MOULTRIE, Ga. — John Samuel Shenker remembers hearing silence from the Auburn coach on the other end of the phone.
Shenker just told the coach whom he committed to several months earlier that he wouldn’t play for him. With his parents sitting by him in their kitchen, Shenker said he was going in a different direction for his college career.
Shenker’s own parents were still adjusting to their son’s major announcement.
“There was just a long pause on the phone from the coach — and us,” Shenker’s father, Tom, told SEC Country. “But it was his decision. We told him we would support it. We encouraged him to just have no regrets and go all out.”
When Shenker hung up the phone, he was no longer committed to play for Butch Thompson and Auburn baseball.
Instead, the 6-foot-3 South Georgia native switched to college football. A former top-500 national recruit and a standout third baseman, Shenker knew his heart was on the gridiron instead of the diamond.
“Football was something I wanted to do in college,” John Samuel Shenker told SEC Country. “I don’t think I played too much baseball. But I think as my love for football grew, my love for baseball stayed the same. My love for football just outgrew baseball.”
There was only one problem for Shenker on that big day in February 2016.
When the tight end told Thompson he was declining Auburn baseball, he didn’t have a single football scholarship offer.
“When he did that, we didn’t know if he could even play college football,” Shenker’s mother, Melody, told SEC Country. “He never pursued anything like that. We had done nothing with football recruiting.”
The next year would lead him on an unlikely road back to Auburn.
He went on road trips totaling thousands of miles, trying to get attention from any college team. He made a bold decision to leave his small private school in Albany to play for one of the biggest programs in Georgia and one of the most famous high school coaches in the country.
Shenker bet on himself late in an age of ultra-early football recruiting. But after putting pen to paper on his national letter of intent last February, he was headed back to Auburn — this time as a member of Gus Malzahn’s 2017 recruiting class.
He hit the jackpot with his gambles, as he’s now enrolled at his dream school as Chip Lindsey’s prototype tight end of the future.
“I started out on this by myself, not knowing what was out there or if there was going to be anything out there for me,” Shenker said. “I didn’t play at a competitive school at first. It was very relieving to go through this process and have everything build on itself. I can look back at it and be very happy.”
On the road again, and again, and again…
When Shenker said he wanted to pursue a college football scholarship, he was at a major disadvantage. Other prospects had been getting calls and offers from schools since their early high school days. Shenker, fresh off his junior season, had nothing.
“He had to play a lot of catch-up in recruiting,” Tom Shenker said. “We really didn’t know how far behind we were until we got involved in it.”
That spring, he traded baseball for a steady diet of football workouts. At 6-foot-3 Shenker had the frame to play tight end in college, but he needed to get into football shape.
Tom Shenker came across Derrick Tatum of Elite Talent Football Academy in Atlanta. Shenker soon was making the trek from South Georgia to the state capital every weekend for speed and agility training.
— EliteTalentFootball (@elitefootballac) March 12, 2016
“(Tatum) was really high-energy and enthusiastic,” Tom Shenker said. “John Samuel went to Atlanta for I don’t know how many weekends in a row to work with Derrick. He was encouraging and positive.”
Tatum also became Shenker’s gateway to a huge part of the recruiting process — camp season. Because he was so focused on baseball, Shenker hadn’t gone to a one of those before the spring of his junior year.
That changed quickly. Shenker went on a trip with Tatum to Detroit, taking a week to tour campuses all across Big Ten country. When he got back from Michigan, he and his father went on a whirlwind tour of the south.
— John Samuel Shenker (@JsShenker) June 11, 2016
“He and I spent a week putting 1,600 miles on our car and went to six camps in a row,” Tom Shenker said.
The Shenkers went to Georgia, a satellite camp at Mercer, another camp in Atlanta, Auburn, Alabama and a satellite camp at Georgia Southern. Shenker would camp in the mornings and afternoons, ride with his father to the next one, and spend every night soaking in hotel room ice baths.
“When he got to Alabama, they wanted him to run the 40,” Tom Shenker said. “He said, ‘Listen, coach, this is my seventh camp in seven days. I’m just going to skip the 40.’ … But it was fun. It was a good time for father and son to be together and experience that.”
The massive move
Shenker got the attention of several schools during his marathon camp tours. He finished with his first three scholarship offers from some smaller programs.
Bigger schools were interested in Shenker, but he had one major red flag in their eyes.
“They’d come up afterwards and say, ‘Hey, man, where are you from? Where do you go to school?'” Melody Shenker said. “He’d tell them and they’d be like, ‘Where’s that?'”
Shenker was at Deerfield-Windsor, a small prep school in Albany. By the end of his camp circuit, the message was clear — if Shenker wanted to play big-time college football, he needed a major step up in competition he would get in the private school leagues.
“I’d been through some of those camps, and I knew I needed to go somewhere where I could get in the position to play in college,” Shenker said. “I had some coaches say, ‘We might offer you, but you don’t play anybody, so we don’t know if you can actually play for us.’ I knew it was a decision I had to make.”
Midway through June, Shenker decided to take another big risk. He and his family would move an hour away to Moultrie, Ga., where he would transfer to Colquitt County High School.
Led by the famous former Hoover (Ala.) High School coach Rush Propst, the Colquitt County Packers were one of the best teams in the entire South. The Packers were fresh off back-to-back undefeated seasons in 2014 and 2015 in which they claimed state championships in Georgia’s highest classification.
Shenker went from a small private school to the biggest football program in the state. He knew it would be tough to earn playing time at Colquitt County, and he knew it would be hard to leave his friends at Deerfield-Windsor. But the exposure and the development he could get playing for Propst was worth the gamble.
“It was difficult,” Tom Shenker said. “But that was John Samuel’s decision. We just supported him as his parents.”
Shenker said as soon as he arrived at Colquitt County, he received two more scholarship offers. But he didn’t have time to celebrate. He had to play catch-up once again — this time with his new teammates.
“The first few weeks were pretty hard, not being in shape like they were,” Shenker said. “The first thing I did was a 7-on-7 with them. Everybody else was chilling, and I was there just gasping for air. They had been running sprints all summer. But once I got into pads, it got better. It took off from there.”
On the surface, Shenker’s first few games at Colquitt County were rough. After winning 30 consecutive games, the Packers lost their first four contests of 2016. Parents of other Packers were concerned for the Shenkers, who uprooted their lives to play for this dominant program.
“We had a couple of parents come up to us and say, ‘I hope you’re not disappointed,'” Tom Shenker said. “And we said, ‘It wasn’t our decision to transfer here. It was John Samuel’s, and he just wanted to get better.’ Everything outside of that was a bonus.”
Although Colquitt County was in the midst of a stunning losing streak, Shenker took it all in stride. He was just happy to have a dedicated tight ends coach and the knowledge of an experienced staff.
“He was coached every play, literally every play,” Melody Shenker said. “He was always talking with Coach Sutton and Coach Propst all the time. There was always someone instructing him, trying to make him better. That was huge, just because of what they could bring to the game.”
The Packers finished the regular season with six consecutive wins and Shenker became a valuable weapon for Colquitt County.
Several SEC schools were in attendance when he had a breakout performance against Camden County that included a 57-yard catch. He had 30 catches for 451 yards and two touchdowns as Colquitt County ran all the way to the state quarterfinals after a dismal start.
“From the first game to the last game, it was not even close,” Shenker said. “I was so much better at the end than I was at the beginning. Just playing bigger people and getting acclimated to the speed of the game.
“Playing for Propst is interesting, but there’s a method to his madness. I wouldn’t be going to Auburn if I didn’t play here. Coming here and being with the coaches, you can get acclimated to college-type practices and workouts. I think it was the best decision I could’ve made.”
Coming back home to Auburn
After finishing a successful single season at Colquitt County, it was time for Shenker to cash in on his late move to football.
In the first couple of weeks in January, Shenker picked up scholarship offers from Louisiana-Monroe, Western Kentucky and Wake Forest. The last two intrigued him the most, and he was ready to make a decision between the Hilltoppers and the Demon Deacons.
But a coaching change at Auburn set off a chain of events that brought him back to the Plains.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn hired Chip Lindsey to be his new offensive coordinator on Jan. 21. Lindsey brought a new perspective on tight ends to Auburn, which mostly used them as blocking specialists over the last few seasons.
But Lindsey wanted Auburn to get a versatile player at the position. In his offense, a tight end could line up with his hand in the dirt, in the backfield as an H-back or a slot receiver at any time.
That was exactly what Shenker did at Colquitt County. After all, Lindsey was Propst’s offensive coordinator for a spell at Hoover.
That connection went a long way, as Lindsey targeted Shenker as his tight end for the future shortly after arriving at Auburn from Arizona State.
“It was very random, honestly,” Shenker said. “Coach Lindsey came in, and two days later, he was down here. We sat down, and he gave me an offer.”
Two weekends later, Shenker was on an official visit to Auburn — this time as a football recruit.
“When we came back, it was really like coming home again,” Melody Shenker said. “We always loved going to Auburn. We’ve visited a lot of campuses, but there was just something about Auburn for all of us.”
By the end of the weekend, he was committed to play for the Tigers again.
— John Samuel Shenker (@JsShenker) January 29, 2017
“I knew it was where I wanted to go as soon as I got there and saw it again,” Shenker said. “I knew it was my place to be. It was a perfect scenario. I knew it was the right place.”
Two days after his commitment, Malzahn was reading his name as an official signee.
“He reminds me of Philip Lutzenkirchen,” Malzahn said on national signing day. “He’s about the same size. His ball skills are very good. He can put his hand down. He can block. He does a lot of H-back stuff that we do in our offense. Very excited about his versatility.”
Now, a year and a half after deciding to turn down his first offer to play on the Plains — and a year after deciding to leave his hometown for his senior year — this lifelong Auburn fan is officially a Tiger.
Shenker joins a position group that features several specialists in H-back Chandler Cox, tight end Jalen Harris and rangy receiving threat Sal Cannella. But in the words of new position coach Larry Porter, Shenker’s skill set puts Auburn “in position to eventually get to where we want to get to” at tight end.
And Shenker is ready to keep doing what it took for him to get from zero offers to a scholarship spot on an SEC roster.
“It’s all about hard work,” Shenker said. “That’s what I’ll give to Auburn every day. I’ll do everything the coach asks of me. I’ll come every day getting ready to work and will always be ready for what’s ahead.”