"I lost more fights than I won," he concedes.
He has no idea how many of either there were. He counts five concussions. He cannot bring his pinky fingers in line with his ring fingers. He sometimes throws out his shoulder in his sleep. His knee has never healed properly from an injury to his MCL. One psychiatrist determined he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, the PTSD that haunts so many Canadian soldiers who have seen action in Afghanistan; another has diagnosed him with acute stress reaction.
He sometimes wakes in the morning with his shoulders and hands sore, knowing he has been "fighting" again in his sleep, pounding pillow, bedding, headboard. He has trouble being alone.
Carson Shields was born on the first day of spring in 1988. He was both the fourth child and, in a way, an only child, his parents having divorced their original partners years earlier and begun a new marriage when each already had a daughter. Full brother David is 14 years older. Carson was a welcome and warmly welcomed surprise.
Larry Shields had been a star halfback and rookie of the year in the Manitoba-Saskatchewan Junior Football League. With the University of Manitoba Bisons, he was a Western Conference all-star. In one faded clipping, head coach George Depres called Larry "the fiercest, most competitive player he had ever coached."
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers invited Larry to their CFL camp but the stark realities of life – a baby on the way – made teaching physical education in nearby Selkirk a more secure proposition. It was here, later, that Larry and Carol met.
In Winnipeg, the Shields lived in a good neighbourhood with good schools. Carson was an excellent student, winner of awards and admired by his teachers. He looked out for an autistic classmate in the schoolyard and picked up the nickname “the Friendly Giant” – the big-hearted kid who had time for everyone.
“He was a real joy as a child,” Larry says.
And he was mad for sports. His parents put him in tae kwon do to burn off his endless energy. Summers were spent at the family cabin on Lake of the Woods. In winter, the youngster took to hockey, with Larry determined not to be as pushy a hockey parent as he felt he had been with David a dozen years earlier.
Larry Shields had walked away from a possible football career and the experience had stuck with him. Even to this day, he sometimes has a nightmare in which he is running up a hill while everyone else in the dream is running right past him, leaving him behind.
“I didn’t want him to go through life wondering, ‘What if?’” Larry says.
Larry knew if he just sat in the stands he was still having an effect on his sensitive youngest child. Carson says, even from the first, he was acutely aware of even the slightest hand gesture or roll of the eyes from his father. There were tough rides home but never once, Carson says, did he doubt his father “loved me” and wanted only for the child to succeed.
At 10, Carson tried out for the AA Assiniboine Park Rangers and made the team. Jonathan Toews, now captain of the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, was captain and best player. Frazer McLaren, now a hulking forward for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was also on the team.
“I was the worst player on the team,” Carson says, “ but we won everything. That was the last time I truly enjoyed going to the rink.”
He played for other minor hockey teams – captain on one – and went to the Kelowna Rockets camp after bantam, but could not make the WHL. He knew he had been invited to the camp because of his soaring penalty numbers, not his skill. Will, unfortunately, was not quite enough to crack a lineup that would go to the Memorial Cup.
“He was a boy with average abilities,” Larry says. “Not a star but a good, good teammate. He was willing to do whatever it takes to continue playing. And I wanted to support that – maybe too much so.”
Carson decided to play for the Kelvin High School team in Winnipeg, where he was coached by Bruce Sirrell, a physical education teacher at the school locals call “Hollywood High.” Carson captained the team.