to the bathroom. It altered the trajectory of his career.
It was about 5 p.m. on a summer day in 2001. Shanahan was a 21-year-old receiver at the time, one day from joining his University of Texas teammates for the upcoming season. He was at his parents’ house in Denver when he took his dog out in the backyard and went to jump over a four-foot-high fence with decorative, iron prongs at the top.
Shanahan, 6-3 and 185 pounds, had been training furiously all year and was in prime physical condition. He’d leaped the fence hundreds of times. But this time, his hand slipped as he went to propel himself and he came crashing down.
“I thought I was going to hit my head on the ground and I just stopped,” Shanahan recalled.
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He found himself dangling upside down, his left thigh impaled on one of the fence’s spear points. His father, Mike, was the Denver Broncos’ head coach at the time and already was at the team’s training camp in Greeley, Colo. His mother wasn’t home.
“No one was out there,” he said. “So I had to reach to the ground and push myself off it. It was nasty. I could feel the pole coming out of my leg. And I was so upset because I knew right then, ‘Man, I’ve just messed this up for myself.’ Because I was going to training camp the next day.”
In 2008, Shanahan became the youngest coordinator in the NFL at age 28 when he was picked to run the Houston Texans’ offense. In February, at age 37, the 49ers made him the NFL’s second-youngest head coach behind the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay. Everything about him and San Francisco’s new regime smacks of energy and youth.
But he never would have gotten such a quick start at coaching if his hand hadn’t slipped that summer afternoon.
Shanahan’s dream at the time was to play in the NFL and it was realistic. A strong spring earned Shanahan the role of No. 3 receiver on a loaded Texas squad that featured Roy Williams and B.J. Johnson at receiver, Major Applewhite and Chris Simms at quarterback and Cedric Benson at tailback.
“I’ve never seen a guy work as hard as he did to prepare himself,” said Darryl Drake, Texas’ wide receivers coach at the time who now has the same job with the Arizona Cardinals.
“He wasn’t the fastest guy in the world, he wasn’t the most gifted guy, but he understood the game,” Drake said. “He had a great feel for the position. He was a guy that I was counting on – and we were counting on – to have a big-time role.”
Shanahan said when he removed himself from the fence he found he couldn’t walk. So he crawled to the back door.
“And I promise, it didn’t hurt that bad,” he said. “It was like the worst deep thigh bruise you could ever have. There wasn’t a lot of blood, but I could see my muscle. And I could see it twitch.”
He got a friend to drive him to the hospital. His initial instinct was to have it stitched up and to play through any pain. But it quickly became clear that the wound was too deep, too ripe for an infection – there were paint chips from the fence inside – and that he needed to have surgery.
He called the Broncos’ team doctors and soon underwent a two-hour procedure that required three layers of 21 staples to close. Shanahan has a white, nine-inch scar to remind him of the event.
Today he freely talks about the incident and even offers to reenact how it happened using a chair in a Levi’s Stadium office as a prop. When it’s suggested to him that he has the same proud wound an ancient Greek warrior might have picked up in battle, he frowns.
“It’s not really bad-ass,” he said. “I was walking my dog. But it was gruesome.”
At the time, he was crushed.
Doctors told Shanahan he wouldn’t play that season. They were wrong. He missed only one game and was back on the field in 18 days. But he lost his prime spot in the rotation, never regained his former speed or quickness and finished the year with seven catches.
Drake says he doesn’t know where Shanahan ultimately would have been drafted but that he had the ability to play in the NFL.
“It was devastating,” he said. “Not only for him but for me personally because he’s a guy that I loved dearly and wanted to see him go out and show what I knew he was capable he was doing.”
Shanahan had an invitation to the scouting combine after his senior season but didn’t go. He stopped lifting weights. His NFL aspirations slipped away.
“I went through depression for a while over it,” he admits. “My whole life, my whole world was playing (football). It was tough on me. It took me a long time to get over it.”
A few months into 2003, he got a job on UCLA’s coaching staff. Six months later, he was hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s been in the NFL since.
“I always knew I would eventually coach,” he said. “But the work I put into the scholarship to Texas – I lived and died for playing at the time. I had aspirations to try to play in the NFL. I knew when it was all done and I’d made my run – whenever that was – that I would coach. But I always joke with players; I say it sarcastically: ‘If I never had this injury I’d probably taking one of your guys’ job.’ Then they all laugh at me. Because obviously I wouldn’t have.”