For the past seven years of his life, Shane Austin has chased it.
Not a record or a championship or money – all Austin has ever wanted is a shot. And for seven years, life has told him, “No.”
Whether due to ill-timed injuries or the record-breaking quarterback in front of him, Austin’s University of Hawai‘i football career concluded with just two starts in five years.
“Having to be the backup throughout my career was tough,” Austin said. “Obviously you have plans for yourself when you commit to a college to be the (starter) at some point. … There were some times where it was kinda tough; where you’re not playing and you’re wondering, ‘What else do I gotta do to prove myself?’”
But Austin didn’t let his dream of playing professional football die. After graduating, he started small and played for an Indoor Football League team, which he parlayed into an opportunity with the Arena Football League.
Now, after enduring another major injury and being relegated to backup twice more, Austin has finally found that elusive chance with the AFL’s Cleveland Gladiators.
The former Warrior has meteorically risen to top of the league, throwing for 880 yards and 18 touchdowns against two interceptions. He has also rushed for five more scores, and his team’s record remains unblemished after five games.
“You would have never expected him to start off on something like this, just pure stat-wise,” Gladiators head coach Steve Thonn said. “I think we expected him to play well; that’s not a surprise to us at all. But then to have the kind of stats he has now, when you really look at it, he’s done a great job.”
STRANDED ON THE SIDELINES
After spending his first two years at UH redshirting and with the scout team, Austin challenged for the starting job as a sophomore in 2009 when senior Greg Alexander was lost for the year with a knee injury.
While Austin did lead UH to victory over San Jose State, offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich and the rest of the Hawai‘i coaching staff decided to put the Warriors’ season in the hands of Fresno City College transfer Bryant Moniz.
“When we first got there in 2008, it didn't take that many throws to see that Shane Austin can make all the throws in the offense,” Rolovich said. “I didn’t think we were gonna go out and recruit a quarterback that could do it better than him, so we really fought to get him on scholarship.”
The coaches’ decision to go with Moniz was the third haymaker that life had thrown at Austin in a 19-month span.
In April 2008, he broke his foot on the final play of the Warrior Bowl scrimmage. Then, one day before the beginning of 2009 fall camp, Austin was involved in a moped accident that “got all the skin off of my hands.”
“I had to try to push through camp with gloves on. I know some guys can do the gloves and throw … but I’m not much of a glove guy,” Austin said. “I felt inaccurate, didn’t feel comfortable. It definitely threw off my game. I didn’t have a very good camp. I don’t blame it on the hands and the moped accident, but it definitely threw things off.
“I’m a big believer in ‘everything happens for a reason.’ So there’s a reason that that moped incident happened one day before camp. And at the time it’s tough to swallow and (say) ‘Why is this happening to me?’ But it’s part of my journey.”
Austin challenged for the starting role in 2010, but it ultimately remained with Moniz, who went on to lead the nation with 5,040 yards and 39 touchdowns.
Austin, meanwhile, threw just 33 passes that season. Although Rolovich, who is now the offensive coordinator at Nevada, insists that Austin could have matched Moniz’s numbers.
“Shane could have easily been a multi-year starter at the University of Hawai‘i,” Rolovich said. “Him and Moniz came in and they were in the same class, and they had good battles. And (Shane) was probably the best backup quarterback in the nation.”
Still, there was little doubt as to who would start in the quarterbacks’ senior season, as UH launched a “Bryant Moniz for Heisman” campaign. Austin, meanwhile, considered transferring somewhere he would be able to play.
But outside of his time on the Aloha Stadium sidelines, he was too happy to leave. A combination of factors that included the local community, O‘ahu's beaches and his still-current girlfriend, former Rainbow Wahine basketball star Megan Tinnin, made life in Hawai‘i well-worth staying for.
“Going through the challenges and adversity and stuff – it definitely strengthened my character, and it prepared me for things later on in life,” Austin said. “Regardless of how tough some situations might have been throughout my college career, I can look back and be grateful for that.”
But what really convinced him to stay was the bond he shared with his teammates, who continued to admire him though he was essentially chained to the sideline.
“I learned a lot from him when I was a freshman,” said current UH receiver Scott Harding. “Everyone looked up to him. He was always a ‘senior guy.’ He had great relationships with the receivers and the other quarterbacks.”
When a broken tibia ended Moniz’s season with three games remaining, Austin was finally thrust into the limelight. But his tenure as UH’s starter lasted just one quarter at Fresno State, as his lukewarm performance resulted in sophomore David Graves taking over.
Though Austin played in the Warriors’ two remaining games, it was Graves who started both under center.
“I wish they gave him a shot his last year. I thought he deserved to be the guy after Moniz got hurt,” said current UH quarterback Jeremy Higgins, a transfer from Utah State at the time. “But Shane was awesome. He was a really good teammate. He helped me with the reads, and he was nothing but helpful for me when I first got here.”
AUDITIONING FROM THE BOTTOM
With few teams willing to take a chance on a career backup quarterback, Austin found his professional options sparse after leaving UH. It wasn’t until the Indoor Football League called that Austin had an opportunity to lace up his cleats again.
Desperate for a quarterback after their starter was picked up by the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, the IFL’s Everett Raptors immediately signed Austin, who had time for just one practice before starting in Nebraska.
“I had no idea about the indoor game and the rules and how it worked and all that stuff,” he said. “So not only did I have to learn a whole new offensive playbook and meet new teammates and stuff, I had to learn the game.”
A far cry from the glamour typically associated with professional football, Austin saw his brief episode with the Raptors – a financially doomed organization that folded after that season – as a path to greater opportunities.
“There’s still a lot of talent (in the players). It was just the other stuff, like the pay and the living situation,” he said. “All that stuff is very humbling: not having a locker room, having to bring your pads to and from practice.”
ENTERING THE ARENA
Because of his limited playing time at UH, Austin’s IFL experience had primarily been a way to get in-game tape of himself to send to teams in other leagues. This film was enough to earn Austin a contract with the Pittsburgh Power of the Arena Football League, the highest level of indoor football.
But fate once again derailed Austin’s progress when he broke his hand, which caused him to miss about two months of Pittsburgh’s 2013 season.
“That was tough because that was the first time I missed actual games from (injury),” Austin said. “That’s another test of character: knowing that you should be on the field but you can’t because you’ve got an injury holding you back.”
Austin was able to play in 11 games for the Power, but the team went 4-14 and he was assigned to Cleveland for the following season.
SEIZING HIS MOMENT
Following training camp, Austin’s situation with the Gladiators had regressed to what he faced at Hawai‘i. With returning starter Chris Dieker retaining his spot, Austin was once again left holding the clipboard.
But everything changed in the second week of the season when Cleveland fell behind by 17 at halftime, and Thonn turned to his backup to salvage the game.
“We just really needed the spark,” Thonn said. “Chris was really struggling (in) the first half. We just really couldn’t get anything. It wasn’t all Chris’ fault, but we could not get anything going at all.”
Finally given the shot that had eluded him for seven years, Austin revitalized an offense that managed just three first-half points. He threw for 182 yards and accounted for five touchdowns as the Gladiators outscored New Orleans 34-6 in the second half of their comeback victory.
In the following weeks, Austin has continued to torment opposing defenses, earning himself two AFL MVP of the Week honors despite starting in just three games.
Austin credits the run and shoot offense that he played in at Hawai‘i for helping to translate his game to the AFL’s air-it-out style.
“In that offense you have to read a lot of defensive coverages,” he said. “There’s all these routes that can change on the fly. And it really taught me how to read defenses better, where maybe (in) another system, I might not have gained that knowledge that I did at UH.”
Thonn, a nine-year AFL head coach, also recognizes that playing in such a pass-centric system has helped Austin acclimate to the indoor game.
“I’m sure they had a lot of hot reads and had to get rid of the ball quicker than maybe other outdoor teams,” Thonn said. “Just coming from Hawai‘i, you’re gonna make those quicker decisions and get rid of the ball quicker. So I’m sure coming from that offense has definitely helped him in arena football.”
In an 18-week regular season, Austin remains unsatisfied with a month of success. For him, every game is an opportunity to prove himself – and not just to the league that he currently plays in.
Finally in a position to put his talent on display, Austin’s dream of someday making it to the NFL has never seemed so tangible.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if someone gave him a shot at an NFL (training) camp, cause he’s got a great arm, a great touch. He’s got good footwork,” Rolovich said. “And the best thing about Shane: He believes he’s gonna be great. And he always did.”
Regardless of whether he makes it to the pinnacle of professional football, Austin’s journey has revealed more about him than could ever be displayed on 100 yards of grass.
“Shane came to Hawai‘i as a walk-on. He’s always been a fighter,” Rolovich said. “A lot of guys give up after what he’s been through. A lot of guys don’t even come to UH if they have to walk on. He loves the game, he believes in himself and that’s gonna get him so far in this football world and in life.”
For Austin, life, as it has been since before he even enrolled at Hawai‘i, revolves around football. And finally, every injury suffered and every minute spent preparing for games that he would never play in has paid off.
“I definitely know how it feels to be the backup and all that, so I definitely appreciate the spot that I’m in,” Austin said. “I know that I can’t take it for granted. I know it can be taken any moment from me in this game. One play can change anything.”