Shepard took unorthodox route to Saints

Published 2:54 pm Monday, March 27, 2023

By John DeShazier

New Orleans Saints

Let’s just say that Nathan Shepherd didn’t take the traditional route.

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The New Orleans Saints defensive tackle, an unrestricted free agent signee, grew up in Ajax, Ontario, and played youth football with the Ajax/Pickering Dolphins Football Club. He began his collegiate career at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

After a couple of years there, unable to pay tuition, he left and spent time working in a plant nursery, electrical construction and a cardboard box factory. Then, he got an offer from Fort Hays State University, a Division II school in Hays, Kansas, and paid his first semester of tuition before being put on an athletic scholarship.

From there, he worked his way into becoming the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, and earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl in 2018.

The experience taught Shepherd, a 6-foot-4, 315-pounder who was a third-round pick (No. 72 overall) in 2018 and spent his first five NFL seasons with the New York Jets, that fulfillment may not be instantaneous.

“My biggest thing was just perseverance,” Shepherd said. “Perseverance and delayed gratification. Those were two things that I knew, with my path, I would have to come to terms with on a daily basis.

“Being able to continue to grind, put my head down and wait for my opportunity. Didn’t know where it was coming all the time, but sometimes I think that makes for the best-case scenario. Because you always have to be ready.”

Shepherd said the Saints showed interest in him last year during free agency, but he returned to the Jets, for whom he totaled six sacks, 33 quarterback hits, 13 tackles for loss and 104 tackles in 73 games, with 12 starts.

“I think what attracted me most was just the increased opportunity,” he said. “I went through free agency last year and they showed some interest then, it just wasn’t the right fit at the time. But for them to come back this year, with the needs that they do have on defense, it’s just a very strong offer and I was more than happy to oblige.”

Shepherd said with the Saints, he hopes to be able to expand his role and display his full range of effectiveness.

“I guess a lot of people know me for my run-stopping ability and stuff like that, but I’m definitely able to get after the passer,” he said.

He’ll have the opportunity to do so, after showing that he can take opportunities presented on a non-traditional route and transform them into an NFL career.

“Growing up, Ajax in Canada, it was just home,” Shepherd said. “For me, it was an opportunity to come play ball.

“I guess what I did see about the U.S. is just how much more developed their resources are toward football, funding, programming, things like that. So those were things that I kind of had to go without. Being in Ajax, there was a lot more private ball as opposed to playing in high school.

“So when I was able to able to get a scholarship to Simon Fraser, great opportunity, really excited about that. I was there for two years. It eventually didn’t end up being the right fit for me, and things that I wanted. I still, to this day, believe that the best opportunities for athletes are going to be in U.S. programming just because it’s so much further developed and far along. So eventually, it was in my best interest to leave the program and try to find a way to get to a U.S. program.”