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Hiding in Plain SIGHT
September 10, 2007
Miami's exhaustive search for a football coach ended with a man who'd been there all along: assistant Randy Shannon, a loner with a mysterious, tragic past.
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September 10, 2007

Hiding In Plain Sight

Miami's exhaustive search for a football coach ended with a man who'd been there all along: assistant Randy Shannon, a loner with a mysterious, tragic past.

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Nobody needed to know what it was like to wear a mask to visit your brothers, to watch them both become infants, their skin going all wrinkled and gray, their bottoms in Pampers. Nobody needed to know that AIDS had done away with Donald a decade earlier. Pity—that's all it would bring. Damn near as deadly a disease.

Nobody needed to know about JoJo, the sister who'd raised Randy while his mom worked two shifts. The sister who doted on him, taught him hopscotch, took him to the park, the movies, the beach ... then moved into Pork 'n' Beans, the projects near the ones Randy grew up in, and started overdosing on 8-balls—heroin laced with cocaine. Nobody needed to know how her hair turned so spooky red and soft and her body wasted away when AIDS spat at the 21 pills she was taking a day and swept her away too. Ten days before the April 1989 day that should've been the shiniest of his life, when the Dallas Cowboys drafted him.

He'd learned as a boy to hit the floor each time there was a bang! and his mother cut the lights in Miami's Liberty City projects. He'd learned as he grew older to sit with his back to restaurant walls, eyes on the door, to check his watch and suddenly remember somewhere he needed to be when someone unknown and unsettling showed up. He could take no misstep in a world where a lover's fluids carried death and a cocktail with friends could get your head blown off.

So nobody needed to know what happened, a few months before Randy's third birthday, to the dad he was glued to almost every minute the man wasn't working. A.J. Shannon was just stopping at Frontier Bar for a drink after knocking off at a construction site back in '68 when a fight broke out between two of his buddies. Just trying to break it up when he got hit and got hot too, tumbling outside the bar in a brawl that ended with him being shot dead.

He hung around for a half-dozen years more, haunting the project his family lived in. Bed covers would mysteriously be turned back, a book would topple off a shelf or the kitchen would suddenly reek of A.J.'s eau de cologne. "Your daddy's just been here," Randy's mother, Dorleatha, would tell her youngest son.

Randy began backpedaling from death, depersonalizing it. The first one, he'd wanted to take in all of it, pestering his mom to let him see if Daddy had his shoes on, to let him see all of him, not just the upper part exposed by the half-opened coffin. At the next funeral, his sister's, he sat in the front of the church beside his mother—his Adam's apple bobbing like crazy, his eyes never turning toward the pink casket—then stayed in his car at the cemetery, sobbing and waving away relatives who tried to console him and escort him to the burial site. That was it for him. Tears? How could a man cry at funerals when his mother didn't? Coffins? He wouldn't go near them. At his brothers' funerals, then at his players', he became the ghost, wafting in and out of the back of the church, some mourners claiming to have seen him, others insisting they hadn't.

Nobody needed to see his face when the cameras swiveled to show the world the brains behind that howling Hurricanes defense. He secreted himself in the far corner of his press-box booth, stationing an assistant coach beside him to block the lens's view. He telephoned his 24-year-old daughter, Tyquitah, before her recent wedding and begged out of the spotlight moment when the father dances with the bride. He bought and studied hundreds of war movies—it was always the guy with the swollen head or loose lips, he realized, who brought destruction upon himself or the whole platoon. He stashed his three national championship rings in an old briefcase. He removed the Frank Broyles Award plaque from his office wall the day after his secretary, Aileen Lopez, hung it up. He sent a defensive assistant to the White House in his place when the 'Canes won it all in 2001. He deflected most reporters' questions to the head coach.

So what did the athletic director need to know about his past? That all four of his siblings were drug addicts? No. That he'd failed to heed his mother's warning about sex, the plea of a woman who would work four years in an AIDS ward as a nurse's aide and watch the disease take three of her children? No. Did the AD need to know the particulars of the four children he'd had by three women, the first one at age 17 and the second at 20? To hear Randy try to explain the unexplainable, that the same dizzying instant that could bring death was the only one that made a man forget death? To hear about his brief marriage in college and his current one, also to a woman he didn't live with, a marriage that many friends and colleagues didn't know existed? No.

What about all the charges filed against him over the past 20 years, for trespassing, burglary, driving with a suspended license, loitering, petty larceny, grand theft, drug possession and assaulting a police officer? Yeah. Maybe he'd better tell the AD about those.


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