Stephen Shelley is the type of guy who, when getting wheeled into the operating room for brain surgery, wears a big, bright smile.
“That’s just me, man. I really wasn’t worried,” Shelley insists. “I knew I was going to be OK. I can’t tell you why, but that’s how I felt.”
The picture of Shelley smiling from his hospital bed was taken last summer, mere minutes before surgeons extracted a malignant tumor from the back of his head.
The 47-year-old former Fresno State receiver needed a second surgery in December to remove a piece of skull that had become infected and now awaits a third for doctors to fill in the hole with a molded replica.
“Hopefully I can have this last surgery, mend for a month and then get back to enjoying my life and helping kids,” he says.
“I just want to continue to be Stephen Shelley. Just bring some sun into the world every time I get up.”
Let’s all hope so. Our community needs people like Shelley.
Though he’s been unable to return to his job, Shelley works for Clovis Unified School District as a student relations liaison. His task is to connect with fifth- through 12th-graders who have problems with discipline or attendance. He tries to engage with them and hold them accountable but in a way that’s non-threatening or authoritarian.
Here’s how Shelley describes what he does: “Motivating kids, changing their way of thinking and being a positive role model by setting a good example.”
“A pied piper for kids” is what Buchanan High principal Ricci Ulrich calls him.
“The moment Stephen comes on campus the kids flock to him,” Ulrich says. “When he worked in the library for a year there were kids in there who never visited the library.”
Prior to Clovis Unified, Shelley worked as a dropout prevention counselor at Carter G. Woodson Public Charter School. Before that, he taught physical education at Sunnyside High. He has coached at Buchanan, Edison, Sunnyside and Roosevelt. He guided three younger brothers to college football and his nephew, Greg Smith, to the NBA.
Shelley has helped people like Janae Glaude of Fresno, a 27-year-old working on her teaching credential.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but seeing how he touches kids and connects with them made me want to do that, too,” Glaude says. “He gets on their level, knows how to talk to them and make them feel good about themselves. It’s a special gift.”
And people like 29-year-old Byron Bourgeois of Sanger, a married, employed father of two, who says: “I could’ve easily gone down the wrong path without (Shelley) being a part of my life.”
Shelley’s own life hasn’t been the same since June 10, the day he came home from work with a throbbing headache he’d been experiencing off and on for a month.
Unable to take his son to baseball practice, Shelley instead climbed into bed. The pain got so bad he eventually called 911 and was taken to Clovis Community Medical Center, where a nurse told him the CT scan had “found something” he knew instinctively was a tumor.
The following day Shelley was taken to Regional Medical Center of San Jose, where neurosurgeon Ali Shirzadi removed the cancerous, pebble-sized growth from behind his right ear.
“In one day everything completely changed,” Shelley says. “Just like that. It all happened so fast.”
The road to recovery hasn’t been easy for Shelley, his wife, Kenya, or their two children: 15-year-old daughter Mi-Angel and 12-year-old son Stephen Jr.
The family relocated to San Jose for two months following Stephen’s initial surgery, but that decision cost Kenya her job at a Clovis assisted living center. Bills started to pile up, so she started Internet fundraising on her husband’s behalf at gofundme.com.
And wouldn’t you know it? Donations began pouring in. They came from members of the Bulldogs football community (Shelley played receiver from 1988-89 and caught a 91-yard touchdown pass from Mark Barsotti in the 1989 California Raisin Bowl) and former students he’s helped along the way.
About $22,000 has been raised that helped the Shelleys cover their expenses in San Jose while maintaining their house in Clovis. To keep his paycheck coming after all the sick days and vacation days ran out, fellow employees at Clovis Unified contributed months’ worth of their own.
“It’s been amazing,” Kenya Shelley says. “I knew people loved him, but it took something like this for me to understand how much.”
On the gofundme.com account, Shelley has received 177 total donations. The largest was $3,000 (from the son of an African billionaire — yup, the check cleared) and several as small as $5.
“I guess it was good that I’ve been a good guy who helped a lot of kids,” Shelley says. “Now those kids are helping me.”
Shelley underwent a second surgery in December to remove a piece of skull the size of a small cookie that had become infected. Fortunately, the infection did not spread to the rest of his brain.
An operation is scheduled Feb. 26 to replace the missing piece of skull. He also has to finish chemotherapy treatments, which were halted due to the infection.
In the meantime, Shelley’s been instructed to wear a protective helmet anytime he leaves the house. Which he rarely does.
“He’s hard-headed,” Kenya Shelley says, “except for that one spot.”
Even though doctors have told Shelley it’s possible the tumor could return in the future, he isn’t about to dwell on that.
Instead, he’s focused on clearing this one final hurdle before returning to his old life.
“There’s a reason I’m still here. I’ve got a lot of work to do. People need that positive, bubbly energy. They need a guy with a smile on his face.”
A guy like Stephen Shelley.