After his first season in the NFL, Russell Shepard returned to his Houston hometown and opened a business with his dad that provides dump trucks for hauling material to construction sites.
It was an appropriate venture for Shepard, the Carolina Panthers’ new receiver/special teams contributor whose career has been more about grit than glitz.
“I take pride in dirt, sand and gravel,” Shepard said shortly into his introductory press conference at Bank of America Stadium last week. “Made a lot of money off it.”
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Shepard made a good bit of money in his first go-round through free agency. He signed a three-year, $10 million deal with Carolina, but only his $2.1 million signing bonus is guaranteed.
Still, that’s not bad for a player who lost his starting job at LSU – albeit to Odell Beckham Jr. – and caught 30 passes in his first four NFL seasons, 23 of which came last year after the Bucs’ Vincent Jackson was injured.
No wonder Shepard did not try to contain his enthusiasm last week after landing in Charlotte.
“I’ve been through a lot to get to this point. It’s surreal,” he said. “But I’m a very humble guy. I’m an energetic guy and I love people. I honestly think it’s all going to work out for the best.”
Shepard, 6-1 and 195 pounds, was a five-star, dual-threat quarterback recruit leaving his Houston high school, but never attempted a pass at LSU. He didn’t catch many passes, either, getting passed by future NFL wideouts Beckham, Rueben Randle and Jarvis Landry while trying to learn a new position.
Shepard was languishing in no-man’s land in Baton Rouge when special teams coach Thomas McGaughey arrived from the Giants in 2011.
McGaughey had gone to high school with Shepard’s mom in Houston, knew the NFL landscape and suggested to Shepard a path to the pros by covering kicks and punts and blocking in the return game.
McGaughey, now the Panthers’ special teams coordinator, was in New York with David Tyree. The reserve receiver became famous for pinning an Eli Manning pass against his helmet in the Super Bowl, but was better known in the Giants organization as a dependable special teamer.
McGaughey told Shepard he had more athletic ability than Tyree and had a future in the league.
“I told him you can play in the NFL for a long time just by being a fourth or fifth receiver and playing on special teams,” McGaughey recalled. “And you can make a lot of money playing that role.”
Finding a niche
Shepard says he probably wouldn’t be in the NFL if it were not for McGaughey.
“He created a niche for me, an opportunity, so I can provide for my family,” he said.
That family includes his wife and a 10-month-old son named Moses, who could be heard yelling through a closed door while Shepard spoke with Charlotte media last week at the stadium.
Among the milestones Moses has reached, as detailed by his father: Walking. Talking. And “peeing in the potty.”
“So,” Shepard added, “he’s better at life than I am right now.”
That’s not exactly true.
Shepard might not be the speed receiver to replace Ted Ginn Jr., who signed with the Saints during the first week of free agency. He might not be the proven slot receiver to step in for Philly Brown, who’s now in Buffalo.
But Shepard can play all three receiver spots, as well as all four phases in special teams. He doesn’t fit nicely into any one box, nor does he care to.
“I’m a football player,” Shepard said when asked to define his role. “I’m the guy that’s going to score a touchdown for you and still go cover the kick.”
‘You got hit by Thomas Davis’
Shepard’s engaging personality seems like it would be a good fit in any locker room. His first question last week was about the hit he took from linebacker Thomas Davis in Week 17 last season, a shot some Bucs fans and players thought was dirty.
Shepard wore the reminder of the hit like a badge of honor.
“Even if a guy hits you like that off-guard, man you’ve got to just smile. You got hit by Thomas Davis,” Shepard said. “He was the first one to come apologize to me after the game. I love Thomas. Mad respect for that guy, what he’s overcome from an injury standpoint.”
Like Davis, Shepard also figures to dive headlong into community service in Charlotte. Through his foundation, Shepard gave out Thanksgiving turkeys last year in Houston, organized a diaper drive in Tampa and held a bowling event in Houston during Super Bowl week to promote mental health awareness.
Shepard has caught nearly 4,000 balls in three weeks from the JUGS machine he bought to make up for the pass-catching reps he didn’t get at LSU or the Bucs.
Despite not catching on as a receiver, McGaughey says Shepard always went hard at LSU practices featuring a who’s who of high school All-Americans and future NFL draft picks.
McGaughey is glad to have him in Charlotte – whatever his role.
“I think he’s going to make an impact on the team. Period. He brings juice, man. He brings energy. That’s what we did at LSU,” McGaughey said. “Russell can run and he plays hard. That’s what he brings.”