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Austin Shepherd – A “Big Ugly” With Two Beautiful Things in His Life

Alabama’s big right tackle might not make “People” magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” cover, but he is a beautiful guy.

Austin Shepherd – A “Big Ugly” With Two Beautiful Things in His Life

By: Larry Burton

Offensive linemen have been called many things, most of them unflattering, like perhaps the greatest college football broadcaster of all time, Keith Jackson, who referred to them as the “Big Uglies”. While Austin Shepherd, right tackle for the University of Alabama may not win any beauty contests, he is a beautiful guy in his own right for the things he does and has two very important beautiful things that are important in his life.

The first is the love of his life, Jenna King, a beautiful girl he met in his freshman year at Alabama who he asked to marry him this week and the second is The Austin Shepherd Foundation he created to help children who are fighting against life-threatening diseases and helping the families too.

With Jenna by his side, Shepherd looks to continue both his football career and his life in helping others.

With Jenna by his side, Shepherd looks to continue both his football career and his life in helping others.

Both these beautiful things came as a package of sorts to Shepherd. During his freshmen year, he met Jenna but the two really didn’t start dating until almost a year later. During these dates Shepherd learned that her brother Jon had developed bone cancer at just 10 years old and battled it for 14 years until finally ending the good fight at age 24. He learned that such a traumatic event not only affected the afflicted, but the entire family as well. He learned that the emotional support that was given to Jon helped him outlive the prognosis of the doctors and how it helped the family as well.

Later in 2012 he and Jenna decided to visit the hospital where her brother Jon had spent so much of his life, Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham, to give a little support to some of the ailing kids and their families. He brought other players with him.

Through his commitment to helping these kids, Shepherd as gotten other players involved.

Through his commitment to helping these kids, Shepherd as gotten other players involved.

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That was a life-changing experience for me. I met one family who had been living in the hospital for nine weeks, fighting to save their blind and very sick daughter. The family told me about how they would be home for a week, then travel to Cincinnati, Ohio for more treatment. I could not imagine the stress of that experience. We saw children under a year old who were already starting their fights against life-threatening diseases, and we saw toddlers walking around with IV stands. It was a reality check that made me appreciate my life and abilities more than ever before. The kids, families, and even the nurses were so thankful for our visit. The kids loved the crafts and the goodie bags we brought, and we were able to begin building relationships with the families. A 16-year-old girl who had just had colon surgery took a picture with me and said, “Man, my friends are going to be so jealous! I guess there are perks to being so sick!” It was great to know that I had made her day better just by being there.Shepherd is quoted as saying on his foundation’s site.

Together with Jenna, they decided to make this an ongoing mission and on the 11th anniversary of Jon’s death, the Austin Shepherd Foundation was born. Since that time, Shepherd has had the support of most of the University of Alabama team behind him and has brought many players, Crimsonettes and students with him to visit the children and make their day. It has not only brightened the lives of countless children and their families, but made an impact on the players who have visited as well. Now many of them have gone on to visit children back in their own hometowns and have developed a sense of helping others.

Shepherd and many of those same athletes also grew out their hair, only to have it cut during a “Jocks & Locks” party where their hair was donated to a company that could make hairpieces for kids undergoing chemo who had lost their own.

Many showed up to have hair shaved off for a good cause.

Many showed up to have hair shaved off for a good cause.

A favorite activity is taking “Beads of Courage” and stringing them into bracelets and necklaces for the children. You see children treasuring them for the rest of their lives. Each is unique and each child can tell you who helped make theirs with them. Strong men have become weak kneed when these grateful young children throw their arms around these great volunteers. Here left guard Arie Kouandijo is helping make a necklace and some great memories for a new fan.

Big men sometimes have even bigger hearts as demonstrated by players like Arie Kouandijo

Big men sometimes have even bigger hearts as demonstrated by players like Arie Kouandijo

And these aren’t just one time visits for publicity shots, Shepherd and his friends make monthly trips to the hospital and many have established deep personal relationships with many of the patients and families. Some of them even get to come to games with their families and meet with the players after the game.

These beads are not just decoration, they tell a story. The get special  hand made glass beads that are color coded for each milestone they’ve completed in the their treatment journey and some of the beads have a special bond with a special athlete. During each home game, players wear at least two matching beads. The player keeps one bead to remind him of his special friend and the other is given to their patient with a card that explains who wore the bead and what it meant to them to wear it for them during the game. These are the cherished beads and it shows that there are others willing to be in this fight with them.

Beads that were worn and then one donated to the happy patient on the other is kept by the wearer to remember them.

Beads that were worn and then one donated to the happy patient on the other is kept by the wearer to remember them.

Yes donating hair, gift bags and beads mean a lot, but so does the personal visits and hugs.

Yes donating hair, gift bags and beads mean a lot, but so does the personal visits and hugs.

The “Beads of Courage” is not unique to The Austin Shepherd Foundation however, it is part of a national foundation that supports over 30,000 children in over 150 children’s hospitals around the world, but it is an important part of their work. Shepherd encourages anyone to go to their site and buy some beads so that you too can carry two beads with you and then send one to an ailing child with a card explaining who you are and where you wore it. You can also tell them that you are on their team and thinking of and pulling for them in their fight.

Here at Touchdown Alabama Magazine, we mainly focus on sports and rarely pull on your heartstrings to ask for your help in charitable endeavors, but we did want to take this opportunity to make the millions of Alabama fans aware that there are great men on this team who do things that often go unnoticed, who often shy away from being public about the good works they do. In an age where only the bad things that athletes do seem to make the headlines and get coverage, we thought we’d even the playing field a bit and let you know that a vast majority of more athletes are out there doing good. But that just isn’t news.

So many help, but so few get recognition for their good works.

So many help, but so few get recognition for their good works.

There are ways that the Alabama nation can help Austin in this work. When the players show up each month, they take “goodie bags” to the kids. They have small gifts inside that help the children forget about their troubles for a while and you could send in some small things that are child specific. Of course, you could always send cash and know that all that money is then given to Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham, the hospital that treats those children and you should know that it is a private, not for profit medical facility. Any small gift item or donation can be mailed to the “Austin Shepherd Foundation”, 14 Oakwood Court, Tuscaloosa, Al. 35401.

Let’s flood the foundation so that kids can have an extra special Thanksgiving and Christmas goodie bag.

Perhaps Abraham Lincoln said it best when he said, “No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.” Austin Shepherd believes this, and we all should too. Shepherd had his life changed at Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham in two ways, one to make a lifelong commitment to help children battling life threatening diseases and that is where, just this week, he proposed to Jenna. Congratulations for both decisions Austin.

For this “Big Ugly”, nothing is more beautiful than he and his future.

(quotes and pictures from the “Austin Shepherd Foundation” site)
 

Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter

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