Sitting on a table in Brad Laird’s office inside the Northwestern State athletic fieldhouse is a copy of “The Change Agent,” a book co-authored by John Gordon and Damon West, the latter Laird brought in to speak to his NSU football team during preseason camp.
Inside the Demons’ locker room, the group of 22 seniors who will play their final game in a Northwestern State uniform sees itself as one collective group of change agents.
“I know the season hasn’t gone the way we wanted it, but I think we made an impact on the change coach Laird wanted to make when he took the job,” fifth-year senior offensive lineman Chris Zirkle said. “We flipped the switch so to say. Hopefully, they can come back next year and continue to improve and win the conference.”
Northwestern State started the season 0-7 before recovering with three wins in its past four games, a resurgence, according to Laird, that can be attributed to the leadership shown by the senior class.
“When you look at the impact these seniors have had on the program, the last couple of weeks show what this football team has been about,” Laird said. “They go out and play hard no matter the situation. I can speak on behalf of the coaches and say you appreciate what these men do on a daily basis to be student-athlete – the work they put in throughout the week to line up three hours on Saturday afternoon or Saturday night or, this week, on a Thursday night; to be involved in the community like they are; to handle their academics and to take care of themselves off the field. You have to appreciate every aspect of what they do.”
The 22-player class has its share of fifth-year seniors – Zirkle, linebacker Brice Borgeson, offensive lineman Dustin Burns, safety Ian Edwards, safety Nick Forde, offensive lineman Jonathan Hubbard, cornerback D’Ronne Littleton, tight end Tyler O’Donoghue, punter Parker Pastorello, defensive end Desmond Prejean, safety Ryan Reed and running back Jared West – further deepening the typical bond a senior class that also includes safety Isaiah Armstrong, wide receiver Akile Davis, quarterback Shelton Eppler, defensive tackle O’Shea Jackson, safety Ronald Malbrough, offensive lineman Tyler Rapp, safety Kevin Ratliff, wide receiver Quan Shorts, linebacker Quin Whitley and cornerback Dylan Wilson.
“You see 22 guys who come from different areas, different backgrounds,” Laird said. “Some have been here five years. Some have been here four years. Some have been here one year and anywhere in between. All I can say is thank you, thank you for a job well done.”
Included in the Class of 2019 is the record-setting pass-and-catch duo of Eppler and Shorts, a pair of Demons who transferred in before the 2018 season. Eppler has rewritten the Demons’ single-season and career passing marks while Shorts needed just two seasons to rank second in school history in career receptions (147) while obliterating NSU’s single-season catch mark, which stands at 91 with one game remaining.
The individual accolades have piled up in recent weeks with Pastorello nabbing conference, state and national special teams honors after the Demons’ 34-13 win against Lamar on Nov. 9. Eppler added a Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Week on Monday after throwing for 306 yards and accounting for three touchdowns in the Demons’ 31-28 win at Sam Houston State this past Saturday.
The numbers and awards pale in comparison to what has been built when the Turpin Stadium lights aren’t lit.
“I remember coming in for freshman camp,” Forde said. “In the summer, all the freshmen are here together. Then camp starts, and you’re with the big dogs. I remember going back and thinking, ‘This isn’t high school anymore. It’s serious.’ Then this year, we’re those seniors and you saw the freshmen come in with the same look on their face. It’s cool to see those guys who came in 2015 that we all persevered.”
That perseverance led to a bond with not only each other but with the campus and the community.
“The thing that really sticks out is the people,” Zirkle said. “That’s what brought me here and kept me here. I love the people here in Natchitoches, the traditions. The alumni, just meeting more of them as I got older. Look at the upgrades that we’ve done here. We didn’t have the big scoreboard when I got here. We didn’t have the (purple chairback) seats when I got here. It makes me feel really old.”
With one game left, however, both Forde and Zirkle aren’t ready to shed any tears. Theirs is the not-so-little matter of keeping possession of the 7-foot-6, 320-plus pound Chief Caddo trophy that goes to the winner of Thursday night’s rivalry game against Stephen F. Austin.
The chief’s calming influence has extended to the emotions many expect to see Thursday night.
“I don’t think it’s really hit me yet,” Zirkle said. “My mind’s not on that. My mind’s on bringing Chief Caddo back. That’s the big worry now. We have to focus on practice and Stephen F. Austin.”
Added Forde: ”I’m not thinking about the last time, enjoying the time with my guys. We’ll have fun and play our hearts out. The fact Chief Caddo is up for grabs gives you more to play for. We’re going to play hard regardless of the situation. I’ll look back on the emotions of it all after the victory.”
Photo Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services