Shepard's character outshines incredible talent

CYPRESS, Texas -- Gary Thiebaud likes to tell this story about Russell Shepard. It's one that defined the moral fiber of a teenager and spawned a leader.

Thiebaud prefaced the story by noting it is unparalleled in his 30 years as an educator and head football coach. He said "nearly every college coach was teary-eyed when I finished telling it."

Shepard, the No. 2-ranked player in the ESPNU 150, who plays for Cypress Ridge High, not only touched a gathering at a Houston-area funeral home last July, he earned the respect and admiration of a grieving family which included Cypress Ridge assistant coach Zac Quinlan.

"It took a 16-year-old young man to take charge of a sensitive day," Thiebaud recalled.

At the funeral services for Quinlan's father, Mark, the celebrant invited those in attendance to speak on the deceased's behalf. Nary was a word spoken. Thiebaud said the priest from a local Roman Catholic parish stood awkwardly until Shepard strode to the podium.

Thiebaud thought, "Russell, what are you doing?"

Shepard's message was unrehearsed and came straight from the heart.

"I've lost loved ones too," Shepard said. "I'd want someone to stand up to speak if it were my family. I spoke for the team; I made sure [coach Quinlan] understood the Cy Ridge football team had his back. Coach needed to know we were there for him."

He then addressed Mark Quinlan's grieving widow: "Your husband must have been a heckuva person because you raised a great man, our coach. He's in a better place now."

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Zac Quinlan's family was deeply touched by Shepard's comforting words. Shepard's lead was followed by several family friends and co-workers who decided to address the congregation.

"It was greatly appreciated," Quinlan said. "We were all hurting and what he said really opened my eyes. It really took guts to speak about someone you never met, but that's Russell. He has many fans in our family; it was a huge deal."

That's also the way his teammates view Shepard, who possesses innate leadership qualities befitting a head of state.

"He doesn't say a lot," said Cy Ridge offensive tackle Keenan Flax, who will choose between North Texas, Arkansas and Houston. "Russell always steps up and says the right thing. He leads by example, sometimes by actions, and usually deflects the praise heaped upon himself to his teammates. That's the sign of a true leader."

And that leadership ability, combined with talent that makes him one of the top athletes in the nation, his propelled him toward the top of the recruiting rankings.

"Who wouldn't want to be thought of as the No. 1 player?" Shepard said. "It'll only push me harder to become a more complete player."

Shepard, who chose LSU over Florida, Southern California, Texas and Texas A&M, is a sinewy 6-foot-2, 195-pound athletic quarterback who can beat teams with his footwork and powerful right arm.

He helped Cy Ridge (11-2) reach the Class 5A, Division I regional semifinals and capture the District 15-5A championship. Shepard ran for 1,525 yards and 18 touchdowns on 176 carries and passed for 794 yards and eight TDs, operating out of the spread offense. Last spring he long jumped 23 feet, 7 inches, and ran on the 4x100 relay team which was clocked at 41.2 seconds.

His athleticism puts him in select company.

Shepard should be an impact player as a freshman at LSU. His highly favorable ESPN 150 evaluation reads:

"Shepard is a rare athlete who resembles University of Florida receiver Percy Harvin when lined up at quarterback--a scary thought. Shepard is lean, flexible and plays with a lot of wiggle. He might seem like just a great athlete playing quarterback at first, but he's the real deal as a complete player. Still, he makes most of his plays with his legs, either on called runs or on scrambles after the initial play unravels. He causes headaches for defenses because he can break down a defender in the open … Shepard is much further along as a passer than Terrelle Pryor (of Ohio State) was at this stage, and Shepard is more explosive."

Thiebaud believes his three-year starter is a natural under center. So much that he trusts Shepard with the play calling for the no-huddle, high-octane offense.

"He creates mismatches for the defense," Thiebaud said. "When the defense commits too many men to the interior box, he goes through his progressions to find one of the four wide receivers. If they commit to the outside, it only opens the running lanes.

"He takes charge once he steps in the huddle and is a cerebral player. I respect his knowledge of the game and read; it's a great partnership."

Shepard's ability to motivate and inspire extends beyond the field of play. He has reached out to players being recruited by LSU. As of Aug. 1, the Tigers have received 15 verbal commitments, including four players from Texas. Shepard says he called fellow Texans -- Stavion Lowe (6-4, 294), an offensive tackle from Brownwood, and running back Dexter Pratt of Navasota -- who were previously undecided but now are considering the Tigers.

"I told them we could make this a special class," Shepard said. "I do my research on each player, introduce myself and then tell them why they'd be important to the LSU recruiting class. I know what they're going through. This could be a dream team."

Shepard is one of three LSU players committed to the Under Armour All-America Game on Jan. 4 at Orlando's Citrus Bowl. He is joined by Lowe and cornerback Janzen Jackson of Barbe (Lake Charles, La.). However, Shepard isn't the only quarterback in the LSU recruiting class. That's because Chris Garrett of Tupelo (Miss.), a strong pocket passer who threw for 3,278 yards and 27 TDs as a junior, decommitted from Mississippi State, opting for LSU.

Shepard is still working on safety Craig Loston of Aldine (Texas) Eisenhower, who says he'll sign with Clemson, and is looking for an assist with his younger brother, Nicholas, a promising 5-11, 180-pound sophomore safety at Cy Ridge.

"I'm working on Nick; he'll listen to me," Shepard said.

Last week Shepard finished a six-week summer school session, successfully completing English IV, a core class, which will allow him to graduate high school in December and enroll at LSU for the spring semester.

"All I've ever asked is to have a chance at starting as a true freshman," Shepard said. "If I don't start at quarterback, then I'll switch to another position, like, wide receiver. I don't plan on redshirting."

Before leaving for Baton Rouge, La., Shepard is focused on the upcoming high school season which kicks off on Aug. 29 against Humble. The Rams, who return 10 starters, are favored to win their second straight district title and will make their ESPNU debut on Oct. 16 against archrival Cy Falls. That game will match Shepard against Cy Falls quarterback Kolby Gray, who passed for 3,350 yards and 32 TDs last season.

"It's going to be a heckuva game," Shepard said. "I'm glad it's on ESPN."

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.