The Unlikely Leader



Oct. 17, 2012

By Donna Turner
Associate Athletic Director/Communications
When Jason Schepler arrived at Northern Illinois from Sycamore High School in 2008, no one, least of all Schepler himself, predicted that he would become one of the Huskies' top leaders, an individual who has earned the respect of everyone associated with the NIU football program.
After coming to NIU as an unassuming walk-on tight end, Schepler's goal was simply to earn a scholarship.
 "I never thought that I would be a leader for this team," said the redshirt senior.  "I learned a lot from the guys that came before me like Matt Simon, Craig Rusch, Jake Coffman and others.  I looked up to those guys, and I stayed in the background and just watched them and what they would do."
Today, Northern Illinois players from seniors to true freshmen, and even the Huskie coaches and support staff, unanimously point to Schepler as someone they look up to.
"If you work as hard as he does and do it every day in whatever you do, people are going to look up to you, and when people look up to you, you are going to be seen as a leader," said senior defensive end Sean Progar. "The biggest thing about Schepler is, he comes to work every day, whether it is football or school. He is just an all around good guy, he's a good teammate, and he's a good friend."
Leader is also the first term used to describe Schepler by one his fellow leaders on offense, quarterback Jordan Lynch.
"He's a great leader on and off the field," Lynch said. "He's a great example. He's always there in the classroom, he's always in the weight room, and he's our leader on the offense. He's a great guy to be around and he's always doing the right things."
"He leads by example," adds fellow tight end Luke Eakes. "Everything the coaches want, and he wants [to see] out of us, he does himself. He doesn't do anything wrong; he is always where he has to be. He wants to get better every day. He's smart, he works really hard, and he's who everyone wants to be."
NIU Assistant Athletic Director Matt Lipman, who is around all of the Huskie players every day, says it is rare to find a player who consistently affects those around him in a positive way.
"When you have someone who excels in everything they do, it makes me want to do my job better," Lipman said. "It makes the coaches want to coach harder so that he'll be in a position to be successful.  He's just an extremely special kid, and he's one you may get once or twice in your career.  He leaves an indelible impression on everyone, whether in the classroom, in the training room or the locker room."
Schepler has earned the universal respect of his teammates in part because they see the hard work he puts into every aspect of his life.  In the classroom, he carries a 3.87 grade point average in electrical engineering and will graduate in December.   In the community, he has devoted hours and hours to helping those around him, and especially loves talking to schoolchildren.  On the football field, not only is he a fierce blocker and "old school" tight end who would rather finish a block in the end zone than catch a touchdown pass, but his love for the Huskies, and his appreciation of the game of football, comes through in every play and every practice.
In three years as a member of Northern Illinois' Leadership Council, Schepler has done most of his leading by example.  As a fifth-year senior in 2012, he has stepped out of his comfort zone - openly encouraging his teammates on the sideline and even giving a memorable speech during fall camp.
"When he does talk, he packs a wallop," NIU head coach Dave Doeren said.  "He gave the best speech I've ever heard a player give during fall camp. It was very, very impressive.  Everyone in the room...every coach said that's the best thing I've ever heard a player say.  He understands it and he backs it up, and you don't get that a lot these days."
According to Doeren, Schepler's heartfelt speech that day addressed accountability and respect.
"He talked about how much pride you should have for being a Huskie and what it truly means to him to be here," Doeren said. "He talked about the guys that played before him and how much it meant for him to grow up and watch Ryan Diem and Garrett Wolfe and those guys, and how he feels it is his job to carry the torch on and off the field."
Schepler said moments like that have not always come natural to him, but with only four seniors returning on offense for the Huskies this season, he has reached out to encourage his younger teammates.
"I have never really been a big vocal guy," Schepler said.  "I am more likely to lead by example, but I have kind of tried to step out of my shell this year and be more of a vocal leader. I know [the younger] guys look up to me and respect me, and I try to talk with them and get to know them, and just let them know I have been in their shoes.  I let them know to just keep going and good things will happen to them if they keep working hard. "
A person who knows Schepler as well as anyone, his younger sister, Justine, thinks that Schepler's style of doing more and saying less makes his words even more impactful.
"With him, it's not necessarily what you say, it's what you do," said Justine, a junior on the NIU volleyball team. "He's always on time.  He studies more film.  For each meeting, he's early.  He's prepared for every class.  I think its things that he does [that make him a leader] as opposed to the things that he says.  When he does say something it means a lot to people. "
NIU assistant coach Joe Tripodi, who coaches the tight ends and fullbacks, sees first-hand the impact Schepler has on his teammates.  
"One of the biggest things they learn from Schep is how to finish," Tripodi said. "Coach Doeren talks about finishing all the time, but [Schepler] actually does it. He does it on the field, he finishes blocks, he finishes everything he does on the practice field, and he finishes everything in the classroom. I think it's rare when you get someone who finishes in all phases: academically, athletically, and socially."
While Schepler is celebrated for his leadership, the impact he has made on the Huskie offense on the field cannot be overstated.  On Sundays, the NIU offense watches Schepler consistently shut down the edge for the Northern Illinois offense, opening up the run game.  On both of NIU's successful special teams fakes in the Central Michigan game, Schepler made the key blocks.
"He adds a different dimension to the offense," Tripodi said. "One of our biggest goals is to set the edge, and with Jason, we've been able to do that. If you ask him whether he'd rather catch a touchdown or finish a block through the end zone, he'd rather finish a block, and I think that rubs off on other players. They see him blocking like that, and he makes it fun. He finishes, and he does it violently, but he's still about the right things off the field."
"We missed him last year," Lynch said.  "If you watch film, he takes the whole D-line down half the time. You know, he's great at setting the edge for some of our sprint-out game, and some of our runs outside, some stretch plays outside. He's very physical and it's great to have him back out there."
In Jason Schepler, NIU has a difference-making player at tight end, an outstanding student, dedicated Huskie, and hard-working leader. He is a genuine, consistent person who is beloved and respected by teammates and coaches.  According to his sister and roommate, he even cooks and was in a band in high school.  Even the trait that annoyed her the most led him to his current course of study at NIU.  
"When we were little, it would always annoy me when he would take things apart, and he wouldn't put them back together because he didn't know how," she said.
Now, she admits that her big brother is her role model too.
"All the awards he gets and everything he accomplishes is not by mistake, it's really who he is," Justine Schepler said. "It's how hard he works in everything he does. I've known him my entire life and he is definitely my role model."
Progar goes even farther. 
"I don't think there is one guy that would say a bad thing about Schepler, because there is nothing bad to say about him," Progar said. "Honestly, he is a perfect person from what everybody can see on the outside and on the team and everything. He makes mistakes and owns up to them. He is consistent with everything he does. He's not a guy who is up or down, whether that's his attitude or his play on the field, he's going to be a steady guy throughout the week, throughout the year," 
Consistency is something Schepler strives for.  
"People write a lot of books about success, and I've heard a lot of people speak about success, and that's one of the key factors of a successful person is how reliable and how consistent they are," he said. "For me, one of my goals is to be the most consistent player, most consistent student and most consistent person I can be."
Schepler's consistency was tested when he tore his ACL for the second time this past February.  The way he picked himself up, with the help of his family, and worked to rehab the injury in order to return to the field this August simply added to his well-deserved reputation as a person who will do anything for his Huskie family.
"[NIU Athletic Director] Jeff Compher always talks about the three pillars of NIU life for all student- athletes - social, academic, and competition - and Jason excels in all three areas," Lipman said.  "He will do everything for his teammates, his coaches, his advisors.  He would give you the shirt off of his back. He's just a great Huskie and a great human being."   



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