Imperfect Sheard the perfect leader for Pitt

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Jabaal Sheard is having an All-America caliber season and has been the Panthers' best player this year -- and looking at the numbers there is a good argument to be made that he also has been the best in the Big East.

The senior defensive end leads the conference in sacks (1.12 per game), tackles for loss (1.56 per game) and forced fumbles (0.50 per game) and is ranked second in the nation in forced fumbles, seventh in sacks and 16th in tackles for loss.

His totals are impressive as well -- 34 tackles, 12 1/2 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and a fumble recovered.

Even when Sheard isn't making high-impact plays -- such as his sack and strip, which essentially sealed the Panthers' win against Louisville -- he has forced teams to game plan around him.

And he has done all of this without the benefit of having preseason All-America defensive end Greg Romeus on the other side of the Panthers' defensive line drawing double teams and all kinds of attention from opposing offensive lines.

But all of those statistics, all of those big plays, all of his individual achievements pale in comparison to the honors he received this past week from his teammates when they elected him as one of their three captains for this season.

"When they said my name, I was so shocked, I was just stunned by it because I figured with what I went through in the offseason, they would give it to someone else," Sheard said. "I was so honored; this is the best honor I could achieve because when I went through that situation, I felt like I let my teammates down, my coaches down and my family down and I just wanted them to forgive me.

"For them to elect me shows me that they view me as a leader on this team and while I am not perfect I take that very seriously. And because of my experience, I can -- and I do -- share it with younger guys and caution them how quickly all of this football, school and everything else can go away."

The incident Sheard is referring to occurred July 18 when he was arrested for his role in an altercation outside of a bar in the South Side. Sheard was charged with a couple of felonies, which were later dropped, and he pled guilty to a summary charge of disorderly conduct and paid a fine.

He also paid for damages to a glass door that shattered when the man he was fighting with went through it. He also was ordered to pay the other man's medical expenses.

Sheard was suspended indefinitely from the team the day after the incident, but he was reinstated in time for training camp following his guilty plea.

The worst of the situation for Sheard, however, came the morning after the fight when he had to tell his mother as well as his teammates what happened.

"My mom has always been there for me and it was the worst feeling in the world having to make that call," Sheard said. "But she said to me, 'It isn't the mistake you make, it is how you respond,' and that really just became the way I viewed it -- I needed from that point on to make sure I worked hard to regain the respect from my teammates and coaches and let people see that wasn't the kind of person I am.

"And that is why I had to apologize to my teammates -- the worst thing I could do to them is put the team in jeopardy, I just wanted them to know I made a mistake but I would make up for it."

In the first three years of his career, Sheard had always done the right things, stood for the right things and been one of the team's hardest workers. So it wasn't hard to convince his teammates and coaches he was still a person of high character.

"First of all, Jabaal has never lied to me about anything," defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said. "And when he explained what happened that night, I didn't have to pull teeth to get him to talk to me about it and get all the information. And let me just say this, there is a lot more to the story that is known and I feel very comfortable saying that although he made a bad choice in that situation, I have no doubt that he is one of our highest-character guys on the team.

"And the fact that he is voted captain by his teammates speaks to that. Our players look up to Jabaal and they are mature enough to know that everybody makes mistakes and in a case like him -- a guy who does all the right things, works hard and is never a problem -- he's earned the benefit of the doubt."

Coach Dave Wannstedt added, "The thing is, when he got involved in that incident in the summer, there was another teammate there who really was the source of what became a problem for Jabaal. He was there with a date, he was trying to get a guy out of a jam and he gets into a problem."

Sheard takes full responsibility for his role in the altercation and said he let his guard down and used bad judgement but he understands now how quickly things can change even if you make only one mistake.

Sheard has been a quiet leader his entire career and has never had to be convinced to go to class, participate in study halls and do community service projects, things that some guys struggle with.

In fact, the reason he chose Pitt speaks volumes about what he finds important.

"All the other coaches, they talked about me getting on the field and playing football and what kind of career I could have," Sheard said. "But coach Wannstedt talked to me about getting a degree and said that in his defense I could be a star on the field but that if I come here his priority is to help me get a college degree. That is what sold me because I promised my mom I'd get a degree and make her proud.

"That's what set Pitt apart and now I am on track to finish my degree. Coming from where I came from, that is something that I can be very proud of."

Sheard needs only 31 credits to graduate and has maintained a 2.62 GPA, and he said if football doesn't work out he is interested in a career in forensic science -- perhaps as a crime scene investigator.

Wannstedt remembers his recruiting of Sheard, who is from Hollywood Hills, Fla., and said the one thing he will never forget is how mature Sheard was for his age.

"A lot of kids tell you what you want to hear but you never really know where they stand. With Jabaal he was honest and up front about everything," Wannstedt said. "We knew it was Rutgers, Arizona State and Pitt and he never wavered from that. And then when I made my home visit, we talked for a bit and then he said he had to go, so I asked him where he was going.

"He said he was going to work -- he had a job as a lifeguard -- and he said the reason he was working was to help his mom pay the bills. I remember saying to myself 'wow' because here is a kid who is concerned about helping his mom, who is responsible enough to work a job interacting with people and helping people. That said all I needed to know about him."

Sheard's stellar season this year -- as well as the way he has conducted himself off the field -- has overshadowed his offseason incident but it isn't something he is going to forget.

It is one of several things which he has used as motivation on the field and may actually be one reason he has taken his game to another level -- with another being Romeus' absence after back surgery Sept. 17.

"I look up to Greg; I always did. He, to me, is our best player," Sheard said. "But when he went down, I felt it was up to me to step up and show what kind of player I am. And the other thing is, during the offseason we had summer workouts and at the end of them, the other players voted for the top five workout guys -- and I wasn't one of them.

"That hurt me but it also let me know I had to work harder. And then coming back from that incident, I just knew I got a second chance and I am not going to ever put it in jeopardy in that way again."

Wannstedt said Sheard is clearly an NFL player, likely a high draft pick. He said his best position might be outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense -- similar to James Harrison of the Steelers -- but he can play the run and cover.

And while Romeus has been the man of preseason hype and awards, Gattuso said that Sheard has always been just as good -- he just hasn't ever gotten enough credit.

"I've always looked at the two of them as equals," he said. "Last year, it wasn't like Greg got all the double teams and Jabaal cleaned up the mess -- half the games it was Jabaal getting the double teams because teams were attacking us in that way.

"The two of them are very different players, but they've complemented each other and benefitted from each other and so none of us are surprised by anything he's done this season."


Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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