Near the door of a dimly lit nightclub just outside Vancouver, the barrel-chested 20-year-old kept peppering the NFL player with questions.
What does it take to make it to the league? What advice can you give me? Do you really think I can make it, too?
This was five years ago, but NFL Network analyst Nate Burleson — an 11-year veteran receiver for the Detroit Lions at that point — remembers it like it was yesterday.
In retrospect, it’s funny. There was no way to know at the time that the college kid he was talking to, Nathan Shepherd, would eventually grow 2 more inches, gain nearly 50 pounds and become one of the best stories of the 2018 NFL draft. The defensive tackle from Ajax, Ontario, located about 30 miles northeast of Toronto, blossomed into a third-round pick of the New York Jets.
All Burleson knew was that Shepherd, who was currently working as a security guard for Burleson and his friends that night, was out of football for some reason and doubting his future in the game, big time.
“You could see it in his body language, shoulders slumped — the self-doubt all athletes go through at some point,” Burleson recalled to Yahoo Sports this week. “… We’ve all fallen in love with this woman called football, and she is fickle; sometimes she’ll hurt your feelings. But you can’t leave her, and you can’t quit her.”
Burleson, who sensed sincerity and humility in Shepherd, decided to speak some words of faith toward the young man.
“You’re gonna play in the NFL one day,” Burleson told him. “You seem like a great guy. Go for it. Don’t stop.”
Shepherd’s eyes widened; the kid was starting to believe again. If an 11-year veteran like Burleson thought he could do it …
“The game always finds those that love it,” Burleson reiterated. “And love will find somebody that’s passionate about them.”
Little money and no football
Though Burleson was hardly the only one to give Shepherd an assist along the way — a journey like this doesn’t happen without lots of help — Shepherd never forgot Burleson’s message of hope, which came months after Shepherd was forced to leave his Canadian college football team due to financial hardships.
“He didn’t know my situation, he didn’t know I was in between schools,” Shepherd said. “It was great affirmation because here’s a guy who doesn’t know me, who’s on a leisurely trip with his friends, relaxing, and he took time out of his day to talk football with someone he’s never met before.
“I wanted to play football … it was just a matter of where and finding the means of how. You’ve got to put your foot down [and believe], even in the dark.”
For Shepherd, a lightly recruited high school linebacker who started nine games as a 250-pound defensive tackle during his redshirt freshman season at Simon Fraser University (B.C.), the darkness began in 2013, when he found himself unable to afford his partial tuition anymore at the Canadian college, which is known more for its business program than its football.
Suddenly forced to drop out and support himself, Shepherd took a variety of jobs in British Columbia. He worked in a plant nursery, did some electrical construction and he also bounced in his free time at Pierre’s Champagne Lounge, where he had his encounter with Burleson. He eventually moved back home to the Toronto area, where he worked a variety of jobs, including one where he hauled large stacks of beer and soda boxes in a printing factory. The pay wasn’t great, but it paid the rent.
By the early part of 2014, Shepherd had not played a down of football since 2012, and the odds of him playing professionally seemed to grow longer by the day, though a family friend — a strength and conditioning coach from his hometown named Paul Watkins — continued to believe in him, even training him for free.
“This was the guy telling me, ‘Hey, you’re gonna go to the NFL, you’re gonna be a draft pick,’ ” Shepherd said. “There were no teams looking at me and I didn’t have money to go to school, but he was like, ‘You’re gonna be a draft pick one day.’ ”
Watkins kept alive the seed of faith that Burleson had planted in Shepherd a year earlier, as Shepherd took some junior college courses and continued to count his pennies. And by the end of 2014, he’d shot up to 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, and saved up enough money to pay for a semester of college.
His updated workout videos — along with his 2012 Simon Fraser tape — were enough to intrigue a handful of Division I schools, though Shepherd opted to go the Division II route, since he needed three years to graduate and could play all three years, as opposed to just two if he went Division I. He settled on an up-and-comer, Fort Hays State in Kansas, which told him he could eventually earn a scholarship but he’d need to pay his own way first.
“I was basically betting on myself, because I knew I didn’t have the savings to go two semesters,” Shepherd said. “Going in, I had to make it work.”
‘He was a sloppy 300-pounder’
When Shepherd reported to practice in the spring of 2015, Fort Hays State defensive line coach Ike Eguae — who has coached a handful of NFL players, including Detroit Lions defensive tackle Sylvester Williams — saw a work in progress.
“He was a big kid that was raw; he came super-high out of his stance and he was a sloppy 300-pounder,” Eguae said. “That first semester, it wasn’t pretty. There were quite a few times where I was telling him, ‘If you don’t do stuff right, you’ll be an offensive lineman before you know it.’”
Shepherd eventually impressed Eguae with his sincerity and stick-to-it attitude. In addition to juggling football, Shepherd continued to hold a variety of odd jobs, sometimes working concessions at athletic events or as a security guard at a local nightclub.
On the field, Shepherd proved to be a quick study, showing enough improvement to earn a scholarship before the season. He had a solid debut campaign in which he was named third-team all-conference in the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association. Eguae challenged him to become the best player in Division II, a goal the future star took seriously.
“The following summer, I’m in my office and I heard somebody hitting the sleds on a Sunday afternoon,” Eguae said. “Turns out Nate had jumped over the stadium gate to work on the things I told him to work on. On a Sunday afternoon! When most guys are recovering from the night before, this guy was putting in work.
“That’s when I knew he was gonna be special. He’s a perfectionist.”
Shepherd improved to second-team all-conference in 2016 before a senior campaign in which he recorded 38 tackles (12½ for loss) and four sacks and was named the conference’s defensive player of the year, despite a steady diet of double and triple teams.
In the meantime, Shepherd caught the attention of then-Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, who had dispatched former Kansas City Chiefs salary-cap specialist Trip MacCracken — who is transitioning to a career as a scout — to Hays, Kansas, that fall to find out if Shepherd might be worth an invite to the college all-star game, held in late January.
“After being away from the game for two years, he made it clear how hungry he was,” MacCracken said. “He was very convincing that he wouldn’t fail if we gave him a chance.”
So they did, and Shepherd became the first player from Fort Hays State to attend the Senior Bowl. He was impressive in practices, too, at least until he broke his hand during a drill and was forced to exit the event early. The injury short-circuited Shepherd‘s plan to raise his draft stock against premium competition, but Shepherd remained undeterred; he was too close to his dream to let the injury ruin his positive outlook, which he cheerily explained to teams and media at the NFL scouting combine a month later in Indianapolis.
“A lot of people seemed to gravitate to my perseverance and my story,” Shepherd said with a laugh.
That includes the Jets, who officially started a new chapter of the 24-year-old’s life by selecting him in the draft a few weeks ago.
“It definitely feels good that football is my only job [now],” Shepherd told reporters following his selection. “I’m really looking forward to embracing being a professional.”
Remembering that night in the club
Shepherd isn’t the only one who knows how far he has come. Burleson recently typed Shepherd’s name into a search engine and couldn’t believe how much his body language had changed during a recent news conference.
“He was relaxed, confident,” Burleson said. “I realized it was the same dude, but a different man.”
But not too different, of course. When elaborating on his encounter with Burleson in that nightclub five years ago, Shepherd broke into a wide grin, his gratitude ever shining through.
“Hopefully, one of these days, I can run into him and just say thank you,” Shepherd said.
That moment hasn’t happened yet, but it will soon. Burleson not only plans on giving Shepherd a call once the rookie settles into NFL life, he also can’t wait to tell him how happy he is to have played a small role in one of the best stories of the 2018 NFL draft.
“I knew that whatever he took from that conversation [five years ago], it landed,” Burleson said. “And I knew that if hit home, there was going to be a change in his life. I’m just glad it came in the field he loves.”
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