FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Brandon Shell remembers all the lonely days as a youngster when he was afraid to talk to anyone.
The New York Jets right tackle was uncertain which words would make it past his lips — or how they’d sound. Shell knew exactly what to expect, however, the moment his stutter would tangle his tongue and leave him struggling to form the most basic of sentences.
“The kids would always laugh at me and they’d be like, ‘Get the word out!'” Shell recalled after practice Friday. “I used to get so nervous and I would start sweating and I’d just shut down and not want to talk to anybody. That’s why I’m kind of quiet now, but I’m kind of coming out of my shell as I get older.”
It has taken time for the 25-year-old mountain of a man to feel comfortable working around the speech impediment that he still deals with daily.
The 6-foot-5, 324-pound Shell is the great-nephew of Hall of Famer Art Shell and in his second season in the NFL after being drafted in the fifth round out of the University of South Carolina last year. He has earned the starting job at right tackle, and with that has come increased interview requests — something that would have frozen Shell in his tracks just a few years ago.
“I feel like I kind of overcame it because now I’m at the point in my life where there’s no use in me hiding anything,” Shell said in an interview with The Associated Press. “If I stutter, I stutter. It’s life. I have to accept it. It’s something I was dealt.”
Shell had never publicly discussed his struggles with stuttering because he always preferred to let his playing speak for him. But he opened up to the AP after appearing in a recent TV spot with the Jets and STOMP Out Bullying, which is a national anti-bullying and cyberbullying organization for kids and teens in the United States.
“Everybody has flaws,” Shell said. “Some people’s flaws might not stick out as much as other people’s flaws, but they just need to accept people and not joke on people all the time because you don’t know somebody’s background story. You don’t know what somebody’s going through outside of school or outside of home.
“Everybody should take that in consideration before they start joking on people or bullying people.”
Shell speaks from experience — particularly those brutal days in middle school and high school in South Carolina when he would rather be alone than be made fun of and embarrassed.
The worst moments came when he’d be called on in class to read aloud a passage from a textbook.
“I couldn’t get the words out,” Shell said. “I could see the words, but I just couldn’t get them out.”
That’s when the nasty nicknames would come: Jolly Green Giant, Big Softy, Big Teddy Bear — and worse.
“Even though you’re big, people are going to pick on you because of your size,” Shell said. “That’s just a given. I really didn’t talk a lot, so I was kind of quiet, so that would give them even more. Then, with my reading, that would give them even more.
“I mean, I got picked on a lot.”
And one day, he couldn’t take it anymore. A fellow classmate started teasing him in the lunchroom and the 13-year-old Shell snapped.
“I got up and just hit him,” Shell said. “At that point, I was just tired of it. Then, I realized that was not the way to go about it.”
Shell was suspended from school for four days, and used that time to think of a new approach — that didn’t include his fists.
“I just took it and bottled it all up and just ran with it and went on with my life,” he said. “I can’t let what people say about me stop me from doing what I want to do.”
Football became a safe haven for Shell, who developed into an outstanding offensive lineman for Goose Creek High School. He was a four-star prospect who was ranked as the third-best player in the state of South Carolina and the fourth-best offensive tackle in the country.
He received offers from several college programs, including Alabama and Clemson, but chose to stay close to home and play at South Carolina. Shell took speech therapy in middle school and high school, but speech classes in college started building his confidence.
Incredibly, there’s little evidence of Shell’s stutter in video interviews posted on South Carolina’s football page. Even during a nearly 20-minute sit-down with the AP, Shell never noticeably stumbled on his words.
“I work better when people ask me questions and I answer because I can get my pause in when they ask me the question and I can think about it, and then I speak in a word form that I want to put it in,” Shell explained. “So, it’s kind of easier that way, instead of me reading something that’s in a form that someone else put it in.”
Shell said his speech impediment sometimes surfaces, particularly when he gets excited. But the days of being paralyzed with fear and distancing himself from others are over.
When he returns home in the offseason, he still runs into some of the same people who used to make fun of him. Shell finds it funny how they try to buddy up to him, now that he’s an NFL player. But he remembers everything they said, and he’ll always use it as fuel — and a reminder to never let himself be stopped by anyone’s words.
Or, his own.
“Back in the day, you used to make fun of them,” Shell said. “I don’t want to sound arrogant or cocky, but look at me now. I took all the bullying you all threw at me and all the criticism and everything you threw at me, but I made it to where I wanted to go in life.
“It all made me stronger along the way.”