COVINGTON, Ga. — During the semifinals of the NewRock League Middle School playoffs, something got into Willis Shephard, III.
The Veterans Memorial eighth grade running back took the handoff on a two-point conversion play, bounced it to the outside, got the corner and then encountered a would-be Indian Creek Middle tackler who was determined to keep him out of the end zone.
Shephard lowered his shoulder and ran through the Indian Creek player. He briefly stood over him in the end zone as a way of celebrating the score, then jogged back to the sideline after an official threw a penalty flag for taunting on the play.
The score helped the Generals stave off the 2016 defending NewRock League champions, punching their ticket to meet Cousins in the NewRock championship game. But the play also proved to whatever few doubters left that Shephard was ready for the next level.
“I do like contact,” Shephard said softly with a sheepish smile. “ It took time to get me where I’m at. I just put in work. Get bigger every day, and it got me to where I’m at now. And that play was just one of those plays where I just wanted to get into the end zone to help my team.”
Veterans would go on to lose to a completely stacked Cousin’s squad, but the championship game loss did absolutely nothing to sway Veterans coach, Dante English from his long-held assessment of Shephard’s ability.
“I’ve been coaching and around the game for a while, and Willie is as good a player as I’ve seen on this level,” English said. “He might be the best I’ve ever coached on this level.”
Shephard did everything possible to try and prove his coach’s words, including rushing for over 3,000 yards in his two-year middle school career and helping his team get to the title game for the first time in his tenure there.
“It felt good,” Shephard said. “I mean getting to the championship game for my first time since being here. I wanted to win, but I played my hardest. I had over 100 yards. Just came out and did what I had to do and was ready.”
Now Shephard says he’s ready to find his way in the high school ranks, hopefully being able to contribute as a freshman wherever he lands. And he’s already got the plan for his future success down pact.
“I’m mostly excited to get where I want to be,” he said. “As long as I keep my head up and keep my grades up I can probably go wherever I want to go in life.”
As of early last month, Shephard said he hadn’t made up his mind as to where he’d be going for high school just yet, though stating, “I’ve been looking at Alcovy.” But wherever he goes, English believes his next team will be getting a budding star in the making.
“Willie can go and be whatever he wants to be,” English said. “The sky is the limit for this kid. And not just on the football field. He gets it done in the classroom. He’s just a good kid. He’s an all-around good kid and just one of the best I’ve been around since I’ve been here. He’s one of those kids you’re happy to see move on, but you hate to see him go. He’s had that kind of affect on us.”