NASHVILLE, Tenn. —Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard never shared a locker room with Tim Shaw. But he's familiar with his journey, and the strength the former Titans linebacker has shown while battling ALS.
"I know what kind of guy he is,'' Woodyard said of Shaw. "And I know he left a good positive vibe in the locker room with the guys that did know him. I have a lot of respect for him. And I know what he's going through, because it hits close to home."
Woodyard, set to begin his third season with the Titans and ninth year in the NFL, had a chance to talk to Shaw last week when the team signed him to a contract before placing him on the Reserve/Retired list, making him a "Titan for Life."
Woodyard heard Shaw's emotional speech to the team a few days earlier. He also witnessed his struggles to walk, and speak clearly. Shaw said himself his condition has deteriorated to the point he has a hard time doing daily tasks like brushing his teeth and tying his own shoes.
As a teenager, Woodyard saw his beloved aunt, Caroline Drake, deal with the same issues after being diagnosed with ALS leading up to her death. It's a painful memory. Woodyard said his wife's aunt also had ALS, often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"I remember the first day we went to see (my aunt) and we didn't know what it was,'' Woodyard recalled. "She got real sick to where she couldn't move. Just watching it impact her body and seeing her digress. She was the heart and soul of our family.
"She lived with it for 10 years before she died and that's probably the longest someone has lived with the disease. She was still giving a little smile, but she slowly lost her movement and she couldn't talk. My cousins developed a board which allowed her to communicate with her eyes. But it was hard to see it affect her like it did."
Woodyard wears No.59 with the Titans. It's the same number Shaw wore while playing from 2010-2012 with the team. Woodyard said he considered changing his number with the Titans last year, then he thought of Shaw.
"Because of Tim, that's one of the reasons why I didn't change my number because he wore No.59,'' Woodyard said. "I thought about changing it, but once Tim came around I thought, 'There's a reason why I'm in (No. 59).' I kind of wanted to honor him any way I can because ALS hits really close to home.
"I will definitely be playing in spirit for Tim. His name will live on through that 59. That's one thing about the game of football, and Tim even said it to us—the names on the back of the jerseys change, but the numbers stay the same. I'll be up lifting him up in spirit throughout my play this year."
According to the ALS Association, the progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to death. Patients in the latter stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.
Woodyard, a two-time captain with the Titans who finished second on the team with 110 tackles last season, said he wants to do his part to help bring awareness to the crippling disease.
On Friday, Clay Tweel's documentary Gleason hits theaters in Nashville. It charts the journey of former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason as he copes with ALS.
"It was devastating to my family to find out when my aunt had it,'' Woodyard said. "They didn't know anything about the disease, and they had no cure for it. And still there's not a cure for it today.
"But the awareness has allowed the process to continue to progress, and that's all you can ask for. Anything I can do to help out the ALS community I am all aboard for it."