TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- It started with a direct message late one night.
Hey man, can I ask you something that means the most to me?
Go ahead bro.
Just three days earlier, Jan. 17, 2021, Arizona State wide receiver Lavon "LV" Bunkley-Shelton and his family suffered an unimaginable loss. His dad, Michael Charles Shelton Jr., died.
A loving father. A grill master who donned the “Chef Sheltonator” apron. A presence who brought laughter wherever he went. A sports fanatic and his son’s football role model.
A life tragically cut short.
At 10:40 p.m., Bunkley-Shelton continued with his message to teammate and fellow wide receiver Geordon Porter.
Is it possible we can change numbers? I know it’s asking for a lot, but my dad wore 6. I know it’s a longshot, but I just wanted to ask.
Bunkley-Shelton knew how football players could be with their numbers. It can hold personal meaning or become part of their identity. Sometimes, players can be pretty territorial about them. As he sent his request, Bunkley-Shelton was expecting to hear something back like Nah, I don’t know if I can do that.
But just three minutes later, Porter replied.
Man, not even a longshot at all, my guy. I understand it’s tough what you’re going through right now. Number 6 is yours.
* * *
Michael Shelton loved sports.
Whether it was on the fields, courts, diamonds, or tracks, he spent his youth playing the games he loved. Beginning in Pop Warner and beyond, Shelton wore the No. 6. He loved the number, and as Bunkley-Shelton noted, “He looked good in it.”
He went on to earn a basketball scholarship to San Diego State, but his true sports love remained football. Unfortunately, things didn't work out at SDSU and he returned home, where he would eventually get into coaching.
Despite his love of football, Shelton didn’t want to force his sons into it, so Lavon Bunkley-Shelton's first sport was soccer. He then moved to baseball and basketball before finally giving football a try.
The boy was a natural.
While Shelton knew his son was a good player, he was hesitant to coach Bunkley-Shelton’s teams as he didn’t want to give off the impression of “coach’s son” favoritism. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t mentor Bunkley-Shelton off the field.
He worked his son. Hard. Shelton made sure that as Bunkley-Shelton developed his skills, he also strengthened his mental toughness. He wanted to instill a work ethic to help ensure his son’s success.
If you’re going to mess up, mess up at 100 percent.
“He’s always been training me, so I know how hard to work,” Bunkley-Shelton said. “I know how hard to play.”
Shelton also made sure to impart an old-school mentality.
One time, Bunkley-Shelton was injured during a game, and his dad turned it into another learning opportunity.
“If you’re hurt, either walk off the field or crawl off the field,” Bunkley-Shelton recalled. “I’ll be damned if I see my son laying on the field.”
Getting hurt shows weakness, but walking off shows heart.
Shelton became a football role model for his sons and their friends. As kids, Bunkley-Shelton, his brother King, and their godbrother Jalen Cole all wore No. 6 in honor of Shelton.
When he got to Serra High School, Bunkley-Shelton intended to continue with No. 6. However, “they wanted me to wear 2, so I wore 2” in honor of former Serra standout and NFL star Robert Woods. Bunkley-Shelton first was issued No. 3 as a true freshman last year at ASU before switching to No. 2 in the fall.
Now, thanks to Porter’s gesture, No. 6 is back in the family.
* * *
LV Bunkley-Shelton just can't shake it.
"Something weird keeps happening to me," he said. "I feel like the reason he’s gone is he did everything he can do for me. I keep thinking that."
As he remembers his father, small moments stand out and have taken on greater significance. He sees the intent and wisdom behind what once may have seemed like a parent nagging about chores.
Clean the house.
Take the trash out even though nobody asked.
Don’t forget your wallet.
“He was teaching me life lessons," Bunkley-Shelton said.
Bunkley-Shelton specifically remembers how his dad tried to teach him to cook. While Shelton didn't get to pass on all his culinary and grilling secrets, they did cover pasta pretty well.
“I know how to cook now!" said Bunkley-Shelton. "And I can’t tell him that I know how to cook.”
Sharing his accomplishments with his dad is one of countless things he'll miss.
“I know how to do things, and I can’t tell him I did it," Bunkley-Shelton said. "It’s a reminder in my head.”
He wants to tell his dad that he will be OK, that through the lessons he learned from him, Bunkley-Shelton is prepared to face the problems and challenges of life. He's confident that his dad raised him to be a good man, ready for whatever comes next.
That's as great a legacy as any father can leave behind.
“He was a great man," said Bunkley-Shelton. "He didn’t have to be a father to me. He chose to be a father to me.”
* * *
The message thread wrapped up.
Bunkley-Shelton: That’s love. You made my day.
Porter: Whatever you need, my guy. I’m here.
The decision to swap numbers was an easy one for Porter, who now wears No. 2.
“It really wasn’t much of a thought from me. I was willing to do whatever to help him through that process,” Porter said. “I saw it as a perfect opportunity to make someone’s day.”
Shelton’s passing came just weeks after the death of defensive lineman Jermayne Lole’s father. For the players in the locker room, providing comfort for their grieving teammates was paramount.
“It was a time that it was all kind of back-to-back,” Porter said. “We all just came together to help and support and do anything we could do to make the process be easier.”
It was only right we switched numbers, keep doing it for him #6!!! https://t.co/y378vXSgRd— GP (@GeordonPorter) March 6, 2021
Since that time, other players have suffered deaths in the family, and that support system has risen to the occasion. While all programs talk about being a family, it’s woven into the fabric of Sun Devil football.
“You go into that facility every morning knowing that not everything is about just football,” Porter said. “We make it a family atmosphere, and that’s a big part of winning games. You always want to have each other’s back and do good for the person next to you.”
As Bunkley-Shelton has grieved, he’s been lifted up by the love he's felt.
“The support is outstanding,” said Bunkley-Shelton. “That’s one thing I’ve always loved about ASU. Coach Herm (Edwards), Coach P (Prentice Gill), and Coach Joe (Connelly), even the equipment people. When that occurred, they made sure I was fine. They made sure everything was good, and if I needed anything, they helped me with that.”
Following Shelton’s death, Bunkley-Shelton returned home and took nearly two weeks off. As the loss dominated his thoughts, he also felt a physical toll being taken. He felt himself growing weaker and slower.
As his father taught him, when hurting, show heart. So when Bunkley-Shelton returned to Tempe, he set out to get stronger than ever.
The football field has always served as a haven for Bunkley-Shelton. While there, he’s been able to block out distractions and put his problems to the side for a few hours.
“When I’m on the football field, it’s just me,” he said. “I’m just thinking about me and how we can win this game.”
ASU opens up the 2021 season on Sept. 2. It will be the first time as a Sun Devil that Bunkley-Shelton will take the field with his dad’s number. While his thoughts will be, as always, focused on the game, with the No. 6 on his jersey, it’s going to be a little different.
“It’s going to mean the world to me.”
* * *
Michael Shelton was able to come out to Tempe to watch his son play against UCLA last December. The excitement on Shelton's face was clear for all to see.
The proud dad saw his son post a season-high 43 yards on four receptions in ASU’s loss. After the game, they grabbed some food at IHOP, talking about the game and the games to come. It was there that Bunkley-Shelton made his dad a pledge.
Next year, I’m going to score. Watch.
This fall, when No. 6 finally gets into the endzone for six, Michael will be.
“He doesn’t get to witness that, but I know he’s going to be watching.”