Nathan Shepherd has carried the words with him every step of the way, from J. Clarke Richardson Collegiate secondary school to Simon Fraser University to Fort Hays State to now, as a New York Jet.
They come from his old coach in 2010 with the Ajax-Pickering Dolphins Football Club in Ontario, a man named Jeff Ahlstedt.
“The one main thing I always instilled into my kids, and it’s a tagline that I still use today, ‘If it is to be, it’s up to me.’ Obviously, Nate must have taken those words to the extreme,” Ahlstedt said Wednesday over the phone, laughing, “and has now done extremely well, and I’m very proud of Nate.”
Shepherd is reminded of those words as he sits on a bench outside the Atlantic Health Training Center after practice.
“Jeff Ahlstedt!” he says immediately, and smiles.
“I can’t lie, that’s something that was ingrained in my character,” Shepherd said of his coach’s message. “Basically, what I grew to like about it was that the only limitations that you’re gonna have, or the ones that are gonna stop you are the ones that you put on yourself. So ‘If it is to be it’s up to me’ for me it was just a great way to kinda take control of whatever you wanted your future to look like.”
What Shepherd, the Jets’ third-round draft choice, wanted his future to look like unfolds Friday night when he runs through the tunnel at MetLife Stadium into his NFL dream against the Falcons.
“Man … it’s gonna be a great awakening,” Shepherd said. “Been a long time coming, and it’s something that you dream about for many years prior. And then, for it to actually be here, sometimes you don’t even realize what you accomplished.”
But you do, because you worked as a bouncer, you worked at a plant nursery, you worked electrical construction, you worked printing boxes for beer cartons or pop when your NFL dream was temporarily cut-blocked by not being able to afford college tuition.
“I guess one of the low parts was not having a sense of where my life was going, what direction — academically, athletically for my future and what that would mean for my future family,” Shepherd said.
He grew to be 6-foot-3 ³/₄ and 315 pounds, and began opening NFL eyes at Fort Hays, and then at the Senior Bowl, where he stood up to Giants’ second-round pick, Will Hernandez.
If it is to be, it’s up to me.
“My coach back in college, my D-line coach, this is how he would describe it if we saw him on film, he would say: ‘He’s a tall glass of water and you better pack a lunch.’ And that’s how I’d describe him too,” Shepherd said.
It apparently applies to Shepherd, as well. He is already the starter opposite Leonard Williams at defensive end.
“What I like the most is that each day, he seems to be progressing,” Williams said. “He’s strong, he’s physical, he’s fast, he’s a good pass-rusher and a good run-stopper.”
Shepherd turns 25 next month and is actually older than Williams, a four-year vet.
“He’s a good rookie,” Williams said. “When I was a rookie they would always have to tell me to bring waters into the D-line room and stuff like that. With him, we don’t have to tell him, he’s already like bringing it in there, he’s always trying to look out for the vets, like offering stuff like, ‘Hey, you want me to carry your helmet in?’ He does the extra mile, I like it.”
Shepherd is asked what lessons he has learned about life in the NFL.
“You got to have tough skin, and you have to be able to live in the now, so coaches don’t want to hear about what you did yesterday or the day before,” he said. “What have you done for me lately? And when you do make mistakes, address them on your own time, be able to take constructive criticism — even if it’s criticism that isn’t constructive, be able to take that, and not take anything negative to the next play, because you’re given another opportunity.”
Shepherd chuckles as he recalls his days with the Ajax-Pickering Dolphins.
“Played linebacker,” Shepherd said. “One memory that I have, there was a blitz that I was supposed to go through, missed, went A gap instead of B gap, and boom! Running back hit it hard, hit my gap and scored a touchdown. Unfortunate memory, but hey, that’s football for you.”
From up around Toronto, Jeff Ahlstedt says: “Hopefully he remembers the ‘If it is to be it’s up to me’ slogan, and I hope he’s lived his life that way, and [I’m] very proud of him.”
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