Shawn Hibbard looked into the belly of a shark, and knew his life could be different. He was three years old.
SSG Hibbard worked as a sniper, supporting route clearance in Afghanistan. Over 36 months of deployments he suffered four concussions. He recently sat on a panel alongside two former NFL players, Commissioner Roger Goodell, several brain injury experts, and Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno, to talk about mild traumatic brain injury. After that, he helped us out with our latest “RECON”, called “IMPACT” –about how TBI affects players and soldiers. Way before that, Shawn lived with his mom, his aunt, his brothers and his cousins at Bob Sandy’s Trailer Park in Stephens City, Virginia.
“There were six kids and two adults living in that trailer,” Hibbard told me. “I remember riding my bike around, playing a lot. We were told not to go in certain trailers or houses because of the drugs. There were lots of sketchy people.”
His mother was no stranger to the local culture.
“She was an addict. I always had cigarette burns on my legs and ribs. Once she cut me with a knife.”
So one day the brothers, six-year- old Paul, four- year- old Tommy and the three- year -old Shawn, hatched a plan. They would escape, and make their home in the belly of the 60-foot shark they’d seen at Dinosaurland.
“My cousins helped us. They made us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and filled a thermos with Kool-
And the threesome set out. About a quarter mile down the road they stopped at a house to ask directions. The family pointed them in the direction of the park, asking no questions of the shirtless, shoeless trio.
Soon, only a fence stood between the boys and the belly. Shawn, the youngest but biggest, went over along with Tommy. But Paul had epilepsy and cerebral palsy and couldn’t make it on his own. It was while they were pushing Paul over, the police arrived. Shawn tried to make a run for it, but in the end they all wound up in the back seat of the cruiser. As they sat at the police barracks eating their sandwiches, social services quietly took over. His brothers were eventually adopted by a family in Pennsylvania. Shawn spent the next several years in foster care. At the end of his first decade, he thought he’d finally found a home, but his adoptive mother was both physically and mentally abusive. Four years later he was back in foster care, living with Greg and Peggy Holt.
“That’s who I call mom and dad,” he says of the Holts, who, when Shawn turned 17 agreed to allow him to join the Army Reserves.
“I wanted to take ownership of my life… for the first time I could say this was something I was doing for myself rather than obeying a court order,” Hibbard said. “I was used to being a protector so it’s a natural role for me. I like leading by example and showing that I care about my soldiers.”
He also devotes hours each week to at-risk kids, mentoring them mostly in sports. He’s forming a baseball league for kids near Winchester, Virginia. And he coaches a few local football up-and-comers individually. There aren’t a lot of experienced coaches in the area and the schools can’t always give them the right kind of exposure. So Shawn watches out for them, making sure they get the right kind of advice and maybe better invitations to teams and sports camps.
“I can relate to the kids’ problems. If I can do it they can. No excuses. They have the cards they were dealt. They can either lay them down and give up or they can fight for the hand they need.”
Shawn says no one expected that he would one day have a successful career and a family.
“I see myself in every kid. Because I didn’t have the childhood a lot of kids have.“
Shawn Hibbard may not have made it into the shark’s mouth that summer day in 1982. But he’s been to the Belly of the Beast and come out all the better for himself, his soldiers and the kids he coaches.
To see more of Shawn’s story and learn more about Traumatic Brain Injuries among the military and members of the NFL, click here.