FLORHAM PARK – Sam Darnold’s first start as an NFL quarterback has commanded the attention you would expect. Nathan Shepherd’s first start? That’s a different story.
And it always will be with the Jets’ defensive tackle, whose background is unlike any other rookie in the NFL.
Shepherd is 24, played at two schools that will never be mentioned in the same breath as Arkansas and Clemson, and has held a lot of jobs that other players never dreamed of performing.
While Darnold is California bred and played at Southern California, one of college football’s glamour spots, Shepherd is a Canadian who played at Simon Fraser University in Canada before a two-year work experience to help pay his family’s bills and Fort Hays State, a Division II program in Kansas that rarely intrigues pro scouts.
Shepherd’s journey to the NFL and his start Monday night in Detroit against the Lions in Detroit is the stuff on which dreams are made of.
He always thought he could do it, he just didn’t tell his friends.
“You have to fake it to believe it,” Shepherd said Friday as the Jets continued their preparations for the opener.
Shepherd hasn’t faked anything since the Jets coaches first laid eyes on the 6-foot-4, 315-pounder, who is a rare combination of size and speed. When they were scouting him prior to the draft, they put together a list of attributes they were hoping for in their search for a lineman or linebacker who could provide help for their pass rush.
“He checked all the boxes,” said defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers.
He has since the Senior Bowl, where he more than held his own against guard Will Hernandez of UTEP, whom the Giants selected in the second round.
“It’s like football never stopped. College to the NFL, after the first hit, I learned football is the same language, wherever it’s spoken,” Shepherd said. “It’s still the same.”
His life isn’t. He signed a four-year, $3.5 million contract, including a signing bonus of close to $1 million.
As Shepherd says proudly, “Football is now my only job.”
It wasn’t that way during his extended college career. He spent two years at Simon Fraser, worked for two years because he could no longer pay tuition, and then finished off at Fort Hays, where he moonlighted as a concession worker at sporting events, security at basketball games and a bouncer. While in school in Canada, he worked in a plant nursery and in electrical construction, where he spent his breaks on 12-hour shifts doing nearly 1,000 push-ups a day.
“He’s tough,” said Jets coach Todd Bowles. And he was talking about Shepherd’s approach to the game,
“He doesn’t take a down off, Bowles said. “We just want him to keep doing what he’s done since he got here.”
The Jets need Shepherd as much as he needs them. Without another capable pass rusher in the front of their 3-4 defense (“we have to blitz by committee,” said Rodgers), the Jets are vulnerable to all the double team blocking of Leonard Williams. They want Shepherd to be Muhammad Wilkerson, before he received his big contract from the Jets. With Wilkerson having moved on to Green Bay, they need another interior rusher.
Shepherd gladly accepts that role.
He’s a pro football player now, a starter at that. The perfect ending for his dream story would be a long and productive NFL career. Maybe by then others will have forgotten the schools he attended and the jobs he worked.
“By the end of the day, it’s still football,” said Shepherd. “I definitely know I belong here.”