When Jenna King was a child, she saw how much it mattered for her older brother, Jon, to give back to his community, whether it meant buying tires for a family’s car or buying Christmas toys for children who wrote to a local newspaper.
King said she learned from her brother how to play basketball and golf in the family’s front yard. But she also learned to give back.
At age 9, Jon King was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma — a bone cancer that often affects children and adolescents — and doctors gave him six months to live. Jon died Oct. 18, 2001, at age 24, two weeks before Jenna turned 10.
“Seeing that when I was younger, I think Jon’s the kind of person I strive to be and strive to be around,” King said.
At the University of Alabama, King met Austin Shepherd, a Vikings seventh-round draft choice, and he fit that description. The two are to be married July 11, and have started a foundation based on Jon King’s memory.
First, however, Shepherd has set his sights on the NFL. During this week’s minicamp at Winter Park, the 6-4, 315-pounder worked at right guard with the second-team offense.
Shepherd, a two-time national champion at Alabama, started all 13 games at right tackle for the Crimson Tide last season and did not allow a sack until the Sugar Bowl. The junior was part of an offensive line that ranked 23rd nationally in fewest sacks allowed per game, and twice was named Alabama’s offensive player of the week. But as a pro, Shepherd will shift inside to guard.
Shepherd, who said everything went “pretty well” on his first day of minicamp, has a key goal.
“First, just make the team,” he said, laughing.
The Austin Shepherd Foundation, started by King and Shepherd three years ago, has several programs that help patients at Children’s of Alabama hospital in Birmingham. Alabama players regularly visit Children’s to sign autographs, take pictures and hand out “ASF — Love Saves Lives” beads. Through the “Beads of Courage” program, children receive handmade glass beads that are color coded for each milestone in their treatment.
During each home game, Alabama players wear two matching beads. One bead they keep, and the other they give to the child undergoing treatment. The child also receives a card explaining when and where the bead was worn, and an experience the athlete had wearing it.
“As I grew up, I kind of wanted to help people like me who really didn’t understand,” King said. “And help people like Jon, who didn’t feel good and whose parents didn’t really know what to do or what to say when [their child] asked, ‘Am I going to die?’ ”
When King met Shepherd during their freshman year at Alabama, King said she was just old enough and just mature enough to finally start giving back. One day she invited Shepherd to go with her on a visit to a hospital in Birmingham.
“I wasn’t sure, because I’m kind of sensitive to that stuff,” Shepherd said. “I don’t like seeing people like that. I feel like everyone should have a fair shot at life.”
After the visit, the couple spoke about how much of an effect it seemed they had on the children in only an hour, and how much more of an impact they could make if they went for three or four hours every month.
A week later, they decided to start the foundation, which was launched Oct. 18, 2012, the 11-year anniversary of Jon’s death.
Shepherd said he has stayed in contact with many of the families he met at the hospital, and on the Thursday of the NFL draft he participated in a golf tournament for a boy, Cody Hayes, who died.
“You’re touched by something every day,” said Shepherd, who proposed to King at the hospital. “Especially once you hear someone you’ve met has passed away. It’s super hard.”
Said King, “You see children who are so excited to see you and want to play FIFA and see Austin, and then you see kids who can barely hold their head up. You will see parents who will tell you their story and just burst into tears.”
In Minnesota, King hopes to continue the “Beads of Courage” program with Vikings players.
“I’ve got to make sure I make the team before I can do anything, so, my number one goal is to make the team,” Shepherd said. “If I do and when I do, I’ll start from there.”