FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — For Nathan Shepherd, “TV Guide” has a whole different meeting.
Because rather than referring to the channel that tells you when the next episode of “The Bachelorette” is on, Shepherd was steered by an unlikely source toward lacing up football cleats in his youth.
In a one-on-one interview with Sporting News, the hulking defensive lineman out of Toronto remembered a time when he was not so big — both in name and stature — and revealed that his football career didn’t start with a favorite player or a ball or a pair of cleats.
“I had watched an episode of ‘Bernie Mac,'” Shepherd said with a grin, recanting the plot line of the episode line-for-line. “Bernie Mac’s niece got an award for excellence. And the older brother Jordan, skinny guy, asthma, kind of nerdy — at the time, I could see myself in him a little bit.
“Jordan didn’t have anything to put in the ‘Mac Hall of Fame,’ they called it. He tried to put some nerdy science project in it, and his uncle said, ‘Absolutely not.’ So he joins the football team, and long story short, ends up becoming a starter and helps bring them to the finals, and they lose. But he got a participation trophy.
“It was a great episode, funny, love the show, and ever since then, I’ve been interested in football.”
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But, really. This is too good. It’s hard envisioning a man the size of Shepherd — he’s listed at 6-4, 315 pounds (jokingly powered by “poutine and Canadian bacon”) — relating to a pencil-thin, mouth-breathing, pocket-protector-wearing geek.
I mean, really? “The Bernie Mac Show” influenced his playing career?
“Absolutely,” Shepherd said with a warm smile and a laugh. “After that I was like, ‘Yo, I gotta play football.'”
It’s a bit surprising, but surprising is par for the course in the tale of Shepherd, who has taken a winding, unorthodox path to achieve his NFL dream. The rookie defensive lineman worked through financial struggles during his college years, taking odd jobs as a means to pay for tuition, including time as a bouncer and a factory worker.
To that end, television seems to be a recurring theme for Shepherd. He met fellow Canadian and former NFL wideout Nate Burleson while a bouncer. Burleson spoke with Shepherd and gave him an $100 bill as inspiration to continue to fight for his dream — Shepherd attempted to repay that $100 (American dollars) on an episode of NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football.”
Being able to pull $100 from his wallet is an indicator that Shepherd seems to be doing well for himself, though it wasn’t easy getting to this point. Of course, the opportunities in Canada for football are much different than stateside, while the green is a recurring theme.
“(Football) just takes a lot more money,” Shepherd told SN of the football climate in Canada. “A lot of the private programs that the U.S. has, more private schools with football, it’s a different opportunity than what you have in Canada. (Football) in Canada is growing, it’s just not at the same level as the U.S. yet.”
Akin to “Ocean’s 11” — a heist movie featuring the talents of the late comedian Mac — a different “Mac” might have gotten a steal in the 2018 NFL Draft. General manager Mike Maccagnan, a scouting fiend, added the Fort Hays State product in the third round of this year’s draft. Coming out of the Division II school in Kansas, some scouting reports pegged Shepherd as a high Day 2 NFL Draft prospect, his most glaring flaw being his lack of high-end experience.
So far, Shepherd has stood out in Jets camp, and not solely because of his size. Coach Todd Bowles recited much of the same coach speak regarding many rookies — he’s learning, he’ll get better, he’s got a long way to go, but expects him to play a role in the future. Bowles offered a small bit of praise and encouragement, which is a lot coming from the typically buttoned-up coach.
“At the brief time he was at the senior bowl in one-on-ones you could see him going up against guys that were drafted very high, you could see he was a good football player,” Bowles told media following practice on Aug. 7. “I don’t think the school matters, if you’re 315 (pounds) and you’re strong, then you are 315 and strong, whether it is Division I or Division II.”
(Photo courtesy of New York Jets)
But as Shepherd takes some snaps with the first team defense, he has (not literally) eaten offensive lineman alive at times and taken noticeable steps forward through the team’s first few weeks of training camp. He is listed on the first team for Friday’s preseason opener against the Falcons. So far, the first season of “The Nathan Shepherd Show” has been off to a good start.
It hasn’t been all TV for Shepherd, though. He went on to cite “The Longest Yard,” “Any Given Sunday” and “Remember the Titans” as football flicks that pushed him toward the gridiron. Coincidentally, the specific episode of “Bernie Mac” — Season 1, Episode 12 titled “Hall of Fame” — featured NFL Hall of Famer and Super Bowl 18 MVP Marcus Allen as a parent of the star player on Jordan’s football team.
While the exact effect Allen might have had on Shepherd is unknown, there’s no denying that Allen flashing his Super Bowl MVP ring on camera left a lasting impact on Shepherd. Lasting enough, at least, to influence him to play football, considering a Canadian taking the field on Sundays is a bit outside the norm.
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In total, just north of 100 players have come from the Great White North, the most represented foreign country in NFL history. Still, that number is minuscule compared to the amount of players who have donned an NFL jersey.
To that end, while Shepherd’s name may be adorned across his shoulder pads, the weight of a country may rest on them. Shepherd said that’s a responsibility he’s willing to accept, and it’s a goal of his to connect with the youth back home as he hopes to inspire more Canadian children to play football.
“I’m looking forward to possibly doing something in the future (for the kids in Toronto), but at this point most of my — well, all of my focus is on geared towards making an impact on this team.”
Until then, he looks forward to repping Canada best he can on the field — and you can thank the “Mac Hall of Fame” for that.
“It’s always great. I absolutely love to represent my country and my city, and put it all out there for them,” Shepherd said. “I’m definitely grateful that I can inspire other Canadian kids to play ball … and help the Jets get some Canadian fans, as well.”