CHARLOTTE – Back in the spring of 2013, Russell Shepard was not a hot commodity.
After scoring just five receiving touchdowns in four seasons at LSU, the converted quarterback went undrafted. Shepard did get a free agent look that summer with the Eagles but was released in final cuts.
That's when Tampa Bay swooped in.
Claimed off waivers by the Buccaneers, Shepard made the most of his second chance, becoming a special teams stalwart. He even managed to carve out a small role at wide receiver. And four years after few teams were interested in his services, Shepard was a somewhat hot commodity this spring.
That's when the Panthers swooped in, offering him a chance to do even more in Carolina.
"That was a big reason I left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers," Shepard said this week. "I feel they were very comfortable with the role that I played there in being one of the special teams guys and being a backup guy. I just felt like they didn't truly believe in me to take that next step.
"I had quite a few teams that wanted me during free agency and I picked this team for a reason."
Seven games into his Panthers career, Shepard's receiving stats aren't far off from his final season in Tampa Bay. With 10 receptions, he's on pace to finish with 23 – the same number he had in 2016. But with the Bucs, he totaled just 825 offensive snaps in four years. This season, he's on pace to play 580.
"I wish we still had him," Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston said on a conference call. "But I'm just proud of him and what he has achieved. He really plays off the people that didn't give him those opportunities and he lets that drive him instead of bring him down.
"I just can't tell you how much Russell Shepard taught me as an NFL football player and as a friend when he was in Tampa Bay."
The feeling's mutual.
"We have man-crushes on each other," Shepard said of his relationship with Winston.
But that's not the only friendship Shepard's kept alive.
"It's going to be kind of surreal going back to that place," he said when asked about the Panthers' trip to Tampa this weekend.
"All the guys tell me I can only give out three or four hugs before the game, so I'm deciding whether if I want to just not go out or sneak into the locker room."
That would be the Bucs' new locker room, which Shepard never got to experience. Instead, he'll be in the visitors' locker room for the first time. And while he'll be full of friendly feelings pregame, Shepard assured he'll flip a switch come kickoff.
"It's football. This is my job," he said.
"Even though that organization did give me my opportunity, even though that organization played a big role in me establishing myself in this league, this organization, the Carolina Panthers, allowed me to take the next step in my career."