When he was growing up, Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston used to pull up highlights of a talented young arm from Houston, and marvel at his ability.
Now, that former quarterback plays wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers.
“I used to watch Russell Shepard highlight videos of him having his hat backward, doing footwork drills and throwing bombs when he was doing his thing down there in Houston, Texas,” said Winston on Wednesday. “I’m a big fan of Russell Shepard.”
That fandom was reciprocated by Shepard when he met Winston, and it blossomed into a friendship as Shepard played the first four years of his career in Tampa Bay.
“Just to see his career, to see how it’s playing out, I’m extremely proud of him,” said Shepard. “He played a big part of me taking the next step of my career. We have man-crushes on each other.”
Shepard said that when Winston was watching Shepard’s highlights from his high school days, it was with the goal of wanting to be better.
“It just goes to show you never know who is watching you,” Shepard said. “You never know who wants to be like you, be better than you. It’s so important, when you do things in this world, regardless of whether it’s on the field or off the field, it’s crazy how life makes paths cross at some point.”
Shepard had a special teams gunner role in Tampa Bay, but during his last year he started to develop into an up-and-coming talent at receiver. And as injuries plagued others ahead of Shepard, Winston looked to him more and more.
It’s no secret why Winston liked getting him the ball. He said that Shepard brings three things to a team that not many players can.
“One thing, he’s a leader. He’s a leader by example and he’s a leader vocally,” said Winston. “Another thing he brings is passion. He is one of the most passionate players I’ve ever been around, ever had the honor to play on a team with. He just loves this game of football.
“And the third thing he brings is his energy. He’s one of the hardest workers that I know. When it’s time to play football, he really loves this game and he’s always pumped and he’s always ready to take advantage of any moment that he gets.”
Shepard loved his time in Tampa Bay. But in free agency this spring, he had a choice to make: Stay stagnant where he was as a backup receiver and special teams player, or keep his journey of growth as an NFL player moving forward. A few other teams wanted him, including Carolina, and the Buccaneers wanted him to stay.
“It was extremely difficult,” he said. “I feel like I grew up there, became a man there. ...
“I had a lot of options. I had quite a few teams that wanted me during free agency. And I picked this team for a reason. Even though that organization did give me my opportunity, even though that organization played a big role in me establishing myself in this league, this organization, the Carolina Panthers, allowed me to take the next step in my career.”
Winston wishes Shepard success, but with a little nostalgia mixed in, too.
“I’m so proud of him. I wish we still had him,” said Winston. “But I’m just proud of him and what he has acheived. He really plays off the people that didn’t give him those opportunities and he lets that drive him instead of bring him down.
“I just can’t tell you how much Russell Shepard taught me as an NFL football player and as a friend when he was in Tampa Bay.”