Shawne Merriman knows how to deliver a hit. Throughout his seven-season career, the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills linebacker earned three All-Pro and Pro-Bowl roster selections, a 2005 Defensive Rookie of the Year nod, and a reputation for dismantling players on the field — particularly quarterbacks, racking up 45.5 career sacks. Although Merriman’s NFL career was cut drastically short due to injury and his career smudged by an unfortunate PED incident, he’s still thought of as one of the most dominant linebackers of his day.
Now, the 32-year-old is making an impact on two very different sports – NASCAR and Mixed Martial Arts. Merriman sponsors driver Jesse Iwuji’s racecar under his Lights Out apparel brand and has been actively working with the NASCAR’s diversity program to help attract minorities, particularly black inner city youth, to the world of competitive racing. In addition, he’s been training and working closely with Bellator MMA and says an in-ring career is “a big possibility”
We caught up with Merriman to talk about motorsports, his possible move to MMA, and why he’s no LaVar Ball.
We saw on Twitter your son plays ice hockey. What’s it like standing on the sidelines for him. Do you live through his successes at all?
Yeah, I don’t live through him like LaVar Ball. But it’s great just to see him grow and do stuff that he loves being happy. I just want him to have fun. And I actually try to tell him that when I was a kid I took everything serious. I wanted to win and that was it. The fun part came second. Now I just try to talk to my son and tell him the fun part is first. You go out and give it your best shot, give it all you can and have a good time. When I was younger I just took everything way too serious when I should have been just having fun.
You suffered some serious injuries in the NFL. Would you stop your kids from playing football because of the risks?
It’s a dangerous sport and injuries and things are possible. My son is seven years old son and would not ever deny him the right to play football or whatever he wants to do. I wouldn’t deny him that right because it is a great sport.
You’re now working to diversify NASCAR, particularly to get inner city kids more involved. What initially attracted you to the sport?
I just watched it on TV when I was a kid. I didn’t know too much about it. I knew the bigger drivers like Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. I knew a little bit about it, but I didn’t really know the sport that well. In 2008 I was the grand marshal at Fontana and they had me out to wave the flag and start the racers off. And watching on TV I had no idea about the excitement that was there at the track live as you watch people and the energy around the stadium. It’s much different live than on TV, where it’s just cars going fast around a circle.
What opportunities do you see for diversification of both the fan base and future drivers?
As big as NASCAR is, there are some very untapped markets out there. One of those markets is predominantly black people in inner cities. The question is how do kids who grow up in these cities, like I did, even have the opportunity to come to a race? How do they even know how to come to a track or be invited feel welcomed? All these things that were not even a possibility when I grew up now are a reality through being a part of NASCAR and working with Max Siegel, who’s the head of the diversity program. It’s going to be great. I hope we’re going to bridge some of these gaps and open up new opportunities to allow some young kids who never had the opportunity to go to a race actually go.
Your involvement started recently. But have you seen any kind of impact?
Yeah, I would say social media first and foremost because we’ll post pictures and content with Jesse Iwuji and about NASCAR and I’ll get feedback from people wherever I go saying this NASCAR thing is they’re glad I’m really getting involved in this. This is when I’m out and about, at the gym, and online, so it’s an appreciation from kids who really love the sport who also see there is maybe some missing voids that could be filled.
Besides NASCAR, you’re also heavily involved with Bellator MMA.
I started in MMA back in 2006 in San Diego when I was just working out to help out my agility and stamina and wanted to be a better football player. But I just ended up falling in love with the sport. Fast forward to about nine months ago when I got the chance to meet Scott Coker and the people at Bellator and we were able to make a partnership with my Lights Out apparel brand and become one of their official partners.
How has your NFL career helped you transition to MMA?
The number one benefit is the dedication of being an athlete. Once you dedicate to something it doesn’t matter how you start, you just roll with it and put in the time and work and energy to get better. That’s what I did when I’d go onto a football field. I didn’t pretend that overnight I’d just get better. It took a lot of work. And once you realize all the work it takes to put in, you can go very far and do whatever you want to do.
Is there a future for you in Mixed Martial Arts? Could we see Shawne Merriman in the ring soon?
Yes, it’s a big possibility. (Laughter.) It’s a big possibility, and I won’t shy away from that. When I used to be asked that question I would just say, “I don’t know.” But let me tell you if it was up to me, it would happen. And if all these dominoes just fall in the right place, then it’s a very big possibility.