Nathan Shepherd's long road to the NFL

Jets defensive end talks about football, overcoming obstacles, and his love of snakes

Jets defensive end talks about football, overcoming obstacles, and his love of snakes

'I’m a big nature guy and animal guy, I like to get out in nature'

For Nathan Shepherd, the path from Ajax, Ont. to the New York Jets was anything but direct: it saw him go through B.C.'s Lower Mainland and small-town Kansas, battling depression along the way.

He started his college football career at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University, the only Canadian school in the NCAA, but was eventually forced to drop out due to financial issues. He spent the next two years working a series of labour jobs in B.C. and Ontario, feeling depressed and adrift. In 2016, he returned to college football, playing at Fort Hays State, a small school in rural Kansas. He left there in 2018, entering the NFL Draft as one of the top-ranked defensive linemen. He was chosen in the third round by the Jets.

In his episode of Inside an Athletes Head, Shepherd talks about how he fought through his depression to find a new sense of purpose,

CBC: Pressure is a constant for a professional athlete. What do you off the field to deal with that pressure?

NS: For me, I'm a big nature guy and animal guy, I like to get out in nature. I call my family. Hang out with my pets. Just to get outside, that kinda helps me.

CBC: Speaking of animals and pets: snakes. How did you get into snakes? How many did you have?

NS: I've been into reptiles since I can remember. When I was younger, we had this animal encyclopedia. I couldn't even understand all the words yet, but I remember flipping through it, and it was always cool to figure out 'OK, what animal is that? What region is it from?' But it really took off when I was in high school. I found a YouTube channel by a reptile producer called Brian Barczyk... He created a YouTube channel showing everything he does. That's when I learned people can be reptile breeders as a profession. I had three snakes in my childhood and teenage years. Right now I have two. I'll probably keep it around there.

CBC: Do you remember the first time you really felt pressure as an athlete?

NS: I would say one of the earlier memories probably had to do with earning a scholarship. There were other pressures, in high school, in Pee Wee and things like this, but they didn't hit like this one did. That might have been because football is a team sport, but earning a scholarship, that's all on the individual.

CBC: Who is the person in your life you turn to when you feel like you need advice or find yourself struggling on the field?

NS: I would say that I have several people in my corner, and it depends on what it is. Sometimes, if it's words of encouragement that are kind of general, I'll turn to family, my mother and father. If it's something sport specific, I'll talk to my previous coaches and let them know how I'm doing. Even if they can't give me an answer, they can direct me to someone else who can.

CBC: In the video, you talk about experiencing depression, what did you do to fight out of that?

NS: I had to let go of certain limitations I had built up for myself in my head, and certain expectations that society had for me. 'You're at this age, you should have a degree and such and such.' I'm at where I'm at, and I'm just gonna climb from there. And we're not gonna have an ideology on what I need to be. Because that's not where I'm at, so throw all that out, clean the plate, start over, and let's go.

CBC: When did you know you were an NFL athlete?

NS: That's an interesting question. I'll start off by saying that it's not something that the majority of players are told, and if you are told, you have to look at who you're listening to. There's a lot of faith that goes into it. I think it's like that for anyone in any profession. 'I have this desire, I don't know how far I can take this, but I know if I don't try I'll find out.

I never said 'I am an NFL calibre athlete.' If I hang my hat on that, I might lose some of my hunger. But I said 'I don't know where this is gonna take me, but I'm gonna be all in.'

CBC: You're in a division with the New England Patriots, who are one of the league's best franchises? How does that influence your training?

NS: We take it one week at a time. If you start looking at any other team too early, you're going to miss what's in front of you. And I think a lot of us go by the saying 'iron sharpens iron.' Having the ability to play great teams, that can work to your advantage.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Season 2 of Inside an Athletes Head now streaming on CBC Gem.