Cardinal Gibbons, Rolesville star football players defined by quality of character

·3 min read

Last week, before Friday’s Rolesville at Cardinal Gibbons N.C. 4A football state semifinal, I visited the Rolesville and Cardinal Gibbons campuses on Monday and Thursday, respectively. At Rolesville, I spoke with Byrum Brown and Noah Rogers, the Rams’ prolific senior quarterback-junior wide receiver tandem.

At Cardinal Gibbons, I enjoyed a few words with Donovan Shepard, the Crusaders’ running back and N.C. High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) single-game rushing yardage record holder.

Brown, Rogers, and Shepard wowed Rolesville and Cardinal Gibbons partisans, time and again, with their gridiron achievements last Friday. The greater implications of Brown and Rogers connecting for their final high school touchdown, and Shepard surpassing 2,000 rushing yards on the same night, transcend the 36-28 final score.

Brown and Rogers completed their shared Rolesville football journey, while Shepard will author his final Cardinal Gibbons chapter in Saturday’s 4A state final against Chambers of Charlotte at N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium. The three players’ less visible, larger looming signature acts preceded last Friday, and will live beyond next Saturday’s final outcome.

Rolesville’s Noah Rogers (5) runs for yardage against Cardinal Gibbons’ Will Mason (1) during the second half. The Cardinal Gibbons Crusaders and the Rolesville Rams met in the NCHSAA 4A East Regional Final in Raleigh, N.C. on December 3, 2021
Rolesville’s Noah Rogers (5) runs for yardage against Cardinal Gibbons’ Will Mason (1) during the second half. The Cardinal Gibbons Crusaders and the Rolesville Rams met in the NCHSAA 4A East Regional Final in Raleigh, N.C. on December 3, 2021

Shades of Chris Leak

I asked Brown if he was familiar with Chris Leak — the state record-setting quarterback who led Independence of Charlotte to large classification state titles in 2000, 2001, and 2002, and Florida to the 2006 BCS national championship. Brown, a University of South Florida commit born well after Leak’s high school career concluded, acknowledged he needed to do some research.

High school football observers who watched Leak and Brown understand how Brown’s eye-catching statistics — 3,703 passing yards and 43 touchdowns against just four interceptions, a 68 percent completion clip, 1,182 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns — evoke memories of Leak.

Brown said it is a source of pride to know his and Rogers’ hard work has garnered such high praise. Brown’s demeanor exuded even more pride as Rogers spoke about becoming a more vocal leader because of Brown’s influence.

Rogers — who finished this season with more than 1,300 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns — articulated that it will be his leadership responsibility to keep the 2022 Rams together and progressing. Such a progression passes on the mantle Brown received from previous Rolesville seniors. Again, Brown’s hard work was evident in Rogers’ spoken acceptance of the leadership mantle.

Cardinal Gibbons’ Donovan Shepard (23) runs for the first down during the first quarter. The Cardinal Gibbons Crusaders and the Rolesville Rams met in the NCHSAA 4A East Regional Final in Raleigh, N.C. on December 3, 2021
Cardinal Gibbons’ Donovan Shepard (23) runs for the first down during the first quarter. The Cardinal Gibbons Crusaders and the Rolesville Rams met in the NCHSAA 4A East Regional Final in Raleigh, N.C. on December 3, 2021

Quality of character

Thursday at Cardinal Gibbons, it was Shepard’s voice that responded to a walking opportunity. Kathleen Kozak, a Cardinal Gibbons Theology teacher, prepared and hosted a dinner for the Crusaders’ football seniors underneath the school’s outdoor pavilion.

Kozak, who has not had Shepard among her students, was walking through the school’s parking lot near the stadium with a trash bag when Shepard acted without prompting. He stepped away from a group of students, took the bag from Kozak, walked to the appropriate receptacle and deposited the bag. Shepard verbalized his gratitude for Kozak’s dinner. More importantly, his action magnified his spoken words and desire to serve.

Shepard simply acted upon what he has learned during his many years in Catholic schools. Shepard graduated from Raleigh’s Cathedral School before entering Cardinal Gibbons’ ninth grade in August 2018.

Rolesville quarterback Byrum Brown (17) rushes for yardage during the first quarter. The Cardinal Gibbons Crusaders and the Rolesville Rams met in the NCHSAA 4A East Regional Final in Raleigh, N.C. on December 3, 2021
Rolesville quarterback Byrum Brown (17) rushes for yardage during the first quarter. The Cardinal Gibbons Crusaders and the Rolesville Rams met in the NCHSAA 4A East Regional Final in Raleigh, N.C. on December 3, 2021

Brown’s and Rogers’ bond preceded high school, too, albeit on different teams. Competing against each other showed Brown and Rogers what they could accomplish together. As Brown and Rogers spoke more on the field, others now are talking about them off the field.

Saturday, Shepard will compete on the same field at Carter-Finley where Brown and Rogers played for the same state championship last spring. The game will be Shepard’s last in a Cardinal Gibbons uniform.

For Shepard, like Brown and Rogers, their winning journeys have only begun. These young men’s exemplary commitments to serving and forming others reaffirm their commitments to school and sport teams.

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