Zone Read: Shepherd’s Greater Calling

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Shepherd’s Greater Calling

Silent surroundings can often fuel perspective through clarity of life’s “bigger picture.”

Throughout the height of COVID-19, and amidst quarantine restrictions in 2020, Zack Shepherd sat alone, in an apartment, over 6,000 miles from his Mesa home where he grew up.

After graduating high school a semester early in 2018, his two-year LDS mission had taken him to Italy.

“The [Italian] government is different,” Shepherd said during an in-depth, personal interview the “Zone Read.” “Quarantine [in Italy] was very, very strict. I couldn’t leave my apartment, except to get groceries for about four months. That was really difficult but a lot of different things got me through it. I leaned on my faith.”

He also leaned on his new playbook.

The former Williams Field High standout quarterback, who helped lead the Black Hawks to a 2016 5A State Championship as a sophomore, was signed and set to continue his academic, and football career at Southern Utah University.

During his downtime in southern Europe, he deep dove into the Thunderbirds’ offensive schemes from a digital playbook sent to him by one of the SUU coaches.

“Every morning…I’d take 30 minutes to look over the playbook,” he explained. “Just thinking about football again, kind of got me through [the pandemic]. It was super, super difficult but the more I talked about it, the more I realized that if I stuck through it, it would be a good experience for me. I’ve come out a better, stronger, more patient person.”

Another experience was trying to stay in any sort of shape being sequestered inside a modest apartment for a third of a year.

“I got really creative,” Shepherd said with a chuckle. “One of the things I did was see how long I could stay in a hand stand. I think my longest was 35 seconds or something. I would jump rope forever and I was lucky, my apartment building had a parking garage. So I’d just go down to the parking garage and run laps. It was crazy. I was in Italy so, obviously, I was eating a lot of good food. A lot of carbs. I knew it would be a good opportunity to lose some weight (laughing). I think I went from 205 [pounds] to 185. I started eating healthy during the pandemic. I started cooking a lot of good meals.”

— Zack Shepherd (@zshep12) January 18, 2019

When his mission concluded, Shepherd returned to the states to start college life in Cedar City, Utah. The quaint college town, with a population of around 33,000 and home to Southern Utah, sits 250 miles south of Salt Lake City.

His first year-plus as a student-athlete, studying business and political science while strapping on the pads again, was everything he had hoped it would be.

But there was a greater calling – one which included him saying goodbye to the sport he loved since early childhood.

“It was a very difficult decision, but I decided to step away,” the 21-year-old Shepherd explained. “The main reason was because I realized there was a lot of things in life that I needed to do. Football treated me so well for so long, but I decided my time was better spent elsewhere.”

That time turned to founding Fatherhood Initiative, a non-profit organization “dedicated to fathers, and the role they play in the family, a child’s life, and society as a whole,” per their website’s mission statement.

Shepherd’s motivation for the project came from his father, Steve, who has helped guide and support him throughout his life.

His positive, supportive childhood relationship with his father was one Steve never experienced.

“He had an abusive father, an alcoholic,” he said. “He had a really, really tough situation growing up. Small town in Ohio. It just wasn’t the right situation. So, I grew up, learning from him and hearing stories [from his childhood]. I got the complete opposite of what he did. He was lucky enough to get out of that situation. A few of his family members were not.

“My whole life I grew up realizing how important fatherhood was and, as I grew up, too, I got to see teammates, classmates, friends, even family members who came from fatherless homes, or just tough family situations, in general. I got to see the impact on them and it was always such a close thing to my heart.”

Shepherd also found added inspiration from a familiar name in the sports world when he was serving his mission.  

“When I was in Italy, randomly, [former BYU All-American and NBA player] Jimmer Fredette jumped on a Zoom call with everyone who was in that mission at that time during COVID to encourage us, give us advice – things like that. He mentioned his non-profit organization, and as as soon as he said that, I don’t know why but a light bulb went off in my head. I was like, ‘You know what? I think that’s my life calling. That is incredible. I would love to start a non-profit.'”

After about a year of pouring himself into Fatherhood Initiative’s concept, research, and website design, the project was launched and made public a little over a month ago from the time this column was published.

Even with three years of football eligibility in front of him, he has no second thoughts about hanging up the cleats.

“At the end of the day I have not regretted stopping playing football once,” he said. “Because I just worked a ton on this project, creating this organization. I miss [football]. It treated me so well but, at the end of the day, I’m glad I didn’t wait because I feel my life is a little bit more fulfilling. Maybe even a little bit happier.”

 Life is moving fast for Shepherd. On top of his Fatherhood Initiative responsibilities, he’s taking two SUU on-line courses (he was a Big Sky All-Academic Team Honoree in the spring of 2021), and will be doing an internship this fall with Utah Senator Mitt Romney in Washington D.C.

At the conclusion of his internship, he said may end up back in Cedar City because he enjoyed his time in the quaint, quiet community which sits 170 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

His main focus now is the initiative, which he started “from the ground up.”

“Fatherhood is close to me,” Shepherd said. ” I feel like it will make a true impact if we push for a more father-present society.”

You’re making all of Arizona proud, Zack. 

Most importantly, your dad Steve, who helped mold you into the incredible, inspiring young man you are.

To learn more about Fatherhood Initiative, visit their website here.

(All photos above courtesy Zack Shepherd)