SCHAUMBURG, Ill. -- Schaumburg senior Shepard Little didn’t like where his life was leading a year ago.
Little had already paid a price for one of his mistakes and was suspended from playing in games last football season due to an undisclosed disciplinary reason. He wasn’t sure it was going to end there. He wasn’t in danger of falling into a life of crime or anything that extreme, but he was concerned about the person he was becoming.
Little wanted to be someone different than who he perceived himself to be. He wanted to be a role model for his three younger siblings. He wanted to play his senior season and have his teammates trust him. He wanted to play college football and not have to worry about a coach questioning his character when recruiting him.
For all those wants to become reality, Little knew changes had to be made.
“I wasn’t really heading down a good road when I got into trouble,” Little said. “I got into trouble and started making big mistakes. I had an attitude. I had an attitude toward my parents. I felt I needed to change that.
“I stopped being a sneaky kid and stopped hiding stuff. I’m more of an honest person. I decided I was going to a great big brother, great family member, a great teammate and a great friend.”
It’s what Little, the ESPNChicago.com Prep Athlete of the Week, has become. While much of his headlines these days have been generated from being one of the state’s top running backs, Little has impressed Saxons coach Mark Stilling the most with his actions off the field.
“I do think what happened to Shepard was extremely important,” Stilling said. “I’m a believer in things happen for a reason. It wasn’t like he was an awful kid, but part of becoming an adult is learning how your decisions not only affect yourself, but how they affect others. I think what happened was he had a pattern of making choices and making decision and not thinking of the consequences.”
Little did have to face the consequence of his decision -- which Stilling described as non-malicious -- when he was suspended last season. The one positive in the situation was Little was still allowed to practice if he chose to.
Little didn’t hesitate. He was there on the practice field every day. Fridays weren’t easy to watch from the sideline, but he understood that was his punishment.
“I hated it on Friday nights, but during the week I was there to make my team better,” said Little, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound halfback. “Friday night I would hate seeing plays where I would think, ‘You should have made this play, made this read.’ It was my fault that I wasn’t playing. Everything happens for a reason.”
Stilling was glad to have Little there, but he also never expected otherwise. Little’s work ethic has never been questioned.
“He was the best scout-team tailback in America,” Stilling said. “I know how important football is to Shepard. I guess I wasn’t surprised when he came every day despite knowing he couldn’t dress on Friday nights. I guess it was reassuring to know that it was important to him. Throughout the process of suspending him, on a daily basis my thought process was I hope this changes his life.”
Coming into the season, Little was getting his personal life in order, but he worried about his football game as well. He was afraid that he couldn’t be the same running back he was as a sophomore when he rushed for 1,700-plus yards on varsity. His fear was he had lost too much of his game by being away for the year.
One game in, he proved otherwise, rushing for 244 yards and a touchdown in the Saxons’ upset of No. 1-ranked Maine South. Two games in, Little took it even further, running for 331 yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo Grove.
Through six games, Little has compiled 1,175 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns and has put himself in the running for ESPNChicago.com High School Football Player of the Year award. The Saxons have also been ranked for much of the season.
“I think his vision is good,” Stilling said. “I think he’s sneaky powerful for his size. I don’t think you expect someone of his size to hit you like he does. His ability to hit you and make you miss, that’s the tough part. His speed is good, but it’s not great. He’s not going to run past everyone on Friday night, but he’s going to make everyone miss.”
Colleges have taken notice, too. Eastern Illinois has offered him. Others are evaluating him. Stilling believes Little could play in the MAC if given the opportunity.
A lot has changed for Little in the past year, but it’s all been for the better. He doesn’t miss his old life.
“It feels a lot different playing football,” Little said. “My name is in paper, and my picture is in the paper. I have to be more careful where I’m going. I don’t have to worry about that. I lost the attitude that I had being a negative person, being a tough guy and all that.
“It’s not about being cool. It’s about being respectful and doing what’s right. It’s not cool to be one of those kids who’s getting in trouble. That’s what I gained out of this.”