By Jimmy Robertson
Usually when a former football player is asked about his favorite moment, he chooses a big play, such as a touchdown or an interception, or maybe even a big win.
Never afraid to be different, Shawn Scales chose "phases" as his favorite college moments. “Phases” is a tortuous series of strength and conditioning drills conducted periodically in the early-morning hours at Cassell Coliseum’s auxiliary gyms during Scales’ playing days at Virginia Tech from 1993-97.
"As hard as they were, those were the times that brought us together because we were all going through it," Scales said recently during a phone interview. "Nobody was excluded. "The big plays, those were results of all that hard work. But being with those guys in those moments, watching us all struggle through those workouts, those were my most memorable moments."
Those moments impacted Scales so much that he eventually decided to embark on a career in personal training. Using much of what he learned under Mike Gentry, the Hokies’ former associate director of athletics for strength and conditioning, he now helps those of all ages reach their personal fitness goals regardless of where they reside on the wellness spectrum – and he loves doing it.
Scales works as a fitness director for Onelife Fitness, a company based in McLean, Va., but with clubs in five states. Scales works at the company’s center in Hagerstown, Md.
"I just love to work out," he said. "Coming up, when I lived with the Frys [a family he lived with for a while during his middle school days], I always worked into the night. They’d all go to bed, and I’d be in the backyard working out.
"I’ve always loved working out. It was one of my releases as a kid coming up. I was either out there fishing or playing basketball or working out. I was never just hanging out anywhere,” Scales said.
“When I got to Tech, I loved the structure of the workouts, so I just kept it up. Even now, I’m working out. I probably work out more now than I did then, especially now that I’ve been stuck in the house [because of the COVID-19 pandemic]."
Before going down the path of personal training, Scales starred on the gridiron for the Hokies from 1993-97. In 1996, he led the Hokies in all-purpose yards with more than 1,000, thanks to a combination of outstanding receiving and return skills. In part because of his talents and those of a bunch of great senior leaders, the Hokies won the Big East title and played Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
In 1997, Scales’ ankle injury derailed his final season. Tech started out 4-0, but Scales was hurt in the Miami, Ohio, game, and Tech subsequently lost. He never recovered fully, and the Hokies lost their final three games en route to a 7-5 season.
Scales bounced around the NFL for a couple of years after leaving Tech. He signed as a free agent with San Francisco, and he learned under the likes of Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes, making it to the final cut day in training camp before being released. He spent some time in Tampa Bay and then wound up signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who put him on their practice squad.
In 1999, the Steelers allocated him to the Frankfurt Galaxy, an NFL Europe team, and Scales helped the Galaxy to the 1999 World Bowl championship.
"That was fun," Scales said of his NFL Europe experience. "Not having been out of the country before and having the opportunity to go to Europe and live in that culture, which is a completely different culture than what we have here, that was awesome.
“It was an awesome experience, and the folks there took it serious,” Scales said. “The tailgating parties would be at least 30,000 strong. There would be that many people out there two hours before the game just drinking it up because that’s what they do in Germany. They were out there just getting it. But that was nice.
"Three months over there, all we did was play football,” Scales recalled. “We practiced and played. Obviously, we got the chance to see the culture. We went up the Rhine River. We did that when we took the train to Amsterdam to play the Admirals, and the train followed the river the whole way, which was kind of nice because you could see the castles just sitting there on top of the hills. So that was pretty cool."
Scales found himself released by the Steelers after that 1999 season, and for the next six years, he played in various pro and semi-pro leagues, while working as a personal trainer on the side. His career included short stints in both the Canadian Football League and the Arena League.
In 2006, another injury shelved him, and he called it a career. He tore the ACL in his left knee and endured a two-year rehab stint to recover.
"I initially tore it, and they used cadaver tissue [to repair it]," he said. "My body rejected the cadaver tissue, so they had to go back and do a revision. So I was out two years. I played semi-pro. I guess at about age 35 or 36, I said, ‘No more,’ and I just stopped playing. At some point, I started playing flag football, and that was just to stay active. I did flag football for about five years, and that was a lot of fun. No pressure to play, no money involved, just out there having fun."
The move out of professional football allowed him to put his full energy into training.
"From 2000, from what I learned from Coach Gentry, I just immersed myself into my training, and then I started training athletes, training individuals, training people for contests, and I just kept that going all the way up until present day," Scales said. "Most of it has been in the private sector. There were a couple of gyms along the way. I worked with Planet Fitness as an instructor, and then I got hired by Onelife Fitness as a fitness director. That’s who I work for now."
Scales remains a fan favorite. Hokie Nation respected his abilities and his work ethic, but more importantly, they respected his story and what he overcame just to get to Virginia Tech.
Scales survived a difficult childhood. His father left the family when he was 2, and his mother suffered from a drug addiction. His brother sold drugs and once was incarcerated. Scales was forced to ask his middle school football coach, Richard Fry, for lunch money, and he eventually moved in with Fry, and his wife, Kelly. The summer before Scales’ junior year at Woodbridge High, the Frys moved to Manassas, and Scales lived with five different surrogate families. He lived with his stepfather for a while, and he spent his senior year with the family of a basketball teammate.
Scales attracted attention from college coaches for his football exploits. Though he had solid grades, he missed on achieving the required SAT score, so he spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy. The Frys took out a loan to help him pay for it, and other families in the Woodbridge and Manassas neighborhoods chipped in. Scales worked construction during the summer to pay for the rest of it.
Three years after arriving at Tech, he told all of his story to Angie Watts, a reporter for The Washington Post at the time. He had refused to fall into the drug culture, and that’s when he won the hearts of Hokie Nation.
"It was two things," Scales said of his reasons for telling his story. "It was therapeutic on one level, but then I felt bad because I never really told them [his family] that I was going to talk about it in that way. But no one had any ill feelings for it, or for me putting my business out there. But it was good because, for me, it was therapeutic. I had never really talked about it. I spoke about it, but I never really talked about it, so I kind of got some things out."
His story, though, has a happy ending. In addition to having a career, Scales also has a 9-year-old daughter, and he recently got married. Both his mother and his brother are doing much better, traveling down a positive track while defeating the demons of their past.
Scales credits Virginia Tech for playing a huge role in shaping what became his future. In 1993, he arrived in Blacksburg, and for the first time in his life, he found peace.
"When I was there, I loved being in the mountains," he said. "That was the first draw. Then to be there – and remember, I’m from Northern Virginia and everything up there is hustle and bustle – so when I got down there, it was so slow. I could actually sit back, relax, breathe, not have anything to worry about. It was just the best because I was able to relax and be me."
Scales and his wife make it to Blacksburg from time to time, watching games and visiting wineries during the trip. He certainly lives a different lifestyle these days. And thanks to his own perseverance, some assistance from his friends, and of course, help from those at Virginia Tech, he also lives a better one.