Nov. 11, 1999
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - As Virginia's largest player, it makes perfect sense that defensive tackle Johnny Shivers wears the highest playing uniform number possible--number 99. Yet, when trying to find Shivers on the football field, the easiest way is not to look for his jersey number but to search for a lone fist exhibiting the number one symbol. Whenever he thinks the team appears to be playing flat and needs a spark, it is not uncommon to see Shivers proudly pumping his fist high in the air. Without warning, Shivers is apt to do whatever it takes to get his teammates fired up and into the game. His celebratory dances, spirited hand gestures, and broad smiles all show his high level of enthusiasm towards the game. For Shivers, the constant show of emotion is his way of letting everyone know he is just happy to be playing football again.
Last season, he did not play due to personal reasons, and he could only watch as his teammates won nine games and earned a trip to the Peach Bowl. Away from football for a year, Shivers soon understood exactly how much the sport really meant to him. He returned in 1999 with a renewed passion for the game.
"I was unhappy that I could not be a part of the great things that happened last year. Once football was taken away, I realized I had taken it for granted, said Shivers. "It's a tough game, but I would not trade it for anything else. I'm rejuvenated and it's great to be doing the things I've been doing for so many years."
Before missing the 1998 season, Shivers played in 23 consecutive games, including the 1996 Carquest Bowl. After the year-long layoff, the fifth-year senior returned in 1999 30 pounds heavier, and his physical condition was a concern. With the extra weight, the coaches worried he would not be able to take nearly as many snaps as he did in 1997. He began the season behind sophomore Monsanto Pope, but after eight plays in the opener against North Carolina, Pope went down with a knee injury. Ever since then, Shivers has been asked to play more snaps than Coach Welsh had initially intended, and the Fort Lauderdale, Florida native has answered the challenge by posting a career best season.
"I think he has played pretty well for us," said Coach Welsh. "He is a pretty good athlete and he has given us better play now than he ever has, so that's a bonus."
After only eight games, his 1999 statistics are already better than any other single season total from his previous three years. He has registered 38 total tackles, including 17 solo stops. Three weeks ago against N.C. State, he recorded his first ever fumble recovery. As one of Virginia's most experienced defensive players, Shivers knew the coaches would expect him to set a precedent for the younger players to follow. His increased productivity is a direct result of a positive attitude and the proper frame of mind.
"I'm one of the fifth-year seniors, so I definitely knew I was going to be one of the many guys who had to step up and get the job done," said Shivers. "As an athlete, you want to be out there as much as possible and you want to contribute as much as you can. You always want to give as much as you can give and no less."
Like Shivers, every Cavalier wants desperately to stay healthy and contribute as much as they can towards helping the team win. Unfortunately, injury has plagued Virginia's defense this season and forced several key players out of action. Five defensive starters have missed at least one or more games, and several others have played at less than full strength due to nagging injuries. Though the Cavalier defense remains depleted, Shivers knows they must do whatever it takes to work through the adverse circumstances.
"It definitely hurts to lose those guys, because those are the players we need and expected to be here," said Shivers. "Unfortunately, misfortune has brought other things, and I know they would love to be playing or be at 100%. We just have to deal with it."
With so many experienced players either injured or reduced to limited action, the Cavaliers must now rely on several freshmen and sophomores to handle a large portion of the defensive duties. The younger players constantly look to Shivers and the other seniors for guidance and advice. Though the players and coaches ask him to serve as a leader, Shivers knows this role does not make him any more important than anyone else on the team. He understands it takes 100 percent effort from all 11 players to achieve success. The playing field serves as the ultimate equalizer among men, and as the Cavaliers enter their ninth game of the season, Shivers no longer sees having players with less experience as a liability.
"It's not just me, and it's not just the fifth-year seniors--we're all a team and each person is an integral part. Everybody has to step up regardless if they are a true freshman or [a more experienced player]," said Shivers. "Each player made it to this level because they are good and able-bodied. By this point in the season, [the younger players] definitely know what is going on and don't need to be babied. Everything is pretty much equal when you are out there, and you can't use age or experience as an excuse."
Though his football career at Virginia did not always go exactly as planned, Shivers harbors no regrets. After missing the 1998 season, he returned in '99 focused and recommitted to football. The fifth year senior increased his output and raised his game to new levels exactly when the Cavaliers needed him most. Shivers continues to act as a mainstay in a defense riddiled with injury and misfortune. Through it all, he remains the same up-beat, happy-go-lucky type person that proudly trots off the field pumping his fist and extended index finger high above his head.
As serious as ever about football, Shivers knows his number-one priority on the field is to always enjoy the game. "In order to be a good defense, you've got to go out there and have fun. That's what it is all about," said Shivers. "The practices and training exercises are the hard part. Once you get out [on the field], that is what all the hard work and preparation is for--the games are the fun part."