Six years ago, Shawn Oakman was a famous viral meme looking like a 10-foot-tall cyborg in a gold Baylor helmet ready to smash a whole city with one sweeping swipe of his right hand. A year later, the 2011 Penn Wood graduate was projected to go high in the NFL Draft. On April 3, 2016, he was accused of sexual assault. A few weeks later, he heard the eerie metallic clang of iron prison doors closed behind him.
On February 28, 2019, he was acquitted of all charges.
Tonight, he’ll put his right hand down on the frozen BMO Field turf in Toronto, Canada, and do what he does best: use his massive 6-foot-9, 287-pound frame to chase after an opposing quarterback for the East Division-leading Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League in their regular-season finale.
Through 13 games, Oakman is eighth in the CFL with six sacks, and as a defensive lineman, he’s fifth on the Argos with 37 tackles. His six sacks lead the team, and doubles what the nearest defender has.
This has all taken time. The 29-year-old spent more than a few years wondering if he would ever get the chance to play professional football. A few NFL teams inquired, but with his past hovering over him, despite being acquitted, they never followed through. Oakman had a brief stint in the defunct XFL.
Two years ago, he dreamed his life would head in this direction.
Now, he’s actually living it.
“It’s still surreal to me, because I never was able to live in the moment,” said Oakman, who graduated Baylor in December 2015 with a degree in kinesiology. “I’m learning to take it a day at a time. When I was in the XFL, my mental state wasn’t as it is now, just six months from trial. This is like a fresh start.
“These past four games, I’ve been able to break down the huddles and take more of a leadership role and it’s how I left off at Baylor. It feels new. It feels fresh, like I’m supposed to be here. I haven’t given up hopes of playing in the NFL. I feel I’ve shown my versatility in every game, which is a bonus.”
Oakman credits his mental health as a big reason for his success. He admits there were many deep, dark places that he had to climb out of. Mental health is a daily part of his regiment. He speaks to a mental health professional on a regular basis.
“You have to deal with the trauma that’s not dealt with, and when you’re not dealing with trauma, you’re susceptible to having your buttons pushed and blowing up,” Oakman said. “I was acquitted in February 2019, fresh off of trial, and I was asked to perform at a high level in the XFL. I had to somehow take the baggage of three years of depression, anxiety, all of those other things that come with losing out on being a top-10 pick NFL pick, and you’re fighting against depression and stigmatisms, there was no time to deal with it.
“You’re trying to deal with a situation, while you’re in the midst of that situation. You still have this dark cloud over your head, even though you’re acquitted of all charges. I found out freedom wasn’t free.”
Oakman says he’s finally pleased mental health is being taken seriously by pro athletes. Many, he admits, are still impervious to mental health issues.
“I didn’t know I was in pain, no one ever told me to go to therapy after court, until one of the coaches in the XFL told me to get help,” Oakman said. “Refusing help is not a football mentality. It’s not a Black mentality. It’s an ignorant mentality. Most people that I’m around and I grew up with in the urban, Black community, they’re going to self-medicate for help. They’re not going to think about it.
“Their best avenue is not to think about it. It’s easier to get a $20 bag of weed than it is to pay a therapist a $100 an hour, not knowing that bag of weed isn’t going to help you. It’s temporary satisfaction, instead of digging deep into your own pain. You see the avoidance in the Black community all of the time, and it’s something that really needs to be addressed. There are people out there who need help and don’t realize it.”
After seeking help of his own, Oakman admits he’s having fun playing football again. His journey has taken longer than he thought, but it’s here. He’s among the league leaders in sacks, one behind Winnipeg’s Willie Jefferson, the CFL’s 2019 Defensive Player of the Year (the CFL shut down in 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic).
Oakman likes the wide expanse of the Canadian game. A CFL field is 110 by 65 yards, rather than 100 by 53 1/3 yards in American football. The CFL has 12 players on the field as opposed to 11 in the NFL, and three downs per possession as opposed to the four downs allowed in the NFL.
Warren Moon, the only player in both the CFL and Pro Football Hall of Fame, is a product of the CFL, as is Doug Flutie.
“The CFL is fun, it’s football and to me, I get to play football again, it’s the same game to me,” Oakman said. “The fact that it’s three downs instead of four, it makes the game faster and more competitive. There is a lot of quality talent in the CFL. A lot of defensive linemen and defensive backs are able to get some spots in the NFL.
“For me personally, it’s good to be around the guys again and feeling that you belong makes me feel good. For years, I doubted myself. I used to question whether I belonged, whether I fit in. Now, I’m thinking with a clear mind. I didn’t get a chance to mark my spot in the XFL. I’m getting the chance to show how good I thought I was.
“I’m proving that I can compete against top-level talent. The odds were against me. I would like to think my past is where it belongs, in my past. But I get questions about it all of the time. I will say a lot of guys on my team are proud of how I got through what I faced.”
During a game in Hamilton, a red-faced heckler close to the field was letting Oakman have it. He was calling Oakman a “rapist,” and aiming at his past.
“My teammates had my back,” Oakman said. “It’s all falling into place. My story isn’t finished. I can’t see anything better than winning through the playoffs and winning the Grey Cup. One day this is a book and a movie.”
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Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here: @JSantoliquito.
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