GREEN BAY – The argument could be made Darrius Shepherd defied the odds long before his improbable summer culminated with a place on the Packers’ 53-man roster.
Back in May, the former North Dakota State receiver was one of 20 players who attended Green Bay’s rookie minicamp on a tryout. Following the two-day marathon, Shepherd was the only invitee to receive an offer to join the team’s 90-man roster.
His contract contained a single guarantee – the opportunity to show his record-breaking run through the Football Championship Subdivision could translate to the NFL despite a 5-foot-11, 186-pound frame that caused many scouts to pass.
And that was good enough for Shepherd.
“I didn’t really care about the situation. I just needed an opportunity,” said Shepherd, who finished as NDSU’s second all-time leading receiver with 188 catches and 2,841 receiving yards.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be a drafted guy. I waited around and didn’t get a phone call. It was like, ‘Just give me an opportunity to do what I can to make it work out.’”
Four months later, after one of the most unlikely bids to make Green Bay’s 53 in the last 25 years, Shepherd now shares an adjoining locker to two-time Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams.
For his part, Adams has been one of Shepherd’s biggest advocates. He praised the rookie receiver at every turn this offseason – from the precision of his route-running to how Shepherd went out of his way to learn offensive-line protections.
Adams’ admiration for Shepherd’s humble approach began during the first offseason workout during which rookies were integrated with the rest of the veterans on the roster.
As an icebreaker that day, the Packers had all of their rookies introduce themselves to the group by stating their names, college, position, and for extra laughs, their signing bonus.
Shepherd had the unenviable task of following rookie first-round pick Darnell Savage and his seven-figure bonus, but he still stepped forward and spoke the truth when called upon.
“Darrius Shepherd, North Dakota State, receiver. Zero-dollar signing bonus,” he said plainly. The team quickly erupted in a wave of cheers.
“Everybody thought he was joking,” Adams said. “I’m like, ‘That’s the type of dude I want on my team.’ Because if you don’t pay me a dollar, I don’t even know if I want to be there. So it says a lot about the type of guy he is.”
One of Shepherd’s loudest supporters that day was third-year offensive lineman Lucas Patrick, a former tryout player himself back in 2016 who knows that overlooked feeling all too well.
Not only did Patrick have only one rookie invite, he didn’t even receive a contract from Green Bay at first. It wasn’t until nearly a month later the Packers brought the 6-foot-3, 313-pound offensive lineman back with two weeks left in the offseason program.
As long as the odds appeared at first, Patrick was motivated and inspired after watching another late arrival, safety Chris Banjo, carve out a role on Green Bay’s defense and special teams.
Over the past three years, Patrick has since developed into a trustworthy reserve on the offensive line, making six starts during his 26 regular-season appearances. Intrigued by Shepherd’s story, Patrick made it a point to reach out to his fellow tryout brethren to remind him the NFL goal is obtainable.
The Packers hit the field for another practice ahead of the Week 1 matchup against the Bears.
Shepherd was a portrait of consistency throughout the spring and summer. One catch after another, he worked his way up a crowded receiver depth chart to get reps with Aaron Rodgers and the No. 1 offense.
“I felt like every day we’d turn around and be like, ‘That ‘Shep kid made a nice play over the middle or on a go ball,’” Patrick said. “I don’t think there’s a guy in this locker room who wasn’t rooting for him after seeing how he performed in OTAs and even camp.”
Shepherd proved to be more than just a story when he caught touchdowns in back-to-back games to open the preseason and flashed as a returner in relief of an injured Trevor Davis.
There was one fumble in the finale against Kansas City he wanted back, but he still showed enough to General Manager Brian Gutekunst to warrant a roster spot.
After spending cut-down day around the facilities Saturday, Shepherd was told approximately 10 minutes prior to the 3 p.m. CT deadline that he made it. The first call he placed was to his mother, Amy, and siblings, Xavier and Cheyanne.
As excited as everyone was, and to be sure “they were screaming,” there was one person missing in the celebration – Shepherd’s father, Louis III, who passed away at 44 years old last July after a long battle with cancer.
“It’s one of the driving forces of my game is trying to play and honor him,” Shepherd said. “He meant a lot to me and I know he’d be so proud about what I’m doing. It definitely sucks not being able to share this moment with him obviously, but I’m doing all I can to make my family proud.”
Adams joked he may have been more nervous than Shepherd heading into cut-down day but couldn’t have been happier to see the rookie’s locker stationed next to his come Sunday.
“It’s like the easiest person I’ve ever had to deal with coming in as a rookie here,” Adams said. “If he didn’t make it, it would have deflated me a little bit because I know he did everything he could do humanly to (make it).”
Patrick added: “The kid did everything right and you want to help guys like that. … He’s a guy who you want in your locker room. You want not only on the 53, but on the 46, too. He’s a guy who will fight for you.”
Reflecting on his journey, Shepherd recognizes a seminal moment came in his first team meeting after signing. Standing at the front of the room, Head Coach Matt LaFleur told the rookies it doesn’t matter how you got here – “everyone has the same opportunity” to prove they belong.
Those words struck a chord with Shepherd. Yes, this rookie’s dream could end in an instant. He doesn’t back down from that reality. In fact, he relishes having to earn his keep every day.
“I love this position. You have to prove it every day that you belong,” Shepherd said. “I’ve wanted to play in the league since I was a little kid, playing football from 5 until now. It’s just crazy to see it all pay off.”