WR Edell Shepherd scored the Bucs' only touchdown against Miami on Saturday night
It's a moment indelibly etched in the minds of all Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans – Edell Shepherd's 30-yard diving touchdown snare of a Chris Simms pass with little more than a minute left in regulation against the Washington Redskins last November 13. Not only did it set up Mike Alstott's game-winning two-point conversion, it kept the Bucs from losing their fourth game in a five-game stretch and helped provide momentum for the team to win five of its next seven games en route to a division championship.
It was a gutty victory in a fiercely contested game that spoke to the character of the 2005 Buccaneers, but it also spoke volumes about Shepherd, the man – a man whose faith and belief in himself put him in position to succeed that day. Those have been his longtime sources of strength and inspiration along a path to the NFL that would have discouraged and demoralized many other men.
First, he was not drafted. Despite setting school records with 83 receptions, 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns during his senior year at San Jose State, Shepherd found himself entering the league an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears in 2002. He spent most of that season on the practice squad before, ultimately, being released. Along the way, he played in NFL Europe and eventually signed with the Buccaneers in 2003. After seeing limited playing time that year, Shepherd was ready for bigger things in 2004 but suffered a broken foot in training camp and spent the entire season on injured reserve. As devastating as the injury was, Shepherd again overcame the setback, fueled, he said, by an unshakeable faith.
"God keeps me going," Shepherd said. "All the bumps and roadblocks that I've been through, those are just tests that God puts you through, and if you couldn't take it, he wouldn't give it to you. I know for a fact that even when I broke my foot, for me being able to come back out and run and play again let's me know that I can be here and I can do this."
Finally healthy, Shepherd got his chance last year in the aforementioned Buccaneers-Redskins game, filling in for an injured Michael Clayton. That game, he said, was a glimpse into what he is capable of when given a chance, and he hopes to show more of that same play-making ability this preseason. He's off to a good start, pulling in three catches for 93 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown last Saturday against the Miami Dolphins. It's that type of performance that Shepherd understands he will need to replicate if he is to again earn a spot this year amid a deep pool of Buccaneer receivers.
No one is unseating Joey Galloway, the team's top receiver and perennial deep threat. Michael Clayton – the man Shepherd filled in for against Washington – is healthy this year and expected to return to the form he exhibited during his rookie year when he made 80 catches for 1,193 yards. Ike Hilliard brings 10 years of experience to the group. Youngsters Maurice Stovall and Paris Warren have flashed their potential in the first two preseason games. First-year man Chas Gessner made big plays throughout training camp, and then there's J.R. Russell and return man Mark Jones. And don't forget former Pro Bowler David Boston, a big-play maker ready to re-emerge.
"My approach is not to even worry about it – don't worry about anything that I can't control," Shepherd said. "The only thing I can control is what I do when I come out on the field and go in the game. All I can do is perform well, everything else will take care of itself. A lot of the things we have no control of."
So instead of worrying, Shepherd spends his time trying to get better. In the offseason, he trains back in his hometown of Los Angeles with other NFL receivers at "The Phenom Factory." Together, they work on everything from speed and endurance to route-running.
"One day we might be on the beach, the next day we're running in the hills, the next day we're running on a track," Shepherd said. "Then we're out on the football field. We get a total workout.
"It's just a group of guys in the NFL – it's not even just NFL. It's college, it's high school, it's a lot of kids out there from all over the Los Angeles area. A lot of players who are from L.A., who are playing in the NFL, they'll bring teammates from whatever team they're with. The camp gets bigger and bigger every year. It's nice. The front runner is probably Chad Johnson – he's probably the biggest name in it, right now. Keyshawn Johnson pretty much started it off a few years back, but now he'll tell you he's too old to work out like that."
For the 26-year old Shepherd, the extra time spent improving his game is absolutely vital if he's to secure a roster spot with the Buccaneers this season. He knows he can't stop working, given the talent of the other men in camp who are vying for his position.
"I'm doing everything," Shepherd said. "If you need me to go in there and block the safeties, you know I'm going in there. I might not look like much, but my heart is a lot. I'm going to get the job done. I don't think there is anything that I couldn't do well."
Such spirited competition among those ultra-competitive and talented players is what the preseason is all about, explained wide receivers coach Richard Mann, who labeled last year a "big stepping stone" for Shepherd.
"I think that's the key – to be able to take it from the practice field to the game, and [Shepherd] was able to do that," Mann said. "This year, we didn't play him a whole lot as a base receiver, but we spot-played him, and he did a good job the other night. That's what we see out of E – he's guy who can come in and make some plays. If we needed him to, hopefully he could finish a game for us, or if somebody got hurt, hopefully he could step in.
"He's been around us for three years, so he knows this offense. He's made some plays in this offense – that was obvious from last year. He did a good job the other night. We're just trying to keep [all the receivers] hungry, and hopefully they all keep competing. In the end, we have to make good decisions because they're going to be some tough decisions to make, and E has done very well. We like Edell, we like all those guys. They're a very competitive group."
Making the team, Shepherd said, comes down to a simple equation – making the plays when called upon. Failure to do so can mean being forgotten about, and that's something he's not willing to let happen.
"I won't let it be easy," he said. "That's up to me. If I come out here and don't perform, you can forget about me, but if I come out here and do my job and stay in your face making plays, I'll be in your mind."