Most AFL players know that they’re good enough as soon as they pick up a football. West Coast defender Brad Sheppard took a while longer to find that self belief.
Maybe it was his passion for cricket that kept him guessing in his younger years, with Sheppard growing up around cricket’s famous Marsh family with cousins Shaun and Mitch, and represented Western Australia in the sport at the under-17 level.
A talent and love for both cricket and football kept him busy, with winters spent on the footy field and summers on the cricket pitch.
But when juggling the two sports became too much to handle, it was a call from an AFL great that convinced him he could make it to the big time playing football.
“Shane Woewodin coached me at East Fremantle for a year as a 17-year-old, and he invited me down to do a pre-season with the seniors there,” Sheppard told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“Him giving me the call early on really inspired me to get drafted… that year at senior level as a 17-year-old probably instilled that belief in myself that I could do this.”
Sheppard played 15 games in the WAFL that year and cemented his place as an AFL prospect, earning All-Australian selection at the under-18 national championships and excelling at the draft combine.
He’s quick to give credit for that sudden rise to Woewodin, a former Brownlow Medallist and champion player with Melbourne and Collingwood.
“He was so approachable, he always had time for myself and a couple of young kids playing there,” Sheppard said.
“It was really good to have a mentor coming through who was a Brownlow Medallist, he’d been there and done that… he gave me that opportunity and pumped the tyres up that year, and the rest is history.”
That type of strong guidance is a recurring theme in Sheppard’s career. While he’s surely deserving of more praise than he gives himself, he says the mentorship of West Coast’s coaches played a huge role in his development.
Despite playing 45 games across his first four seasons, he struggled to cement a place in the team or find a clear role. As a young player trying to break into the Eagles’ experienced backline, he says it was a struggle at times early on.
The arrival of Adam Simpson as senior coach in 2014 marked a change in Sheppard’s fortunes, and according to the player himself, that’s no coincidence.
“When Simmo came across in 2014, I was playing in a few different positions early on in my career, but he settled me down in the backline,” Sheppard added.
“The role’s changed over the years but I thought I played my best footy down back, and I think that’s what he thought when he first came across, and I haven’t looked back since.”
That certainty and trust that Simpson provided has had a big effect on Sheppard’s output, as he’s played every game for the past three seasons and become a go-to player in West Coast’s backline.
“You need belief and to really back yourself in, and that’s what Simmo’s done (for me) since he’s taken over.”
Simpson’s impact on the Eagles as a whole has been well documented, but less known to the public is the role of West Coast’s backroom staff.
Adrian Hickmott joined the Eagles in 2012 as a development coach before Simpson’s arrival saw him shift to coaching the backline.
His experience working with younger players shone through in the new role and Sheppard believes his impact can’t be overstated.
“He really challenged me mentally in the 2014 period, I wanted to get the best out of myself and he changed the way I saw the game,” Sheppard said.
“It gave me a different perspective of how footy should be played and how I go about my business, so I really owe a lot to him.”
The guidance and support of so many great coaches has moulded Sheppard into the player he is today, an ultra-reliable backman who is is equally durable having played in every Eagles match since Round 1, 2015.
West Coast’s coaches regularly task him with playing on the opposition’s most dangerous forward and his repeated success in keeping them quiet has made him one of their most valuable players.
“I guess that’s my job to play well and be consistent, I’ve tried to minimise the highs and lows and be as consistent as I can,” the 26-year-old said.
That consistency has seen him fly under the radar of many football fans, and his durability and performance seem to be often overlooked.
While that might bother some players, Sheppard says he’s happy to stay in the shadows.
“I’m sure there’s blokes that love reading their name in the paper but I like being myself and being underrated,” Sheppard said.
There’s only one group whose approval he wants, and it’s not opposition fans or footy journalists.
“As long as I’ve got respect from my teammates and coaches and they understand what I do on the ground, then that’s all I’m worried about,” he said.
“Everyone’s entitled to an opinion and that’s great, but as long as internally I’ve got that respect then that’s all I care about.”