Wes Shivers saw the water rippling. So did his K9 partner, Jack.
The duo had already ran several hundred yards through the woods in Rankin County in pursuit of a man suspected of taking part in drug-related crime.
Jack beat Shivers to the pond and scented the suspect, who was ducking below the surface to try to stay out of sight of Shivers, a 6-foot-8 former Mississippi State offensive lineman and current U.S. Marshals fugitive task force officer.
Jack jumped into the pond while his owner trailed closely behind.
“As he got to the suspect, the suspect was fighting away trying to keep my dog from getting him of course,” Shivers, 43, told the Clarion Ledger on Thursday. “He grabbed my dog by the collar, took him under water and tried to drown him.”
During the scuffle, Jack still managed to bite the suspect on the thigh with enough force to open a wound that needed 22 stitches. Shivers caught up shortly thereafter.
He finished off the fight with one arm as he helped Jack stay afloat with the other. Jack sank his teeth into the suspect’s right arm. Shivers held onto his left. That’s how they emerged from the water after a successful capture.
“It was one of those things where I’ve talked to K9 handlers and trainers all over the country and none of them had ever heard of a dog biting someone under the water,” Shivers said.
Chalk it up as one of many triumphs Jack, a 100-pound Belgian Malinois, has had while working with Shivers since September 2017. Like dog owner, like dog? Shivers has reached a few milestones of his own over the years.
He was picked by the Tennessee Titans in the seventh round of the 2000 NFL Draft. Most guys who decide to walk onto their junior college football teams on a whim, as Shivers did at Hinds Community College in 1996, would likely be ecstatic to be drafted at all.
Shivers, not so much.
“It wasn’t the end of the road for me,” he said. “I knew I could be successful in whatever I did. I always had an out-plan. I always viewed myself as a protector. I was God-given a gift to be able to do what some people can’t do as far as taking care of others and being protective. That’s why I got into law enforcement when it was all said and done.”
Before that, though, he made a name for himself as an athlete after all.
‘I knew I wanted to be in the foxhole with him’
Shivers came to fame as a Mississippi State JUCO recruit at the 1997 Egg Bowl.
Yeah, that Egg Bowl.
The one with a pre-game brawl for the ages. Shivers was in the Mississippi State locker room with other recruits and some current players. The fight had already started when Shivers emerged from the tunnel.
“It was kind of in my nature to gravitate towards that,” Shivers said. “I looked at a couple other recruits and said, ‘C’mon, let’s go!’ They said, ‘Well, you can go.’ So I took off running onto the field.”
Shivers said he was blindsided and hit over the head with a helmet. He was escorted to the locker room with a bloodied face and “teeth poking through (his) lip.”
Mississippi State’s current director of football recruiting communications Rod Gibson was a fellow recruit at the time. He remembers Shivers saying he wanted to get back into the fight after receiving medical attention inside Davis Wade Stadium’s emergency room.
“From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be in the foxhole with him,” Gibson told the Clarion Ledger. “He turned out to be a super nice guy and one of the best teammates you’ll ever meet, but don’t be fooled. He was mean as can be on the field.”
That mean streak paid off later in a different sport. First, it paid off in football.
Shivers was a part of two of Mississippi State’s most memorable seasons of all time. In 1998, he helped the Bulldogs win their first and only SEC West divisional title. In ’99, the Dawgs won 10 games in a season for the second time in program history after a 17-7 win over Clemson in the Peach Bowl.
Shivers earned All-SEC honors as a senior. He played three games for the Atlanta Falcons before boredom with the business-like nature of the professional game set in.
“That part of it wasn’t so much me,” Shivers said. “To the point to where a lot of the enjoyment that I had for the sport, a lot of the camaraderie and just that feeling you get from being part of a unit, when you get to that level there’s just not as much of it as there was in college. It’s a job. It took a lot of the fun out of it for me.”
‘It’s just not something that you see every day’
Shivers started working for the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department in 2002 after his retirement from football. He’s held various positions with the department in his 18-year career.
He started as a patrol deputy. Then he went to court services. He eventually got on with the SWAT team and the U.S. Marshals, but before he did, he needed to fulfill needs he hadn’t gotten since axing football from his life.
“When you’re used to playing a sport like that, there comes a point in time where you miss that adrenaline rush, that competitive side of your life,” Shivers said. “You miss having goals and giving yourself something to work towards, not only physically but mentally.”
A physical ailment compounded the emotional voids in Shivers’ life. He had to get shoulder replacement surgery when he was approaching 30. The doctors told him he’d never be able to compete athletically again.
The recommendation didn’t sit well with Shivers. He rehabbed harder than he ever had after an injury. Just seven months after the surgery, Shivers competed in a wrestling tournament to prove the prognosis wrong.
Shivers met Jimmy Little around the same time in 2006. Little, 57, was looking for a way to get into the mixed martial arts scene as a trainer. When Little met Shivers, he was giddy at the prospect of what he could become.
“He’s a one in maybe 10,000 human being,” Little said. “When he walked into my garage for the first time, he’s 6-foot-8 and weighed 305 pounds and was nine and a half percent body fat. It’s just not something that you see every day.”
Little conceded, though, that muscles don’t always make good fighters. Ten minutes into Shivers’ first training session, Little knew that mantra didn’t apply. Shivers wowed Little with his hand-eye coordination and fast-twitch muscle abilities.
Most of all, he impressed him with how receptive to coaching he was. Little figured all of it came from Shivers’ football background.
“He was such a devoted athlete,” Little said. “You could tell when he left, he worked on that stuff when he went home. The next time he came back, I wasn’t starting over with him. He was an absolute student of the game.”
Little said fight promoters were “falling all over themselves” trying to get Shivers to appear in their fixtures. A 300-pound MMA fighter is as rare as a 150-pound professional football player. Shivers was a promotional piece of pie.
He had some difficulties finding opponents because seemingly nobody else was his size, but he still won his first six fights as a professional. In all, he finished his career with a record of 9-1. Six of his wins came via knockout.
He earned a spot on Spike TV’s “The Ultimate Fighter,” a reality television series co-created by the UFC’s Dana White. He also appeared in two movies, “Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown” and “Universal Soldier: The Reckoning.”
Through it all, he never lost sight of his vision.
“None of it ever came about as me thinking I was just this tough, bad guy that could beat everybody up,” Shivers said. “That’s never how I felt. I like pushing myself, testing myself. Every fight I ever had was a fight against myself. That’s the way I look at life.”
‘I think it’s in his DNA’
Shivers’ body eventually wore down too much to keep fighting.
It’s the same drive that pushed him to do it in the first place, though, that has him working with the U.S. Marshals. His life has been on the line multiple times, but he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I think it’s in his DNA to always want to better himself,” Little said. “More than anything else, he’s just trying to prove something to himself.”
Shivers has put himself in danger in just about every line of work he’s been in, but he still has a soft side. When he’s not chasing down suspects in the Magnolia State’s many forests, he’s surfing the internet for used cars.
He has a 15-year-old daughter who’d love to get a car for her 16th birthday in June. When he hung up the phone after his interview with the Clarion Ledger on Thursday, he went straight to pick her up to take her to look at a vehicle.
Shivers said it’s the least he could do for the girl who stood by patiently while her father traversed the state for his fights. He even had to go to Las Vegas for 14 weeks for his role in “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Plus, she’s following in her father’s footsteps.
“She’s an athlete herself,” Shivers said. “She plays softball and volleyball at Brandon (High School). I think she’s got a lot more natural ability for sports than I do. She doesn’t quite have that killer instinct that I had when I played, but hopefully she’ll get it. She’ll wake up one day and get some grit.”