- Jeff Miller
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HOUSTON -- All the 2004 Houston Cypress Ridge Rams had accomplished in the program's first varsity football season -- winning a district championship and earning a Class 5A playoff berth -- seemed to no longer matter in the agonizing moments following a 28-0 first-round loss to Houston Memorial.
Coach Gary Thiebaud did his best to console the distraught players. As Thiebaud finally left the field, someone walking alongside him calmly mentioned the players' pain soon would pass and they would recognize how good of a season they had played.
Thiebaud turned to the person and asked, "How old are you?" -- since Russell Shepard was then an eighth-grade Rams ball boy.
Shepard's father, Russell Sr., says the story is consistent with his son's makeup.
"He just has an old soul," the father said. "He's always been like that."
Young Russell soon will take another step on the road to growing up fast. On Sunday, he'll be one of the senior quarterbacks playing in the annual Under Armour All-America Game in Orlando, Fla.
Soon after, he'll return home for one last day of high school (complete with the retiring of his No. 10 jersey), then move into an apartment in Baton Rouge, La., to begin classes at LSU on Jan. 12.
"From high school to college in a week," he said matter of factly.
Maybe Welcome Wagon will be there, but Shepard (6-foot-1, 183 pounds) learned how popular his arrival on campus will be when he attended LSU's home game against Alabama in November. Fans seated in the student section of Tiger Stadium chanted his name when he was recognized on the field before the game.
"He's not going to be the savior," Thiebaud said. "He's just going to be one of the guys. But he'll do everything in his power to help that program win another national championship and be the starting quarterback."
Shepard passed for 1,843 yards, ran for 1,946 and scored 48 touchdowns this season. He led Cypress Ridge, located in northwest Houston, to a 9-3 record and a third-round playoff berth. In the Rams' 55-48 playoff loss to Copperas Cove, Shepard passed for 311 yards, ran for 227 and scored six touchdowns -- including a 76-yard run and a 55-yard pass.
He said he chose LSU over Texas, USC and Florida because he believes LSU will provide his best chance of playing quarterback -- and soon.
LSU went from national champ last season to playing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl this season. Along the way, the Tigers started three quarterbacks: sophomore transfer Andrew Hatch, redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee and true freshman Jordan Jefferson. Lee started the most games (eight) and led the Southeastern Conference in interceptions (16). A 4-0 start eroded into a 7-5 mark heading to Atlanta, including three home losses.
"I have the opportunity to come in fresh, come in early and contribute," Shepard said. "Worst case scenario, I come in and do what [Florida's] Tim Tebow did his freshman year."
Said Thiebaud: "I know coach [Les] Miles has a very open mind about football today and the athletic guy at quarterback and the stress he can put on a defense, with the success that West Virginia's had with Pat White and Florida with Tebow. He sees that's where football has gone. He told me they're still going to line up with two backs and play power football but also have the ability to spread it out."
Shepard often is compared to another recent double-threat quarterback from Houston, Vince Young of University of Texas and Tennessee Titans fame. According to Shepard, his father and his coach, Shepard's recruitment by Mack Brown's Longhorns ended with Texas' stated intention to recruit him as an athlete and not a quarterback.
"He was very disappointed with Texas," Shepard's father said. "As a kid, all he wanted to be was a Longhorn."
Said Thiebaud: "As I told Mack, 'You haven't won a conference championship, let alone a national championship, without a kid like that playing quarterback.' He agreed."
Thiebaud coached against Young and Houston Madison as defensive coordinator at Houston Langham Creek.
"Russell's a very explosive player; Vince is very explosive," Thiebaud said. "Vince is bigger; I think Russell is faster. I don't know the intangibles about Vince. His work ethic. I've heard stories. Character. I don't know those.
"I do know Russell Shepard, and he's not second to anybody."
Texas declined to comment on its recruiting of Shepard, citing NCAA rules. The Longhorns received an early commitment from Austin Lake Travis' Garrett Gilbert, who set multiple state passing records, won two Class 4A titles and will also be playing in the Orlando game. Shepard made his commitment to LSU in early March, soon after he and Gilbert attended Texas' junior day and Gilbert then announced his commitment to the Longhorns.
Thiebaud recognized Shepard as a special talent as a freshman. It was then that he talked to Shepard and his family about the advantages of accelerating his class load so he could graduate during the middle of the 2008-09 school year.
Shepard attended summer sessions and loaded up during the regular school year. He said he'll be one of seven football players starting early at LSU in January.
Thiebaud said recruiting got crazy after Shepard's junior year. He ran for 1,525 yards and passed for 595 as the Rams finished 11-2.
The highlight of the recruiting journey, Shepard said, came during a visit this past summer to California and noted quarterback instructor Steve Clarkson.
"As I turned to my left, some man was saying my name. It was Joe Montana," Shepard said. "'Hey, you've got to turn your feet this way.' Just to be in Joe Montana's presence, to be coached by him -- that was amazing."
Russell Sr. and Nikki Shepard have another child, younger son Nicholas, who will be a junior on the Rams next season. Russell Sr. said he and his wife will travel to LSU when they can but probably will follow young Russell more on TV.
"It's important to show both of your kids the same love," he said. "I'm giving Russell back to God. I thank God for getting to raise him because he's a special kid. He's truly a gift from God."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at email@example.com.