Once an afterthought on the NFL scouting trail, Fort Hays State became a popular destination last fall. The Division II school, which hadn’t produced a draft pick since 1987, boasted a 6-foot-4, 315-pound defensive lineman with freakish skills. Word spread quickly. If you bill it, they will come — and scouts from every team made the trek to Hays, Kansas, a long-ago frontier outpost that once served as the home of General George Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok.
The new star of the Wild West show was Nathan Shepherd, whose circuitous football journey to the small school prompted the same skeptical question from every scout — “the gold-standard question,” according to assistant head coach Al McCray.
“Does he love football?”
McCray responded the same way every time. He repeated the question, laughed and proceeded to tell them the amazing story of the Canadian-born football player who willed his dream into reality.
Shepherd, drafted in the third round by the New York Jets, made it to the NFL with a blue-collar mentality that carried him through dark times. He dropped out of college for financial reasons and worked odd jobs for two years, hoping to save enough money to get back into school. With each birthday that passed — 20, 21 — the odds of a happy ending grew slimmer.
“Most mornings you’re thinking, ‘I have to go to work and this check is not doing anything to improve my life today that I can see,'” Shepherd said. “That was difficult, but you just have to keep the dream alive, knowing you’re that much closer.”
Shepherd grew up in hockey country in Ajax, Ontario — suburban Toronto — but football became his sport. He was a 205-pound high school linebacker who got by on tenacity, and it was good enough to land a roster spot at Simon Fraser University, outside Vancouver. He packed on the pounds, becoming an effective 250-pound lineman by his second year, but he dropped too much money. There are no full athletic scholarships at Canadian universities, so he was forced to withdraw.
He hung around the Vancouver area, working in a plant nursery and in electrical construction, his father’s trade. He sat out two football seasons, 2013 and 2014, returning to Ajax to work in a factory that made cardboard boxes for beer and soda. That wasn’t fun. He worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., switching every two weeks to the graveyard shift. The hours were long and he’d come home with paper cuts on his meaty arms.
“People say, ‘Oh, how much time you had off,'” Shepherd said. “In my mind, I was going in six-month increments. I was just looking at very small increments of time. It just added up to a little bit longer in time.”
During breaks at work, he did push-ups. A lot of push-ups. We’re talking 1,000 per day, the “homework” assignment he received from his personal trainer, Paul Watkins, who has known Shepherd since he was a kid. Watkins sent him motivational texts almost daily: “The day you decide not to do 1,000 push-ups is the day you decide you no longer want to go pro.”
“Now that I’m here, I feel like I’m getting the pay I deserve for all the hard work I was doing in the past.”
Shepherd explored the junior-college route, looking at schools in California and Arizona. As an international student he ran into administrative red tape, but one of the juco coaches did him a solid, reaching out to McCray at Fort Hays State. No one on the coaching staff had heard of him, but they offered him a walk-on spot in the spring of 2015.
Without so much as visiting the school, Shepherd showed up in Hays, Kansas — 270 miles west of Kansas City, 180 miles from Wichita — for a chance to play ball in the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
Does he love football?
Head coach Chris Brown knew he had something special during spring drills. During one morning workout the team was particularly sluggish, so he made them do jump-tuck exercises as punishment. (Squat, jump, knees to chest. Repeat.) Try this at home, and your quads will be screaming after a dozen or so. On this day, the players did 400. Shepherd, only three weeks on campus, spoke up.
“I did not come to Fort Hays State University to do jump tucks,” Shepherd barked at the team in his Canadian accent. “I came here to win.”
Just like that, the Tigers had a new leader.
“He is the dude,” Brown said. “Everybody here looks up to him.”
Shepherd quickly became the big man on campus, but he never acted like it. On a partial scholarship and still pressed for money, he worked concessions at sporting events and security at basketball games. He also was a bouncer at a local bar, and, showing his softer side, volunteered at kiddie carnivals in town. If somebody needed help moving furniture across campus, they called Big Nate, who gladly obliged.
One time, Shepherd’s street was underwater because of heavy rain, but that didn’t stop him from helping a friend. It cost him his car. The water was so deep that when he opened the door, it gushed into his 1993 Ford Tempo, ruining the interior.
Looking for new wheels, he upgraded — slightly. He bought a 2006 Ford Focus, which currently has 175,000 miles on the odometer. Not only is the car too small for a man his size, but it’s beaten up and the color (gold) is faded. It’s missing a hubcap and any sort of aesthetic appeal.
“The worst car of any kid on campus,” Brown said with a laugh. “But that tells you a lot about him. He doesn’t care about that stuff.”
At 24, Shepherd is a lot like his car — relatively old, well-traveled and reliable. The phrase “shortcut” isn’t part of his vocabulary. One summer, on a 100-degree day, McCray spotted Shepherd working as a groundskeeper, cutting grass and planting flowers. McCray stopped and told him he could get him a job at Walmart, where he could work in air-conditioned comfort.
Shepherd politely declined.
“He doesn’t want handouts,” McCray said. “That’s not Nathan Shepherd. He’s serious about taking care of business.”
He certainly did that on the field, compiling 27 tackles for loss and 10 sacks as a three-year starter. He averaged an impressive 80 snaps per game, playing the 80th as hard as the first, according to his coaches. Leaving nothing to chance, Shepherd also tried to impress NFL scouts off the field. When he heard a scout was coming to campus to check him out, he Googled the scout’s background so he could bring it up in conversation. The scouts were blown away.
Does he love football?
Shepherd landed an invitation to the Senior Bowl, which proved to be a turning point. His week was cut short because of a hand injury, but he showed enough in two days of practice to create a buzz among scouts. He excelled against some of the top offensive linemen in the country, including guard Will Hernandez, who became a second-round pick of the New York Giants.
Shepherd’s agent, Bardia Ghahremani, was on the practice field and saw him flash a smile after a strong play in a pass-rushing drill. To Ghahremani, the smile said, “I belong.” Later, Shepherd checked his phone and noticed Twitter was blowing up with reports of his exploits.
“It says a lot about the man,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said of Shepherd’s long journey to the NFL. “He’s determined to succeed no matter what he does. He carries himself that way. He works that way and I can appreciate that.”
The Jets’ hope is that Shepherd can replace Muhammad Wilkerson as a starting defensive end. At minimum, he will be part of the defensive-line rotation. This much we know: His new four-year contract for $3.4 million includes a signing bonus close to $1 million. After years of “just scraping by,” as he put it, he soon will have financial security.
“Now that I’m here, I feel like I’m getting the pay I deserve for all the hard work I was doing in the past,” he said.
After cutting grass, planting flowers, making boxes, selling hot dogs, moving furniture and working graveyard shifts — all this while training for football — Shepherd is ready to start a new life, less cluttered than the old one.
“Football,” he said, “is my only job.”