This is the Memoir of Jennifer Coney-Shepherd, Mother of the Consensus High School Player of the Year and Number #1 Football Recruit in America, Rashan A. Gary.
From My Eyes and What I Have Been Blessed to Behold
When I was approached about writing a story on my son Rashan Gary, I was excited, humbled, and apprehensive all at the same time. Just like every time Rashan takes the field, I go through a myriad of emotions, thoughts, and concerns. This task had the same effect. Just like the first time Rashan said he wanted to play football, my thoughts were “where do I start?” If Rashan was writing this story, he would likely say something to the effect of “we’re just getting started.” Rashan often fails to recognize or at time even acknowledge the many things he has already accomplished on and off of the field. He is a forward thinker and his work ethic compliments that fact. He is modest, yet ferocious, he is kind
hearted, yet very serious about where he is and where he is going! I have been blessed to see how
Rashan has conducted himself in every situation that has confronted him, whether good or bad, for the last 20 years. I can say, without equivocation, he has not only been an inspiration to me, but he takes it upon himself to give his time and effort to bring out the best while sacrificing personal goals to see success in others. My son is Confident, My son is Committed, My son is Consistent, My son is Mr. Rashan A. Gary.
In the Beginning
I have so many memories that I can vividly recall as if it happened yesterday. Rashan is the younger of my two children, his sister’s name is Nafeesa. They are ten years apart yet they’re inseparable. Like any young siblings, at the time, I thought they were going to drive me crazy! Both are Alpha male and Alpha female. My family and friends say they get that from me- it’s a possibility I guess- lol.
As a child Rashan exhibited many character traits that let me know early and often that he was going to be someone very special. He was always a good student- active and approachable. I didn’t have to find activities for Rashan to gravitate towards, the activities and people gravitated to Rashan. It all just seemed so natural for him. As a person who had been through many tough situations in my own life. I’d often find myself thanking God for giving me a son that makes it all worthwhile to help him mature into the man who he wants and I believe he is destined to become. Rashan is the kid where you had to tell him to stop working so hard. His drive as a young child, regardless of the objective, was on something that was second to none.
Rashan’s first loves were riding his bike, playing video games, and being outside with his friends. When the weather was poor he liked watching movies on TV. When he starting getting older he would often ask to go to the park to play basketball or go swimming. I would allow him to go as much as he wanted, however living in a small urban town in New Jersey definitely had its challenges. The older he got, the reality of our urban community, and the many negative obstacles that were occurring were something that I was determined to shield him from.
When Rashan was in the 6th grade, I decided that he needed to become involved in some kind of organized activity. When we talked about it, he adamantly said that he wanted to play football! I inquired on how to register him for the “Pop Warner,” youth football league in our town. He was so excited! When the day arrived to sign him up, he was 11 years old. However, we were told that because Rashan was 6 feet 240 pounds, he was too big to play with his age group, and was too young to play with the group his size. So we were turned away.
The Standard is Set
Rashan’s transition to junior high school was a huge adjustment. He was not only adjusting to the new school, but he was also adjusting to a new community, new home, and new friends. My motherly intuition wondered if this would be too much change for Rashan at one time. Rashan, being the leader as he is, embraced it all without a complaint. When his dad and I went to enroll him in school we were given an application form for the “Police Athletic League” (PAL) football team. Not really knowing what to expect we went to see if we could register him the following Saturday. As we approached the enrollment table at the police station we introduced ourselves to the coaches. They were excited to know Rashan would be participating, and assured us that despite his size he would be a great addition to the team. Not knowing football at the time, I was quickly informed that because of his size he wouldn’t be touching the ball and now and forevermore known as a lineman.
His first season on the field was an amazing season. Rashan was doing well and I saw his confidence in this new-found love of football blossom. During the season, everything seemed to be going great for us and for him. I always stressed education with Rashan. I’ll never forget that year when his report card came and he had earned C in science. I immediately prevented him from going to practice and forced him to miss a game. I vividly emphasized to him that if he wants to play sports, I will be his biggest supporter, but in return he has to put his education first. The deal was if he brings home a C then he is not doing his best and won’t be allowed to play. In my eyes, sports were a privilege, but school was a priority. He wasn’t average on the field so I wasn’t accepting of him being average off of the field either. He was so upset with me, however he never brought home another C again. From that point forward Rashan also participated and excelled in basketball, track, swimming, and of course his academics.
It Becomes Clear
Rashan is really enjoys and is really good at playing football. As an 8th grader, Rashan began to be mentioned often in the local paper for his athletic skill set. That was the year that he came to me and said “mom, I really like football and I want to be great.” As his mother, my thoughts are always to encourage and set my children up for success in whatever they want to do. So, to be sure I asked Rashan- “is this really what you want to do?” His response, of course, was an adamant “yes!” I proceeded to do my best to educate myself on what I needed to know and how to do it. I was now all in on helping him take this passion of his as far as he wants it to go. The conversation and agreement we had was that he had to be 100% willing to put in the hard work and sacrifice that is necessary to reach his goals. Needless to say, Rashan committed and sacrificed more than any kid that I have ever known.
The Journey Begins
I enrolled Rashan in a sports performance school recommended to me by his PAL coach. I knew Rashan was a good football player at that level. He was so much bigger than the other kids, but I wanted him to challenge himself against peers that were his size and his age. I did my research and that’s when I found The NUC Combine. It was a sports showcase to test their skills and measures against other players. At that time, we met current Penn State University Coordinator, Mr. EJ Barthel. At this same combine Rashan was competing on the same field as Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush, an All- American and soon to be, top ten NFL draft pick Minkah Fitzpatrick who went to The University of Alabama. At that day, at that time, they were all kids chasing their dreams and we were all parents doing our best to support them. Rashan tested well and received several awards that combine. He was very happy in what he was able to accomplish there. It was also an eye awakening moment for me to see how athletically gifted he was.
A few weeks later we were notified that he was invited to participate in the NUC top 300 performers. This event was a combination of the top 300 kids from 8th to 10th grades in the northeast that had participated and did well in all of the combines. After we signed him up he was very excited until he learned that the day of the showcase was the day of his 8th grade dance. My message was simple, I reminded him of our conversation about the hard work, commitment, and sacrifice that would be required if this is what he wanted. Being average is getting C’s and, at this point, going to that dance would have been the equivalent. So, he had a choice to make pertaining to what he wanted to do and what he was going to do. Two weeks later, we were on our way to Delaware where the competition was held. Nafeesa, Rashan, and I made the trip. First the participants were brought into a gym where they did individual testing. The next segment consisted of team and individual drills. Rashan gave me his testing card and ran off with his group. I looked at it and put it in my jean’s pocket. They were there competing for hours upon hours. Nafeesa and I got sleepy so we headed to the car. We took a short cut through the field house. While we were walking I noticed a huge trophy and I remember I saying to myself where in the world would somebody put that huge thing. When I took my quick nap the DL/OL group was still on the field.
As the event concluded, I woke up and there was no one around, I jumped out the car and headed to the main field were the lights were on and I noticed the parents were in the stands. The players were grouped together surrounded by the coaches on the field. The coaches talked and highlighted specific player’s skills. They never mentioned Rashan, but I knew that he had to face competition to improve, so this trip was definelty worth it. They ended the camp with the presentation of awards. The first awards were given to the skill position players and second presentation went to the linemen. To end the event one of the coaches came up to the microphone for his closing remarks. As he ran off a list of testing times, he listed the 40, the vertical, the long jump and suddenly I remembered seeing those numbers from the ticket Rashan had handed me earlier. I took it out of my pocket to look again and be sure. All the numbers they were calling were Rashan’s and I just started screaming at the top of my lungs. The Coach said “The best overall performer who is only in 8th grade, is Rashan Gary!” That huge trophy in the field house was nowhis, and from that point forward I had to figure out what to do with it and many others.
It’s SERIOUS Business
Rashan’s PAL basketball coach came over to me during a basketball banquet and said that one of his buddies worked for Rutgers University. The coach introduced us. The gentleman then proceeded to inform me that he was also was from Scotch Plains. He said that he had heard of Rashan and wanted to know if he’d be interested in participating in “The Big Man Camp” at Rutgers. Rashan and I talked about it and I signed him up for it not too long after. Rutgers was only 15 minutes away from our home. When we got to the camp, we sat in the car looking at the junior and senior high school football players coming to compete in hopes of acquiring a scholarship. I have to admit, I was nervous but I didn’t want to scare Rashan who also seemed somewhat anxious. We got out of the car and went inside. We met several of the coaches, toured the facilities, and then the parents were told that we had to watch the testing from the stands. The players were divided into groups and later during the testing the defensive lineman coach came over and introduced himself to me. He informed me and that Rashan was doing very well. Shortly thereafter, the group Rashan was in went inside to do the bench press. Rashan came over to me and asked if I could go inside with him. He said, “mom I never did this before” the only thing I could say was “do what you can.” There were guys who did 3, 5, and even 7 reps. I remember saying to myself if he can just do 4 times that would be awesome. Rashan benched 225 pounds 12 times! That was a moment I would never forget. At the end of the camp we all went back into the team meeting room. One participant was offered a scholarship immediately and others were recognized. Coach Flood awarded Rashan as the youngest camper there and many were amazed that he wasn’t even in high school. Our ride home was a good one. Rashan was happy that he was able to achieve what he did and I was happy he did too. About a week had passed by. I was home cooking dinner as Rashan was sitting at the table finishing homework when the phone rang. It was a coach from Rutgers who called to offer Rashan a scholarship to play college football at Rutgers. It was crazy just thinking about it, Rashan and I just stood there looking at each other with our mouths hanging open speechless.
Rashan’s freshman year in high school he was the first freshman to ever start on the varsity team. He did well that season. He was invited to attend the Nike Training Camp. It was a combine like camp for the top high school football players in the region. The MVP of that camp would be selected to go to “The Opening.” That’s a showcase for the best players in the nation. It was an exciting experience even though Rashan wasn’t selected. I told him “you’re still learning,” you can learn, train, get better, and you will make it next year!”
During that summer, Nafeesa, Rashan, and I went to several college camps. I felt I needed to get him more exposure and more experience against better competition. Our first stop was Temple University. It was an all-day event. I was exhausted just sitting there watching the participants do drills and have meetings. When they were finally finished I told Rashan that I was heading to the car. He came running to the car moments later and said that the coach wanted to meet me. At that time I was introduced to Coach Matt Rhule. He told me that although it was very rare, he wanted to offer Rashan an athletic scholarship. Wow, what a blessing! The following week we drove to UConn and after that event they offered Rashan a scholarship as well. The next two weeks we visited Penn State and Coach Bill Obrien and Urban Meyer of Ohio State and they also both offered Rashan a scholarship to their respective Universities.
It was certainly a blessing how things were moving quickly for Rashan. During his sophomore year in high school, coaches would visit Rashan in school daily and offer him scholarships. Some of the offers he was blessed to receive were from schools that were known greatly for their athletic and academic success, this included- Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida State, University of Miami, Ole Miss, Oregon, Auburn, Michigan, and Michigan State had offered him scholarships by the time his sophomore year had ended. At that point he had already received over 20 Division 1 offers.
Making an Informed Decision
We moved out of the school district nearing the end of his sophomore year in high school. For reasons that we discussed as a family, we did not want to attend the school district where we relocated. Rashan said that he wanted to attend a school with a great football program. There were many good programs in NJ and we vetted many. He wanted to seek better competition athletically and I wanted him to be challenged more academically. We chose Paramus Catholic. It was there at PC that Rashan established some great and meaningful relationships with friends, coaches and teachers that helped him develop into the young man that he has become today.
I often reflect on a conversation Rashan and I had, when I’m speaking about Rashan’s success. One day while we were sitting in the dining room, he said to me “I want to be the number one player in the country.” The norm for me is to always encourage my kids, and teach them that they can accomplish anything they worked hard to achieve, so I told Rashan just that. At that time the #1 high school player in the country was Robert Nkemdiche from Georgia. Rashan just watched film on him constantly. He worked with speed, strength, and endurance coaches and even a technique coach. This time when he ent to the Nike Training Camp. Rashan won the MVP and went to The Nike Opening in Oregon. He didn’t win the MVP at the opening but was acknowledged as being one of the top 5 defensive lineman at the camp. His junior year in high school was equally exciting, college offers continued to come in, and we began taking trips across the country visiting different schools. We were meeting new people and establishing relationships with people all over the country. Rashan bonded with young men who were equally as talented as he was. The experiences, knowledge, and situations were essential in the maturation process for Rashan and I. At times it was so surreal. Seeing my son featured several times on many networks and sport shows was a blessing and humbling experience- it was truly amazing.
When Rashan Speaks I Listen
Rashan returned to “The Opening” for the 2nd time and was named the MVP. One-day Rashan and I were home and his phone rang. I didn’t pay much attention to his call until I heard the excitement in his voice. I had to have asked him several times what was going on? He paused for a moment and took the phone away from his ear. He said “mom, this is ESPN, they just selected me as the number 1 player in he country!” I was completely speechless and blank. I was void of my thoughts and feelings for a moment. He continued the conversation and all I could do was look at him with tears in my eyes. He made several television appearances and was even a part of the panel on CBS Sports
The hard work, dedication, and sacrifices he made to reach his goals were indeed paying off. As his mother I was, and am, truly proud of him and know that God had blessed us. The end of his senior year in high school culminated with an invite to “The Under Amour All American Game.” The game is touted as a collection of the top football players in the country that are believed to be successful at the next level and possibly after that. Rashan had 4 sacks that game and was named MVP.
Shortly thereafter he was named the number 1 recruit in the country by all recruiting services. This honor was held by only one other person. That was Jadeveon Clowney. Rashan was very fortunate enough to have the option to attend almost any school in the country. Recruiting was hectic, filled with so many fond memories.
On February 3rd 2016 his decision was made... Rashan had chosen to become a Michigan Wolverine.
Rashan is heading into his junior year at The University of Michigan. He continues to receive accolades. He still has those same qualities. Confident, Committed and Consistent. He has taken me on a journey that I will forever treasure. My son has taught me more about perseverance and determination than I could have ever taught him. His academics remain just as important as his athletics and he was recently named Academic all B1G Ten. That is an honor given to scholarship athletes in the Big Ten Conference that have earned a GPA of 3.0 and higher. Now that we’ve made it through the prelude. Stay Tuned for What’s Next. Rashan doesn’t do average. You’re not going to want to miss it.
By: Jennifer Coney-Shepherd