Shawn Oakman is thriving after a fresh start in the CFL and still has NFL dreams

Six years ago, Shawn Oakman was a famous viral meme resembling a 10-foot-tall cyborg in a Baylor helmet of gold, ready to smash an entire city with a single stroke of his right hand. A year later, the 2011 Penn Wood nominee was expected to go high in the NFL Draft. On April 3, 2016, he was charged with sexual assault. A few weeks later, he heard the eerie metallic clatter of iron prison doors closed behind him.

On February 28, 2019, he was acquitted of all charges.

Tonight, he lays his right hand down on the frozen BMO Field grass in Toronto, Canada, and does what he does best: Use his massive 6-foot-9, 287-pound frame to chase an opposing quarterback for the East Division-leading Toronto Argonauts from the Canadian Football League in their regular season finals.

Through 13 games, Oakman is in eighth place in the CFL with six sacks, and as a defensive lineman, he is in fifth place on Argos with 37 tackles. His six sacks lead the team and double what the nearest defender has.

It all took time. The 29-year-old spent more than a couple of years wondering if he would ever get the chance to play professional football. A few NFL teams asked, but with his past hovering over him, despite his acquittal, they never followed up. Oakman had a brief stint in the late XFL.

Two years ago, he dreamed that his life would go in this direction.

Now he actually lives it.

“It’s still surreal to me because I’ve never been able to live in the moment,” said Oakman, who graduated from Baylor in December 2015 with a degree in kinesiology. “I’m learning to take it one day at a time. When I was in the XFL, my mental state was not, as it is now, only six months from probation. It’s like a fresh start.

“In the last four games, I’ve been able to break down the hypocrisy and take on more of a leadership role, and that’s how I got away with Baylor. It feels new. It feels fresh, like I should be here. I have not “given up hope of playing in the NFL. I feel like I’ve shown my versatility in every game, which is a bonus.”

Oakman credits his mental health as a major reason for his success. He admits that there were many deep, dark places that he had to climb out of. Mental health is a daily part of his regiment. He talks to a mental health professional regularly.

“You have to deal with the trauma that is not being treated, and when you are not dealing with trauma, you are susceptible to having your buttons pressed and blown up,” Oakman said. “I was acquitted in February 2019, fresh after a lawsuit, 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 the other things, included If you lose out on being a top-10 NFL selection and you fight depression and stigma, there was no time to deal with it.

“You are trying to deal with a situation while you are in the middle of that situation. You still have this dark cloud over your head even though you have been acquitted of all charges. I found out that freedom was not free.”

Oakman says he is finally happy that mental health is being taken seriously by professional athletes. Many, he admits, are still susceptible to mental health problems.

“I did not know I was in pain, no one ever asked me to go to therapy after court until one of the XFL coaches told me to get help,” Oakman said. “Denying help is not a football mentality. It’s not a black mentality. It’s an ignorant mentality. Most people I’m around and I grew up with in the urban, black society want to self-medicate to get help. They will not think about it.

“Their best option is not to think about it. It’s easier to get a $ 20 bag of grass than it is to pay a therapist $ 100 an hour without knowing that that bag of grass will not help you. It’s temporary. satisfaction, instead of digging deep into your own pain.You see the avoidance in the black community all the time and it’s something that really needs to be addressed.There are people out there who need help and are not aware that.”

Shawn-Oakman-1_111621Toronto Argonauts / Courtesy

Toronto Argonauts edge rusher Shawn Oakman.

After seeking his own help, Oakman admits he’s having fun playing football again. His journey has taken longer than he thought, but it’s here. He is among the league leaders in sacks, one behind Winnipeg’s Willie Jefferson, CFL’s 2019 Defensive Player of the Year (CFL shut down in 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic).

Oakman likes the wide surface of the Canadian game. A CFL field is 110 times 65 yards instead of 100 times 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.

“CFL is fun, it’s football, and for me I’m going to play football again, it’s the same game for me,” Oakman said. “The fact that it’s three downs instead of four makes the game faster and more competitive. There’s 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 to feel that you belong makes me feel good. For years, I doubted myself. I used to question whether I belonged, if I fit in. Now I think with a clear mind. I did not get a chance to mark my place in the XFL. I get the chance to show how good I thought I was.

“I prove I can compete against top-level talent. The odds were against me. I want to think my past is where it belongs, in my past. But I get questions about it all the time. I want to say, that many guys on my team are proud of how I got through what I was facing. “

During a fight in Hamilton, a red-faced heckler near the field let Oakman get it. He called Oakman a “rapist” and aimed at his past.

“My teammates had my back,” Oakman said. “It all falls into place. My story is not finished. I can see nothing better than winning through the playoffs and winning the gray cup. One day this is a book and a movie.”

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Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sports writer based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here: @JSantoliquito.


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