GWINNETT GRADS: North's Shepherd uses Crimson Tide status for great cause

Alabama football offers its players plenty of perks, from BCS titles to national TV coverage to posh facilities.

It also gives those youngsters a substantial platform, one that can be very productive if used properly, like Austin Shepherd has had over the past few months.

The North Gwinnett grad, with the help of his girlfriend Jenna King, founded the Austin Shepherd Foundation this year with the goal of helping the Children's Hospital of Alabama in Birmingham. It's challenging to start a charity, but it helps to be an Alabama football player.

Shepherd found that out on his first visit to the children's hospital with King, whose brother Jon died of a rare cancer, Ewing's sarcoma. Jon had spent his time in that facility, which prompted the couple's visit.

"It just really touched me because all the kids just loved it," Shepherd said. "They loved meeting an Alabama football player because everybody here lives and breathes that. It's huge for them. It makes them happy. Some kids said it made their whole day, their whole week, their whole month.

"We want to do what we can to make them feel better and being an Alabama player helps a lot. They're so excited when we visit. They look up to us and want to be like us."

Shepherd made visits to the hospital in October and November, then took teammates Vinnie Sunseri and Carson Tinker with him for this month's visit. Seeing the sick children suddenly sport beaming smiles let the 6-foot-5, 312-pound offensive lineman know that his work was worth it.

In addition to the visits, Shepherd donates game tickets so children and their families from the hospital can watch the Crimson Tide in person. The foundation also accepts donations and hosts fundraisers, including a recent $10 bow sale that drummed up $10,000 for the hospital.

Shepherd said he couldn't have this kind of success without King, whose motivation of her brother's memory makes this endeavor even more personal.

"She's the main person," Shepherd said. "She does mostly everything. She gets the visits lined up and does a lot of the work. ... Everybody loves the idea. Everybody wants to help but they don't know how. Now they know they can come to me and help and come to Jenna and help."

Shepherd, a redshirt sophomore who backs up D.J. Fluker at right tackle, may have more celebrity status on his next hospital visit if Alabama wins its second straight BCS national title. The Crimson Tide's championship showdown with No. 1 Notre Dame is Jan. 7.

"It's an awesome feeling (to play for another title)," said Shepherd, who has played in nine games this season after playing in seven in 2011.

But that feeling is matched by what his foundation does off the football field.

"We just want to have fun with the kids," Shepherd said. "We want to make them feel better and hopefully forget they're sick for a little while."

Anyone interested in donating to the foundation can go to www.austinshepherdfoundation.org. For more information, email to austinshepherdfoundation@gmail.com.

Gwinnett Grads is a column that runs on Saturdays spotlighting achievements of past Gwinnett standouts. Coaches and parents are urged to send suggestions via email to will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com.