MUSKEGON – It’s an old story that millions of talented young men have experienced in their lives.

They have big dreams, lots of drive and their futures look bright – then fatherhood suddenly becomes a reality.

For Willie Shanks, there was no question about what he had to do.

He was a former All-Stater at Muskegon High School who helped the Big Reds win a state football championship in 2017 with a school-record 10 interceptions that season.

He had two years under his belt with the Ferris State University football team, and his best days of college football were still ahead.

Ironmen safety Willie Shanks with his three-year-old son Willie Shanks III.

But he left college and came home to Muskegon to work and be with his little boy, who is now a happy 3-year-old named Willie Shanks III.

Shanks does not regret what he gave up for his son, because good dads make sacrifices for their children. That’s just the way it is.

But he missed football a great deal and it affected him emotionally.

“It was very tough,” said Shanks, commonly known as Bo, about leaving the Ferris State program. “It was hard. The coaches there treated me like family. There was a good vibe, a good chemistry in the program. Then, boom, I had a kid, and I knew I had to give up my dreams for him.”

The story has a happy update, however, because Shanks discovered that football didn’t have to be a thing of the past, after all.  He was encouraged to try out for the West Michigan Ironmen this season, quickly made the team and earned a starting position as a defense back, then made his mark on the field right away.

Shanks returns an interception for a touchdown in the Ironmen’s season opener. Photo/Jeremy Clark

Shanks had three interceptions – including two pick-sixes – in West Michigan’s 81-6 season-opening victory over the Ohio Blitz on March 4.

Now, after a week off, Shanks and his teammates can’t wait to hit the field again this Saturday night in a home game against the Battle Creek Smoke.

“It brought a smile back to my face,” Shanks said about his first game with the Ironmen. “I hadn’t really been smiling a lot lately. Once I dropped football I went through sort of a depression phase. This has brought happiness back to me.”

The Ironmen are certainly very happy to have Shanks on the roster.

He stood out right away in training camp as a cornerback, then shortly before the first game the coaches decided to move him to the lone safety position, which comes with a lot of responsibility.

Shanks (22) leaps to try to block a kick in the Ironmen win over Ohio. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“He came to our open try out and we recognized his talent right out of the gate,” said Ironmen general manager/head coach Nate Smith. “He was actually a corner in practice, then Coach (Damion) Gregory decided he wanted to try him at safety. After his second pick in the game, I looked at Coach Gregory and said, ‘I think you made the right move.’

“He’s got a knack for the ball, and you can see his athleticism when he has the ball in his hands. That’s the kind of stuff you cannot teach.”

Shanks did not want to change positions and shared his feelings with the coaches the day before the Ohio game.

“I told coach I didn’t want to play safety, but he said I had to do it,” Shanks said. “The last time I played safety I rolled my ankle and I was nervous about it happening again, but once I got in there and got that first rep, everything was back to normal.”

Ironically, Shanks had never even been to an Ironmen football game before this season – a fact that his teammates now tease him about – and had no idea what the 8-on-8 arena game was all about.

He says he enjoys it, mostly because defensive backs like himself play very critical roles in the pass-happy sport.

Shanks (22) celebrates a touchdown with a teammate. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“I like it a lot,” he said. “Most of the time you don’t have to worry about defending against the run. It’s like 7-on-7 camps in high school, when all they do is throw the ball. If you don’t make your plays as a defensive back, your team is screwed.”

The coolest part about Shanks’ first game with the Ironmen was the fact this his little boy was in the audience and apparently had a great time.

“I waved to him and went up and gave him a hug,” Shanks said. “He was sitting with my mother and I guess he was pointing at me the whole time!”

Shanks says he can’t wait to see his son play football himself, just a few years down the road.

“He’s had his first pair of shoulder pads since he was one,” Shanks said.