As Idan Vinitsky prepared to interview Pirates Defensive Coordinator Tim Shelley, he sought out Pirates Head Coach Anthony Payton for advice.
"What should you ask Tim Shelley?" Coach Anthony Payton thinks for a second and his big smile quickly appears. "You should definitely ask him, what was the first thing he ever told me, on the first day we've ever met?"
It was on the third and final season for the Portland Steel (formerly Thunder) in the Arena Football League, back in 2016. Payton was the Offensive Coordinator and Shelley a Defensive Back when their worlds collided. Payton remembers, "I introduced myself, asked him his name and position. Shelley responded with, “I am going to be your biggest nightmare and you should stay away from me,” recalls Shelley.
Of course, they were representing the same team and it was all in good spirits, but Shelley remembers that he used to go by Payton's office every now and then, before or after practice, "Just to spice things up a little." He used to tell Payton how he made his receivers look bad in that day's practice and how he plans on doing the same thing at the next practice as well.
The spark was definitely there from the get-go and three years later, Payton became the Massachusetts Pirates' Head Coach. Sergio Gilliam, who was the team's Special Teams Coordinator last season, was elevated to the Defensive Coordinator position, but moved to work for a team in Atlantic City shortly thereafter. The Pirates needed a new, experienced and successful man for the job and Payton knew exactly who this man should be.
"He brought me here to work with the defense because he knows that I am someone he can trust", says Shelley. "Our relationship had been great in Portland and grew even bigger since we started working together, but the trust is the most important thing. I am very loyal."
Shelley is from Macon, also known as "The Heart of Georgia", a fairly large city located right at the center of the state. On the Pirates, he found some fellow Georgians, "Home state guys" (Lawrence Austin, Alejandro Bennifield, Quayvon Hicks, Tre' Jackson and Demetruce McNeal) and yes, he admits that sometimes the local accent becomes too much to handle. "We are southerners. We are like a brotherhood here." The weather can be tricky too at times: "I didn't want to walk to my car the first time I got here. It was freezing. Now the temperature is great, much closer to what I am used to."
He attended the HBCU college of Fort Valley State in Georgia, where he played Division II football and was one of the best defensive backs in the division. During his junior year, the Wildcats had the best Division II defense in the country and Shelley credits his coaches for that. "They used to prepare us perfectly for every game. We never arrived to a Saturday afternoon without knowing exactly what we should do."
That is the model he is trying to follow now, when he is the one behind the lines – Always be prepared. "This way you can play faster, execute and expect better results."
After graduating, Shelley had hopes and dreams of playing in the NFL and he became an undrafted free agent with the Green Bay Packers, but as a senior, he tore up his ACL and when he arrived at Lambeau Field, he was not able to pass the physical. Shortly after that, his indoor career kicked off and he signed with another Green Bay team, the Blizzard.
Like most players, the transition to indoor football took some time to get used to. Shelley had to become familiar with the different speed, moves and skillset needed for the indoor game, but his great work ethic helped and he learned fast. "I am not lazy at all, so the transition was pretty smooth."
During the next few seasons, he played for multiple teams, becoming an indoor football expert and veteran. Five years ago, he also took on coaching for the first time, with a high school team. That proved to be working well for him and last season he was the Georgia Doom (American Arena League) President of Football Operations and General Manager, in midseason he took the Defensive Coordinator's position, so when he came to the Pirates in February 2019, he had already done it all.
Still, after all these years, Shelley says he gets very excited on game days. "I am very intense before the games and I always have butterflies. I take pride in the fact that my players are always ready. I push my players and I like it when things are being done in a certain way. All in all, coaching has been a great experience."
The arena game was built to be an offensive game, but after a few tough losses in the first part of the season, the Pirates are now on a roll, clinching their second playoff berth in as many seasons. Every part of the team has something to do with this great run, including the defense, who has had a couple of fantastic performances in the past month.
"Teams will always score points in this game," knows Shelley, but when I break down film, I want to make sure that our players are in the right spots; that their eyes are looking in the right direction. Yes, our rivals will have catches and touchdowns, but if we do the right things more often than not, we will get our interceptions and turnovers. Our team has a tremendous offense and we have to take advantage of the situations that we face and do our part."
Shelley is a Dallas Cowboys fan, but knows that for a Defensive Coordinator like him, there can be some great inspiration right down the street: "Of course I watch the Patriots. I love their consistency. That is what leads you to years of winning. They don't take days or plays off and they keep bringing new people into their system, because it works so well. They do things “the Patriots way” and that is something I always learn from them. If you are here and want to go play in the NFL, act as professional and good things will come."