Gentle giant shepherding Fort Hays State through unforgettable football season

11/22/17
By Diane Gasper-O’Brien
University Relations and Marketing

HAYS, Kan. – The first year on his new team, Nathan Shepherd earned the defensive player-of-the-game award at a bowl game in 2015. He says he would have rather won the game.

This season, he was voted the top defensive player in one of the top conferences in NCAA Division II. He is more excited about his team winning its first MIAA championship.

He was chosen to play in a senior collegiate bowl game in January in Pasadena, Calif., where NFL scouts and general managers gather to assess the top talent in the nation. NFL aspirations can wait. Right now, he is concentrating on his college team’s playoffs.

Relying on that team-first attitude year in and year out, Shepherd doesn’t get frustrated when he draws multiple blockers on nearly every single play. That just gives more of his teammates a chance to make a tackle.

Shepherd, a 6-foot, 5-inch, 300-pound defensive tackle from Ontario, Canada, will lead the undefeated Fort Hays State University football team into Saturday's playoff game at Lewis Field Stadium. Kickoff is 1 p.m. vs. Ferris State University (10-1) out of Big Rapids, Mich.

A major reason the Tigers are 11-0 and earned the top seed in Super Region 3 was the play of Shepherd, who some describe as a "gentle giant" – off the field, that is.

 While he isn’t the leading tackler on the team, Shepherd’s presence alone causes problems for opposing offenses, whether he makes a tackle or not.

“A selfless player,” FHSU defensive coordinator Cooper Harris said in describing Shepherd in a nutshell. “His ability to draw double and triple teams opens up opportunities for other players.”

Ike Eguae, the Tigers’ defensive line coach, agreed.

“He has never complained that he is double and triple teamed, and he doesn’t ask for any breaks,” Eguae said. “He wants to give everything he has to help his team win, and that’s one of the best characteristics to have.”

After Shepherd recorded 14 tackles and earned defensive player-of-the-game in the Mineral Water Bowl two years ago – his first year at FHSU – big things were expected of him as a junior. And he didn’t disappoint.

While a lot of attention was placed on then senior defensive end Sie Doe Jr., Shepherd quietly went about his business, making tackles for loss and forcing fumbles. He ranked sixth on the team in total tackles but had six games where he had at least six tackles and recorded 9.5 tackles for loss for the season. He was rewarded with all-conference and All-America honors.

This year, Shepherd knew he would gain even more attention from opponents.

“I was expecting it,” he said. “But that just opens up plays for teammates. This is a team sport. You can’t make all the plays.”

Fellow junior defensive tackle Wyatt Parker, who plays alongside Shepherd in the trenches, credits Shepherd's success to something other than just physical strength.

“A lot of it is mental,” Parker said. “Two or three against one is hard, and Nate just really gets after it. He sets his mind to the idea that no matter how many come after him, he's taking them on.”

Senior defensive end Luke Wright said he thought the Tigers had just landed something special the first time he saw Shepherd in spring practice in 2015.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is a big dude.’ He's one of the biggest players I'd ever seen, ” Wright said.  “I hear they grow them big up north, and I guess they’re right.”

Despite his size and athletic build, Harris said Shepherd was a “raw talent” when he arrived on campus. After all, he had played just one season on the defensive line. As a 6-1, 205-pound senior in high school, Shepherd played linebacker.

But he grew after high school – and kept growing.

It’s hard to believe these days that Shepherd was barely recruited out of high school.

“We weren’t good in high school,” Shepherd said. “We won only one or two games a year.”

Simon Fraser University in British Columbia took a chance on Shepherd, who moved to the defensive line for the Clan. Then after his freshman season, a Fort Hays State coach ran across some film of Shepherd on the Internet and gave him a call.

It didn’t matter to Shepherd that he had to go to another country to play football.

“I was excited,” he said. “I wanted to make a name for myself and gain some independence.”

But being out on your own isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, especially when you are 1,200-plus miles from home.

“It had its challenges but nothing that I couldn’t pray about and overcome,” Shepherd said. “My family was really supportive, and I met a lot lot of people here.”

And he had plenty of time to work on his game.

“I started putting together my own player portfolio, figured out my strengths and weaknesses,” Shepherd said. “I focused on trying to minimize my deficiencies as a player.”

Harris said Shepherd’s success can be summed up in a few words: a lot of hard work.

“When we got him, he was extremely raw. He had a lot of natural ability but was a raw football player,” he said. “He probably has improved as much as any player I’ve been around – and in a short amount of time.”

That’s because “he was willing to work,” Harris said. “I think I’m most proud of how much work he put in to make himself a better player.”

In the process, Shepherd made others around him better as well.

“He knows he’s going to get doubled and tripled a lot, and he hasn’t said a word,” Wright said. “That just gives an opening for someone else. That’s the kind of player you want for a teammate.”

That’s also the kind of player NFL teams want on their rosters.

Scouts and/or other representatives from all but one of the 32 NFL teams have been to Hays to watch Shepherd and to visit with him.

Shepherd’s play speaks for itself.

“And once they talk to him, they fall in love with him,” Eguae said.

Eguae is sure that Shepherd’s football career will continue after this season.

“He’s going to be in an NFL camp,” Eguae said. “I would bet on it.”

For at least one more time, and hopefully more, Tiger fans can get a glimpse firsthand Saturday of what they might be watching on TV on Sunday afternoons for years to come.

On Ferris State’s first offensive possession, No. 97 will come up out of his stance and be met by at least two opponents, maybe even three.

That will either give another FHSU defender a chance to get to the ball carrier, or Shepherd will fend off the defenders and make the tackle himself.

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