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Profile of the Week

Whitehall’s Graycen Shepherd conquers adversity, approaches life with ‘Get To’ mindset

Division I football prospect feels empowered and takes nothing for granted as he enters senior season.

WHITEHALL – A chalkboard drawing in the dining room of the Shepherd residence reads, “I Get To.”

The artwork of Stacy Shepherd is a daily reminder for her family. Those words are especially impactful for eldest of her four children.

Graycen Shepherd is a 17-year-old Whitehall senior, who exhibits a measure of maturity beyond his years while still reflecting a degree of youthful exuberance and innocence. Like many of us, he’s been shaped by adversity. He wrestled with obesity as a youngster and he’s bouncing back from a knee injury that wiped out his entire junior football season.

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound middle linebacker and tight end/H-back, who holds a scholarship offer from Division I Bowling Green, is savoring every moment in his last-hurrah high school football season this fall as a key member of a very talented Whitehall squad.

“I’m excited for the season, you know. I’m happy to be back,” Shepherd said during a recent interview for the CatchMark SportsNet Profile of the Week. “But more than anything, I’m just happy to be with my teammates. If I didn’t play a snap of football this year, just being with the team is something that I really don’t take for granted.”

Whitehall kicks off the 2022 season with a big test on the road this week. The Vikings take on perennial powerhouse Hudsonville Unity Christian, last year’s Division 4 state runner-up, in a 7 p.m. Thursday tussle at Jenison’s McKenzie Stadium.

Shepherd, a varsity performer since his freshman year, should be in the middle of the action when the Vikings and Crusaders tangle as two of the more promising teams in West Michigan in their division. It’s a new position for the former defensive end, who projects at linebacker collegiately, and he’ll be at the heart of Whitehall’s contain unit.

The fact that Shepherd is even on the football field is a victory of sorts. Last summer, he tore the anterior-cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus in his left knee on a non-contact play in the first week of practice. About a half-dozen years earlier, he was at a crossroads with his health. Shepherd struggled with weight issues until he and his family embarked on a journey in which they embraced a healthier lifestyle through diet and exercise.

As his father will attest, Graycen Shepherd’s resolve came from within.

Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark

“What (the adversities) have done for him, it’s shaped his character, just made it deeper,” Matt Shepherd said. “If you are committed to something and you want to do something, then these kinds of things that are dealt to you don’t stop you.”

Graycen Shepherd has strong examples in his home and he comes from an athletic gene pool. Matt and Stacy Shepherd, who are well-known in the White Lake community, have been successful in their lives professionally and athleticially.

Matt Shepherd is an attorney at law for Shepherd and Shepherd. At 6-foot-5, he was an all-state power forward at Newaygo before continuing his basketball career at Muskegon Community College and Indiana Purdue at Fort Wayne (IPFW).

Stacy (Essebaggers) Shepherd was a multi-sport standout at Whitehall, who went on to win the Miss Michigan pageant and finish in the top 10 of Miss America in 2001. She now teaches eighth-grade English at Whitehall Middle School.

Graycen Shepherd is a young man of many talents and layers. Consider:

  • He’s a 4.1 student while taking Advanced Placement classes and he scored 1260 on the SAT;
  • His bench-press max weight is 405 pounds;
  • He’s pretty darn good on the guitar and piano;
  • He appreciates the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing;
  • And, perhaps most importantly, he’s a good role model and protective older sibling to sisters Sidney (sophomore, 15 years old) and Lainey (seventh grade, 12) and brother Sam (fourth grade, 9).

“Regardless of what he ever does on the field, I’m proud of the young man he is right now because of who he chooses to be every day. He has always taken the ‘road less traveled’ when others have taken the easy route. The amount of discipline in the weight room and focus is so admirable,” said Stacy Shepherd, who added that Graycen has the biggest heart for people.

“Though it wasn’t easy, he had/has the perspective to understand that any adversity is temporary. That kind of perspective he had to develop at a tender age of 9-10 through his healthy food choices. I’m an adult and I struggle to exercise that practice.”

For Graycen Shepherd, adopting a healthier lifestyle when he was younger – eating almonds for a postgame snack rather than Little Debbie cakes like all his other teammates after a Lil’ Vikes football game, for example – was no small feat. That required great discipline.

As for his knee injury, physical rehabilitation was one thing; overcoming the mental hurdle is another, and that’s a work in progress.

Whitehall football coach Tony Sigmon said that Shepherd has been “very businesslike and workmanlike” this summer in preparation for the season. Viking senior Nate Bolley, one of Shepherd’s closest friends, believes that his buddy will make a very big impact on the field this fall.

“It was really hard last year not having him, but now he’s back and he brings this level back to our team that’s like, ‘OK, it’s on this year,’” said Bolley, whose team returns a ton from last year’s squad that finished 8-3 overall and shared the West Michigan Conference title with Montague and Oakridge. “He sets the tone very well and he has a really good work ethic and it’s great having him year our senior year. It always makes it easier.”

Shepherd and the Vikings have lofty goals this season. They are aiming to win the conference title again along with district and regional crowns. A run at Whitehall’s first state football championship is not out of the question in their minds.

Whitehall’s Graycen Shepherd is pictured at West Michigan Conference football media day Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at the Viking Athletic Center in Whitehall, Mich. (Amy Yonkman | CatchMark)

But with his experiences and perspective, Shepherd is keeping his priorities in order. He said that the Vikings need to bring a consistent effort to practices and improve a little bit each day, then let the chips fall where they may.

Shepherd does not view high school football as the be-all, end-all, as much as he enjoys it. He also understands that sports should not define him as a person, regardless of where he ends up after Whitehall. Schools such as Air Force and Yale, among others, have also expressed interest.

Faith has played a significant factor in Shepherd’s maturation, he and his parents concur. He said that the knee injury was a big wake-up call, but being told years ago that he’d be accepted and loved no matter what happens has been a game-changer in Shepherd’s thought process and motivation.

He also has that constant reminder: “I Get To.”

“When I was in fifth grade, we were on the weight-loss plan, yogurts and oranges and such. I was talking to my dad outside and I said, ‘You know, I don’t know if I want to do this. I don’t know if I want to play football,’” Shepherd recalled. “And I kind of always felt like he would look at me different if I didn’t play a sport or be active or do anything like that.

“And he looked me and he said, ‘I don’t care if you play chess or water polo or play nothing at all and climb trees, whatever you want to do. I’ll love you and support you no matter what.’ That’s when it was like, ‘OK, now I’m doing this for me.’ That was a pretty big thing.”

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