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March 6, 2013

Alabama's Shepherd raising money to fight cancer

TUSCALOOSA | Austin Shepherd admits to being a little uncomfortable the first time he visited Children's Hospital in Birmingham at the suggestion of his girlfriend, Jenna King.

The University of Alabama offensive tackle had a grandmother die of cancer, but he never knew her. And he'd certainly never been around children afflicted with the disease. But not long after his first trip, he decided he wanted to do something more than just visit.

And with that, the Austin Shepherd Foundation was born.

"When we went, there was a mom who wanted Austin to hold her baby and get a picture, and the baby did not want to let go of him," King said. "I think that was kind of the moment he decided that this is what he wants to do."

King and Shepherd have been dating for about 18 months. King's older brother, Jon, died of cancer, and his struggle was in large part the inspiration for the foundation.

In less than five months since its launch - the foundation began last year on the 10-year anniversary of Jon King's death, Oct.18 - it has raised roughly $15,000. Most of the donations have come through the foundation's website at shepfoundation.org.

"I enjoyed the first visit a lot and felt good about what I was doing and saw the impact I was making," Shepherd said.

Once a month, Shepherd, King and frequently a few UA teammates visit the hospital to spend time with ailing children, leave them what Shepherd described as "goodie bags," play games and do whatever might be necessary to take their minds off their illnesses. Former teammate Carson Tinker routinely went along, and current players including Vinnie Sunseri, Phillip Ely and Ryan Kelly have made visits as well. More teammates have shown an interest, and Shepherd said kicker Cade Foster plans to make a visit.

Shepherd said he and King stay in touch with the families they visit.

Near the end of last season, Shepherd went a step further in giving away a pair of tickets to the Iron Bowl to Miles Benton, a young boy whose cancer was in remission at the time. After the game, Benton had his photo taken with quarterback AJ McCarron and other top players and got a signed football from the team.

Shepherd hopes to give more tickets away this fall.

"Hopefully, we can work something out with (the UA athletic) compliance (office) where we can give two to people, or maybe teammates can donate," Shepherd said.

Reach Chase Goodbread at chase@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0196.

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