From ball boy to top recruit
The Cypress Ridge football team had every reason to be proud of its varsity debut season in 2004. The Rams captured a district title in their first year and earned a spot in the Class 5A, Division II state playoffs, where they fell to Houston Memorial, 28-0, in the bi-district round.
After losing to Memorial, the Rams walked off the field not thinking of all they had accomplished but rather how they weren't able to take their dream season one step further.
It was a long walk for Cy Ridge head coach Gary Thiebaud, who could clearly see the pain on his players' faces. Alongside Thiebaud was the team's ball boy, Russell Shepard, who was in eighth grade at the time. Win or lose, Shepard always made the post-game walk next to Thiebaud, only this time he decided to offer the coach some advice.
"Coach, I know these guys are upset right now, but they won the district championship and nobody in the history of Cypress ISD has done that as a new school. They'll get over it and remember what a great year they had."
"I looked at him and said, 'How old are you?'" recalls Thiebaud.
Shepard's decision to drop knowledge on his future coach came from a season watching a team give its heart and soul to football every time it stepped between the lines. That group taught him all that goes into winning a game.
So no, Shepard didn't feel pain or sadness about the playoff loss. He felt pride for the graduating seniors who exceeded expectations. Hope that he could one day bring that same passion to Cy Ridge. And anticipation that he would be the team leader who could take the Rams to another level.
Four years later, Shepard has scaled heights even he didn't think he could reach. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior quarterback and LSU commit is rated the state's No. 1 player and nation's No. 2 overall recruit in the ESPNU 150 and is the linchpin for one of the state's top teams.
"I thought I'd be a pretty successful player, but I never dreamed I'd be in this position," says Shepard.
It all began to take shape during Shepard's sophomore year. Thiebaud had planned to use Shepard at receiver that year until slated starting quarterback Justin Mueller went down with an injury during the previous spring, which moved Shepard to backup quarterback behind T.J. Shirey.
"Once Russell stepped on the field, it was a whole different ballgame," says Thiebaud.
With the speed and quickness of Reggie Bush and a rocket arm that continues to improve, Shepard delivers plays that would leave even Chad Johnson speechless. Just ask rival Cypress Falls, which watched Shepard break ankles and burn defenders en route to 341 rushing yards and five touchdowns in a Rams victory last year.
Shepard finished his junior season rushing for 1,525 yards and 18 touchdowns on 176 carries (8.7 yards per carry). He also passed for 794 yards and seven scores as Cy Ridge won the district title and advanced to the Class 5A, Division I regional semifinals before losing to Hightower, 24-21, on a 50-yard field goal as time expired.
Despite all of his early success on the field and the lofty recruit ranking, Shepard has bigger goals in mind, like winning a state championship, achieving college success and reaching the NFL. Shepard's resolve to stay true to his goals is why he reminds Thiebaud of Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas, whom Thiebaud coached as an assistant at Willowridge. When Thiebaud recalls a particular conversation he had with Thomas his freshman year, he can't help but think of Shepard.
"I asked him what his goals were and he said he wanted to go to the NFL," recalls Thiebaud, now in his seventh year at Cy Ridge. "He had a plan. Russell's the same way. He doesn't get frustrated or discouraged. He works the plan."
Like striving to become a better quarterback.
Shepard hears the doubters who question whether he can play the position in college. That's why he spends six days a week working on his mechanics, arm strength and accuracy. Shepard hones his skills on his own or by throwing to the Cy Ridge receivers. He also works with personal coach and former NFL quarterback Jeff Blake and practices with Cy Ridge offensive coordinator Rob Griffing.
"His best attribute is his coachability," says Griffing. "He just soaks it up and goes out and works. His God-given ability just makes him that much more special. I think the people who doubt him just fuel the fire for him."
But as much as he's fired up to prove himself at quarterback, Shepard also realizes there's a life after football. He took summer school courses this year so he can graduate early in December and enroll at LSU in January. The plan is not only to get a jumpstart on learning the LSU offense, but to get ahead on his academics as well.
Shepard, who plans to major in marketing and communications, also volunteers his time with the Oliver Foundation helping to curb child obesity.
"I want to maintain that balance of being an average kid," says Shepard. "I don't ever talk about football. It's not my life."
Which is not to say Shepard doesn't plan to succeed in college and the NFL. He's read all about the former top high school recruits who didn't pan out once their prep careers were finished.
"I have that fear of being that player who lost it, who just didn't seize it," says Shepard. "That scares me. I don't want to be a bust. I want to be hungry when I get to college so I can be successful."
It's a desire for success he learned back when he was a wise-beyond-his-years ball boy.
Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.