More than two decades ago, Brad Laird walked off the Turpin Stadium turf for the final time as Northwestern State’s all-time leader in passing yardage, having thrown for 6,037 yards.
That was 1995. Twenty-four years later, Laird has a unique vantage point to see the challenger to his long-standing record.
As the Demons head to Sam Houston State on Saturday for a 12 p.m. Southland Conference kickoff, senior Shelton Eppler stands 451 yards away from breaking Laird’s stranglehold on the top spot in NSU passing yardage history despite playing just 19 games as a Demon after transferring from Trinity Valley Community College.
“It’s unreal to think about being in this position,” said Eppler, who has thrown for 5,586 yards. “Without my amazing teammates, this wouldn’t be possible. I have some side jokes with coach Laird, just telling him I’m right behind him. He still has the upper hand on me, so he has that card. It’s awesome to have an amazing head coach like him.”
The career yardage mark is one of the few Eppler has not added to an ever-growing list of accomplishments for the Navasota, Texas, product.
In this past Saturday’s 34-13 win against Lamar, Eppler became the school’s all-time leader in touchdown passes (50) and pass attempts (781) while establishing a single-season record with 2,948 passing yards. That trio of marks gave Eppler 13 Northwestern State single-game, single-season and career records in less than two seasons.
While Eppler’s 294 passing yards per game or the 2.6 passing touchdowns per game have been impressive, Laird has been more struck by the way Eppler’s work ethic.
“It’s just the way he goes about handling things,” Laird said. “He’s very consistent with what he does, consistent with his preparation, consistent with who he is as a person. As far as the records that have been broken, he’ll be the first to tell you it’s about winning and the opportunity to be 1-0 this week.”
Laird’s career spanned 1991-95 because of a redshirt season. Entering 2019, he still held top-10 season marks in passer rating (137.88, 1995, 8th) and remained NSU’s career leader in total offense (6,178) and passing yardage and in the top 10 in completions (438, 2nd) and attempts (761, 2nd). A 2015 N-Club Hall of Fame inductee, Laird averaged 109.5 completions per season on 190.3 attempts.
Eppler is playing in a different offensive era. He reached 110 completions in the first four games of the 2019 season and surpassed 190 attempts in Week 5.
The Demons quarterbacks past and present don’t speak much about the records nor the eras in which they were established.
“Around practice, we’ll talk about stuff we do, what our reads need to be here and there,” Eppler said. “We never talked about our games compared to each other.”
In addition to the impressive career numbers each produced, they share a similarity along leadership lines. During his career, Laird roomed with offensive linemen, joking he was well protected wherever he went.
“As a quarterback, you want to get the offensive line on your side,” Laird said. “He’s one who has that. He has the respect of the whole team. He’s not one to brag. He goes about his business. We may have situations where we pick back and forth, but it’s all in fun. Hopefully, the opportunity (to break the record) will present itself in the next couple of weeks.”
By his season and career averages, Eppler is on pace to break Laird’s yardage record in the season finale against Stephen F. Austin on Nov. 21 at Turpin Stadium.
Before the annual battle for Chief Caddo, however, stands a game that holds a familial tie for Eppler.
The Demons’ trip to Sam Houston State not only brings Eppler within 45 miles of his hometown, it takes him to the place his older brother, Tyler, played his college baseball before becoming a sixth-round Major League Baseball draft pick. For as much as Eppler has found himself looking up to Laird on a statistical basis, he holds that same admiration for his older brother.
“He’s my role model,” Eppler said. “He’s who I wanted to base myself on as a person and as an athlete. If it’s advice, or if I’m going through hard times, I can rely on him for that.
“He was the starting quarterback in high school before he got hurt and started pursuing baseball. I still think he can throw a football better than me, I’m just not going to tell him that.”
Following his record-setting night against Lamar, Eppler commented on how quickly his season-plus at the helm of the Northwestern State offense had flown.
Some 36 or so hours later, that sentiment had not changed.
“It’s crazy to think how fast it went, and now we’re trying to soak it all in before it’s gone,” Eppler said. “I saw Jared West’s tweet that said, ‘Five years ago, we were thinking how much football we have, and now it’s down to 10 days.’”
Photo Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services