Richard Davenport covers recruiting for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is the host of Recruiting Thursday, a weekly radio show that airs from 7 to 8 p.m. on 92.1 FM in Fayetteville; 93.7 FM in Little Rock; 95.3 FM in Fort Smith; 96.3 FM in Hot Springs; 104.3 FM in Harrison/Mountain Home; and 106.9 FM in Arkadelphia.
Volunteer coach flips field at UA
Shaun Mercer, 47, is a volunteer assistant coach at Arkansas after giving up a six-figure job.
FAYETTEVILLE -- From the Amazon jungle and Arctic Circle to the manicured turf of Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, it has been a one-of-a-kind journey for University of Arkansas volunteer football coach Shaun Mercer.
It's not every day that a 46-year-old gives up a $200,000-a-year job to go back to school in pursuit of a lifelong dream.
His dream? To become a college football coach. Thanks to an unlikely meeting with UA Coach Chad Morris, he's getting that chance.
A native of Dermott, Mercer credits his hometown football, basketball and baseball coaches for making an impression on his life and planting the seeds of his coaching dream.
"It just seems like they make you a better person," Mercer said. "They teach you how to be a good, productive man or woman. Most coaches for the most part have a positive influence on a young person's life."
MILITARY AND OILFIELDS
After graduating from high school, Mercer attended Northeast Louisiana University for a year before joining the Army.
"I didn't hardly go to class. I wasn't mature," Mercer said of his time in college. "I just wasted my mom and dad's money."
He served in several units, including the 509th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Polk, La., the United States' first combat parachute troop.
After serving 4 1/2 years, he joined the Army Reserve for four years while in law enforcement in Louisiana and Arizona. He joined the Navy in March 2001 and attended basic submarine and fire control technician school in Connecticut for more than a year prior to being assigned to the ballistic nuclear submarine, USS Louisiana.
In 2005, he left military service for good.
"After the military, life happens and you kind of put your dreams on hold," he said.
He used his electrical and computer background from the Navy to get a job in the oil and gas industry for an offshore company as a marine electronics technician.
"After that, I kind of followed the money to the oilfield," Mercer said.
Following the money led Mercer to places such as Norway, South Korea, Singapore, Nigeria, South Africa, Germany, the Amazon jungle in Brazil and the Arctic Circle, but thoughts of coaching were never far from his mind.
"There's been different times when you go to different countries and see things and you think, 'I'm just a little kid from southeast Arkansas, how did I end up here?' " Mercer said.
His experiences in the Arctic Circle and the Amazon jungle were within days of each other.
"It was probably the coldest place I've ever worked in my life," Mercer said. "At one time, it was minus-42 below zero, and the next day and a half later I went from that to the Amazon jungle. That was brutal."
Mercer's world travels exposed him to Mother Nature's force.
"We were on the outer edge of a tropical cyclone in the Indian Ocean and trying to get this drill ship to the Gulf of Mexico," Mercer said of an approximate 30-day trip. "It wasn't a rough ride, but you're in the middle of nowhere. Not a lot of people to help you if anything went wrong."
One job was serving as a field service manager for an upstart company in west Texas. For the first six months, Mercer often slept in his truck and would shower at truck stops.
"When they called me it was normally because no one else could fix it," Mercer said. "When you got called, you just planned to be out a minimum of 30 hours without sleep. The longest I was up was 94 hours at one time. When those rigs are down, they're losing anywhere from a thousand to three thousand dollars an hour."
Coaching never was far removed from his thinking. While watching the Razorbacks play Auburn in 2016 with his son Dakota, Mercer observed some of the Tigers' tendencies.
"I probably called three Auburn plays in a [row]," Mercer said. "I'll never forget Dakota said, 'Dad, you really need to go into coaching.' "
Mercer attended Arkansas' 55-20 victory over Eastern Illinois on Sept. 1 with friend Keith Martin of Springdale. During the game, he told Martin about his desire to attend Arkansas and become a part of the staff.
"I told him I want to get on the Razorback staff, somehow, some way, even as a volunteer," Mercer said.
The years of travel and the stress of the job took a toll as his weight ballooned to 248 pounds on his 5-9 frame. He also had high blood pressure, vision issues and was a diabetic.
"It was in the elevated range," Mercer said of his blood pressure. "Of course, I smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. I was stressed all the time. I had some serious health issues. I was diabetic and taking a shot once a week, plus taking medicine for it."
Then came a life-changing wreck Oct. 16 in Midland, Texas.
Mercer and his girlfriend Wendy were traveling in a company pickup on a four-lane highway on a rainy night when another truck ran two stop signs at a crossing.
"Before I could react, the truck went out in front of me. I never hit the brakes," said Mercer, who was traveling 73 miles per hour. "It was an extremely violent collision. It knocked me 90 degrees to the right. I ended up in oncoming traffic in the lane he was traveling, and I knocked him about an eighth of a mile down the road.
"How all three of us escaped injury, I have no idea. We shouldn't have walked away."
Three days after the wreck, Mercer and Wendy were sitting at a table at a company-owned home. Unbeknownst to Wendy, Mercer hated his job and the accident was a wake-up call.
"She asked, 'What do you want to do?' " Mercer said. "I said I've always wanted to coach."
Mercer explained to her that Arkansas was his dream school, and Wendy offered to get a job to help with his schooling. Then Mercer informed her that the military would pay for the tuition, and she had heard enough.
"She said, 'Don't be stupid. Go to school, do what you love,' " Mercer said.
Her reassurance gave him the confidence to give up his six-figure income to finally pursue his lifelong dream.
"After my wreck, that's when everything changed," Mercer said. "I didn't want to put anything off anymore."
The couple traveled to Fayetteville on Oct. 26 to talk to UA Veterans Resource and Information Center director Erika Gamboa about enrolling.
"He did go through a situation that did make him realize life is too short," Gamboa said. "Everybody has a story, but I loved how he was completely serious about what he was doing."
In her 10 years of working in the resource center, Gamboa hasn't seen a veteran with a six-figure income looking to enroll.
"My traditional students are coming straight out of the military," she said.
A couple of weeks later while driving on Interstate 30 to Midland, Mercer received a call from Chantel Moseby from the admissions office. During the process of enrolling, Mercer and Moseby -- a Hamburg native -- had forged a relationship.
Moseby was calling with more than words of encouragement.
"She said, 'You've been accepted. You're a Razorback,' " Mercer said. "I pulled over on the side of the road of the interstate and I started crying. Wendy is crying, and I'm crying. I never thought it was possible."
MEETING COACH MORRIS
Next on Mercer's agenda was to go to the Fred W. Smith Football Center in hopes of talking to a coach about getting his foot in the door. That day arrived Dec. 19.
"Driving down Razorback Road, I said, 'I have to try and get in,' " Mercer said.
He parked across the street from the football center. With Wendy waiting in the truck, he discovered the doors of the building were locked. Undeterred, he walked down to the Willard and Pat Walker Pavilion.
"I look and see some players in there working out," Mercer said. "I didn't knock on the door. I wasn't going to bother them. I sat down by the door and was trying to figure it out."
A few moments later, redshirt freshman defensive lineman Isaiah Nichols opened the door.
Shaun Mercer (right) is shown with Arkansas coach Chad Morris.
"He goes, 'Can I help you?' " Mercer said. "I said, 'Look man, I know I'm going to sound a little crazy here. I'm 46 years old, I'm fixing to start school here, and I'm going into kinesiology, and I'm just trying to get my foot in this door to try and talk to one of the coaches to see if I can somehow be a part of the Razorback football team."
A leery Nichols told Mercer to go back to the Smith center where he would let him in.
"I said, 'I'll just sit right here and I won't make you look stupid for letting me in this door,' " Mercer said after he gained entrance. "You could just see the relief on him. I said, 'I'm not going to blow the place up. I promise.' "
Nichols said he would inform the secretary of his presence. Mercer sat and said a prayer in hopes of seeing a coach.
"So after saying amen, I sat there and not 40 seconds later, Coach Morris walks through the door from the parking lot area," Mercer said.
Morris, who usually enters the center via a private entrance, was fresh from jogging and uncharacteristically walked in from the public entrance by the parking lot between the center and Barnhill Arena.
"I never walk into the main foyer, but I did that day," Morris said. "I was going to the weight room and I saw him."
Morris approached Mercer.
"I said, 'If you have a few minutes, I would like to tell you a quick story and tell you what I'm trying to do,' and he said sure," Mercer said.
Mercer gave Morris a three-minute rundown of his background that included details of his accident, dream of becoming a college coach and willingness to volunteer or do anything to get his foot in the door.
"I have this big spiel done, and he stops me," Mercer said. "He said, 'Shaun, if you want your foot in the door in coaching, just follow me.' He had his hand on my shoulder when he said it, and I said, 'Yes sir.'
"I told him I'll be a janitor. I'll do whatever, and he looked at me and he said, 'No, no, I have something better.' "
Mercer was suspicious about Morris' offer and his good fortune.
"So at this point, I'm only three minutes into it, and he's already promised me something better than a janitor's job, so I'm thinking I'm going to jail," Mercer said. "Seriously, he's about to call the cops."
Morris took Mercer to see offensive analyst and assistant tight ends coach Will Bryant.
"I said get his number, and when we come back to work in January let's report," Morris said. "Come on, we've got plenty work to do. Knowing you get a lot of these, some guys show back up and some guys don't."
After giving Bryant his phone number, Mercer's thoughts of needing bail money faded.
"That's when I starting thinking maybe this could be true," said Mercer, who saw the chance encounter with Morris as divine intervention.
Mercer had a final request of Morris.
"I said, 'Coach, no one is going to believe this if I don't have a picture,' " Mercer said. "He started laughing and said, 'Come on, we'll get a picture.' "
Morris said Mercer has been inspirational since his arrival.
"You talk about someone that lives every day with a purpose, someone with an attitude of gratitude," Morris said. "He's pretty unique. Listening to him talk, he had one of those moments in your life that put a lot of things in perspective, and it was time do something he enjoyed and wanted to be a part of."
He still had doubts about whether he did the right thing before the first day of classes Jan. 19.
"Actually, it was Monday morning about 1 o'clock in the morning before my first class," he said. "My university email just started going off with all of the classes. I was scared of biology and biology lab. I remember looking at Wendy and saying, 'How in the hell am I going to do this? What was I thinking?' "
Mercer didn't tell family or friends about attending Arkansas or becoming a volunteer coach.
"I didn't want to hear [things] like you're being stupid," Mercer said. "You're 46 years old, what are you thinking. I didn't want to hear anything, plus I had to prove to myself I could make it through this first semester before I let people know what I was doing."
Morris was impressed Mercer gave up a six-figure income to pursue his dream.
"That's him. I don't know if I could've done it," Morris said. "There's no job too big or too small. He always has a smile on his face. Just a walking billboard of encouragement and someone that isn't afraid to take a chance and chase a dream."
To express his gratitude, Mercer gave Morris a keychain that read: "A good coach can change a game. A great coach changes a life."
"I can never repay him," Mercer said. "That's what coaches should do. Impact someone's life in a positive manner, and he did that for me."
Attending classes and coaching at Arkansas has been a surreal experience for Mercer.
"This Arkansas Razorback thing is bigger than life for me," Mercer said. "This is what I grew up on. Just walking into the dadgum office, it took me several weeks just to feel comfortable. Not that I didn't feel like I belonged, I was just sacred."
Mercer, who turned 47 on Feb. 8, went through student orientation with the football early enrollees.The early enrollees have bonded with their bifocal-wearing fellow student and coach.
"I got accepted by those guys," Mercer said. "They all took me in like we're all in this together."
Mercer, who assists safeties coach Ron Cooper and cornerbacks coach Mark Smith, said spring practice was full of pinch-me moments.
"The first week was about getting over, 'Oh, that's Sosa Agim, that's Rakeem Boyd, there's Devwah Whaley, there's Bumper Pool, there's Grant Morgan,' " Mercer said.
As the spring progressed, he felt more at ease.
"Then there was a point I was a part of this team, so it's OK to approach these guys and talk to them," Mercer said.
A STORY TO TELL
Smith said Mercer's journey is an inspiration.
"We believe in him, and he has a mindset of what he wants to do, and he wants to do it in college football," Smith said. "There's no doubt he's already made an impact in our players' lives, including our staff as well. Just hearing him and his story, we're excited to have him."
Shelia Parodi, the mother of preferred walk-on defensive back Nathan Parodi, appreciates Mercer treating her son like a scholarship athlete.
"All the coaches do that, but Shaun kind of goes above and beyond a little bit," she said. "He really has taken a liking to Nathan because of his hard work, and I think he sees something in Nathan that needs to be encouraged."
Former Tennessee coach Johnny Majors, also a former Arkansas assistant who was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987, visited for the spring game to spend time with former player and Arkansas defensive coordinator John Chavis.
Mercer escorted Majors around the stadium during the Red-White Game.
"In December, I was working in the oilfield, and now in April, I'm walking with Coach Majors on the sidelines and talking football with him," Mercer said.
He recently received a call with a job offer to go back into the oilfields.
"I'll always have that opportunity to go back, but my heart is set here," Mercer said. "Everything I'm doing right now is bigger than life to me."
Morris plans to have Mercer tell his story to the team.
"While he has not yet told his story to our team, he's going to," Morris said. "I'm going to have him do it in fall camp."
The life change has improved Mercer's health.
"I quit smoking and now weigh 213 pounds," said Mercer, who finished with a 3.5 grade-point average in his first semester. "I'm no longer taking diabetic medicine. I honestly feel like this saved my life."
Living off a a $1,500 monthly military stipend has forced major cutbacks to his budget.
"I definitely don't eat at the fancy restaurants anymore," Mercer said. "You basically cut out all the extra stuff."
His apartment is modestly furnished, but he's never been happier.
"It's humbled me a lot," Mercer said. "But I expected it to humble me. I knew what I was walking away from. It was worth walking away from and chasing my dream."
Sports on 06/23/2019
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