He has cracked the New York Jets’ starting lineup, but Canadian rookie Nathan Shepherd isn’t taking anything for granted.
The biggest lessons the burly Ajax, Ont., defensive lineman has learned in his first NFL season are there’s no shortage of players looking to take his job and there’s much more to being a pro than simply drawing a game-cheque.
“I feel like I’ve been given the keys to a car and how long it runs is going to depend on how well I do my job of taking care of it,” Shepherd said. “Once a week, the Jets bring in a new batch of tryout guys and you see new faces every day.
“If you earn the position, you’re continuing to work to create further distance between you and the next runner-up. Eventually, it always catches up to everyone, the goal is just to make it not today. At the end of the day, it’s still football … I definitely know I belong here.”
Shepherd, 24, has proven to be a quick learner. Less than four months after being selected in the third round, No. 72 overall, by New York in the 2018 NFL draft, Shepherd has developed into a starter.
“The funny thing is I don’t remember there actually being a moment where you were named a starter,” said Shepherd. “It was just something that slowly happened and over the weeks you’d just take more reps with the (starters).
“It was kind of gradual, it wasn’t a moment where that was said.”
The jump from college to the NFL is huge but was monumental for the six-foot-four, 315-pound Shepherd, who played at Fort Hays State, a Division II school in Hays, Kan. After a stellar ’17 campaign – winning the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association top defensive player honour while leading the Tigers (11-0) to their first MIAA title – Shepherd became the first player in school history invited to the Senior Bowl, which showcases players eligible for the NFL draft.
Lasting in the NFL is much more than just conquering bigger, stronger and faster players. There’s also changing one’s mental approach and understanding even the smallest details are crucial in the seemingly constant evolution of a professional athlete.
“My goal was to help my team in whatever capacity it needed, but the bigger focus was to continue every day to learn how to be a pro,” Shepherd said. “That’s something I continue to strive for and while I’m happy with the progress I’ve made so far, I’m still not satisfied.
“There are small victories to be had every day … You have (to have) the mindset that, ‘OK with all that I do today – not just practice but the food you eat, when you go to bed, what you study, the questions you ask – I’m not going to allow myself to be out-competed.’ If you keep winning those days, eventually you’ll have a victory.”
Shepherd began his collegiate career at Simon Fraser in 2012 as a six-foot-one, 205-pound linebacker. But financial challenges forced him to leave the Burnaby, B.C., school after just one year.
He returned to Toronto and entered the workforce until saving enough money to enroll at Fort Hays State for the 2015 season. Shepherd paid for his first semester while playing football as a walk-on.
“It says a lot about the man,” Jets coach Todd Bowles told the Jets’ website. “He’s determined to succeed no matter what he does.
“He carries himself, he works that way and I can appreciate that. You always hear about the bad stories. Any time somebody has a story like that, along with his play – obviously, his play comes first and then you find out his journey – you can appreciate the man more.”
Playing in the NFL has given Shepherd some financial stability. He signed a four-year, $US3.876-million deal with New York that included a signing bonus exceeding $987,000.
But it’s not like Shepherd has had time to spend his new-found wealth.
“People say (as a pro football player), you have more time on your hands,” he said. “I’ve still yet to see where that time has come from.”
Shepherd is typically at the Jets’ training facility between 6:30-7:30 a.m. and remains there until roughly 6:30 p.m. with meetings and practices. And even when he leaves, Shepherd rarely has a night to himself as there’s also recovery, chiropractor appointments and studying film or reviewing gameplans on his iPad.
Shepherd said what many people don’t understand is the level of preparation that goes into the playing of NFL games.
“You’re exposed to a lot more detail,” Shepherd said. “As a fan, as a viewer you get to see the finished product on Monday night, Thursday and Sunday.
“But you don’t get to see behind the scenes regarding what it takes in meetings, what it takes in practice, what it takes in recovery. And then there’s the sacrifices our coaches make for us in order to be prepared.”
One adjustment Shepherd has had to make as a pro player is practising more without pads. NFL teams can hold just 14 padded practices during the regular season, and 11 must take place during the first 11 weeks.
“That’s a very good question,” Shepherd said when asked what effect, if any, the fewer padded practices have had on him. “First and foremost, I have trust in my coaches.
“Whatever the tempo is for the day, it’s not my job to question. It’s just my job to carry that out.”
Despite having taken the path less travelled to the NFL, Shepherd isn’t patting himself on the back for a job well done. In his mind, the real work – putting together a long, productive pro career – has just begun.
“Maybe the pats on the back were for draft night but I’d say since I’ve been here my goals have changed dramatically from when I was in college,” he said. “I’m chasing a new agenda now.
“That (agenda) is still a work in progress. But I will say again my biggest goal every day is working on becoming a better professional, on and off the field.”