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Keep Grinding…The Story of a Miner on a Mission to Miami

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A conversation with Shannon Needham

On an April Saturday afternoon in Southern California a common football-themed gathering took place in the house of Shannon Needham, Mother of Miami Dolphins rookie cornerback, Nik.

Football fans know this common Spring backdrop during that long April weekend. Family, friends and phones attached to the football prospect as if they were all a part of him.

The prospect waits on a couch, a chair, or paces while staring at that phone. Loved ones and life-long supporters wait to celebrate and embrace the young man whom they have rooted for and cheered for since he was four years old.

There were phone calls on that Saturday in the Needham house, but there wasn’t The Call.

Although Nik Needham’s name was not announced off a draft-card handed to a league official that day, Dolphins fans and now the league were aware that yet another undrafted rookie free agent was making waves in South Florida.

Like many prospects, Nik Needham’s path to the NFL wasn’t easy. However, dissimilar to the majority of those players selected, it almost seemed as if there was an offensive line-like block to his journey.

To understand #40, is to understand that journey, and to understand his journey, is to understand that it all began with the rock in his life, and true best friend; his Mother, Shannon.

Shannon Needham raised Nik in Long Beach, California, and when he was 13, they moved to a coastal town off the Pacific Coast Highway roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego…San Clemente

As a single mom, Shannon instilled her work ethic and passion for football in Nik, as even at the age of four, the cornerback-to-be stated with confidence…

“Mom, I’m going to play in the NFL.”

Like a trip on the PCH, Nik and Shannon’s journey was only just beginning.

Shannon, a Senior Customer Account Manager for Swift Engineering in San Clemente, is a football fanatic in her own right.

Nik’s Father, Steve Calhoun, is and has always been a football player and coach, as he trains quarterbacks and wide-receivers and even had his own glory days at New Mexico State. Calhoun’s experience and guidance no doubt has helped Nik hone the family trade.

Make no mistake about it…this is a football family with a support system guiding Nik on his path in all aspects of the game, and more importantly, life.

Family is important, as is faith to Shannon, Steve and Nik, yet almost equally to those powerful entities is the other “F;”

Football.

Family. Faith. Football.

Faith these days can be a tricky thing, but the power of it through adversity, and how one handles themselves ultimately builds character.

Character stems from family, upbringing and pedigree. Much like football these intangibles matter.

From the earliest of times in Nik’s life, the mantra from his Mother was the same…

“Keep grinding…”

Whether it is in high school, college, pro-days or simply training to sharping his craft, Nik Needham listened to his Mom and Dad…and simply “never stopped.”

In fact, one of Shannon’s closest friends, an Aunt figure to Nik named Lindy Zerboni, asked him to write down the NFL teams he wanted to play for. All this while just a College student at UTEP.

Lindy conveniently had a post-it note in her purse and she confidently slapped it down on the table and asked him to write down his NFL wish list which ironically had Dolphins among the four teams.

I will not disclose the others, but Miami was the lone AFC East team.

Smart kid.

Lindy, along with all the Needhams and Calhouns, are all people who would never think of tarnishing Nik’s NFL dream, and only helped to inspire him to achieve it.

A cornerback since 8th grade, as well as stints as a quarterback and wide receiver and thanks no doubt to his Father’s tutelage, the goal for the Needham family was clear, and that was to get Nik into the National Football League.

It became evident in my talk with Shannon, that there was no “back-up” plan. No contingency for them.

They were, “All-in.”

For a variety of uncontrolled circumstances, Nik attended three high schools prior to his years as a record-breaking ballhawk at UTEP in El Paso, Texas.

Nik, a UTEP Miner, made Shannon a “Miner-Mom,” a title she still proudly acknowledges, as she continues to root for her son’s Alma Mater and former teammates, who were out in droves rooting their “guy” on at his pro-day.

Needham broke the school’s all-time record for pass-breakups.

A major hurdle as a collegiate prospect, was starring on a team his junior and senior year that saw a single win in 23 games. It is not easy standing out and becoming noticed on a team with that poor a record, however, that didn’t stop Needham from working day-in and day-out.

Think about his record, that pass break-up title he owns proudly. He did his job, consistently, for four years. And not a single defender in school history did it better.

During that pro-day, another “hurdle” came in a true physical form, in wind.

Seriously.

For weather aficionados, or if you simply need to fact-check, Needham’s pro day in El Paso saw wind gusts of 75 miles per hour. Not ideal for timed 40-yard dashes where a tenth of a second can mean the difference of millions of dollars, being selected at all, or both.

Prospects were given a chance to run against the wind, and with the wind. Official times were recorded in what was a discretionary way, which only recorded one of those times.

In case you are wondering, Nik’s against the wind 40-time was 4.5 seconds. With the wind, he ran at a 4.3 clip.

If you need proof, just ask one of his best friends; a certain running back in the NFL who is helping fantasy owners win titles this month and plays in Wisconsin.

Have I said too much?

No matter who you ask, whether it is his Mother, his Father, coaches, colleagues or his agent, the words are the same about #40.

As Shannon states, Nik is a young man with the “deepest drive to succeed.”

Many prospects in Nik’s situation would have a visible “chip” on their shoulder-pads.

Not Needham.

His “chip” is unseen and even unheard.

It’s Within.

This invisible “chip,” along with another mantra from his mentor during the NFL Draft process, became a source of strength and more faith.

We control the things that we can control.”

We return to San Clemente on that Saturday afternoon last April.

With rounds passing, and picks running out, the Needham’s knew they were dealing with another living organism deciding Nik’s future.

The NFL draft board is a dynamic, living board, that changes with each pick,” said Shannon.

A truer definition of this selection process had never been uttered to me, especially by an individual who has lived it.

Upon the infamous uttering of the draft’s final pick, “Mr. Irrelevant,” that name was not Needham’s, and his phone, with all of two percent of power remaining, was placed down.

Upon sitting a few inches closer to his best-friend, his rock, his Mother, Nik’s dream was halted as yet another hurdle was thrown before him.

However, with his family around him including his grandfather, Shannon’s Dad, something magical was about to happen.

Nik, one of 15 grandkids, looked at his phone again…some 30 seconds after Mr. Irrelevant was called and almost immediately, forgotten.

As Shannon looked at Nik during the ringing, the young cornerback was about to field the call that would change is life forever…the call he has been waiting for since he dressed up for Halloween as a kid as who else…his Dad wearing his old college jersey.

Nik said to Shannon, “I’m going to take this call.”

Upon putting the phone down once again, his head raised, and he uttered the four words he has been waiting to say….

“I’m going to Miami.”

A phone call from a Miami position coach was the only ticket he needed.

It was a chance.

Seconds after that call, Needham’s agent told the family “this was the perfect opportunity for Nik.”

Nik did it, he got his call, but Phase II of the journey was just about to begin.

Word was getting around, and scouts, coaches, journalists and guys like me started to notice what Shannon, the Needham’s, and their core support system always knew.

Needham is an “instinctive” and “cerebral” player.

Speed. Smarts. (Ball) Skills.

After highs and lows in training camp and the preseason schedule, Nik was one of the last Dolphins cut, as the roster was trimmed to 53 men. A brutally close touch to a dream, only to have a window temporarily lowered, but not shut.

This was not the end, just another hurdle.

Nik did what only his agent and Mother suggested from months prior.

“Control the things that we can control.”

And he did.

He got his nutrition better, his workouts harder, and hit his football studies heavier.

He was called up to the 53-man roster on October 13th against the Washington Redskins.

As the Needhams now continue their journey, Shannon will say this confidently….

No matter, “what’s next,” her son will handle his business as he always has.

“Never complaining and never showing emotion.”

His play has been and will forever do the talking.

Even as recently as last Sunday, as a controversial reversal of a call cost the Dolphins a game, an out of context quote painted the wise-beyond-his-years rookie in a false narrative.

Statistically, as many people love to focus on, here is a fun combo-stat…

With an interception, a sack and a forced fumble already to his credit, I am very curious to see how many undrafted rookies can claim that “triple-single” in just 9 career games as Needham has done.

It is becoming clearer that the Dolphins don’t just have a terrific prospect but also a terrific person, who comes from the same such people. Like football, pedigree is an intangible at times more valuable than 40-times, cone drills and the most uncontrollable individual measurable in sports…height.

None if it matters, and it seems in the Needham household, none of it ever did.

Nik Needham’s path is now clearer, but not at all complete. With the realization that this game is a business, the Needham’s are the right family to implore their faith into the game they all love.

The main take away from my conversation with Shannon was simply this…

Nik Needham’s NFL journey has only just begun, and no matter what hurdles are thrown his way, there is a certainty on how he will handle himself…

He will, “Keep Grinding…and never stop.”

AP