SPOTLIGHT: Former Demon QB finding success south of the border

HAPPY ENDING: Former Northwestern State quarterback Shelton Eppler and his new wife Skylar celebrated his Mexico Bowl victory.

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

Millions of kids grow up dreaming of playing pro football. None of those dreams involve Denmark or Mexico.

That’s where football has carried former Northwestern State quarterback Shelton Eppler.

He grew up a few miles south of College Station, and sure, he imagined playing for the Texas A&M Aggies and hearing his name called at the NFL Draft. His pathway from Navasota didn’t follow that route.

But after winning a state title in high school, and rewriting records at Trinity Valley Community College and Northwestern, Eppler is basking in the glow of being the winning quarterback in a pro championship game.

His latest glory came in Mexico Bowl V, leading Fundidores Monterrey to the Liga de Futbol Americano Professional title a couple of weekends ago in Tijuana with his new bride, former NSU volleyball player Skylar Besch, and their parents in the stands. Eppler led a go-ahead drive to the decisive TD with three minutes left, thrilling a national television audience in the Fundidores’ 18-14 win.

If that’s not all a bit out of the mainstream for you, consider this: Eppler’s successful Mexican season began with practice just after his honeymoon ended. Shelton and Skylar were married on Super Bowl Eve, stayed in Texas to enjoy watching the big game the following evening, then jetted down for a blissful week in, you guessed it, Mexico, at a Cancun resort they already plan to revisit.

“Two days after the honeymoon, I had to fly back to Mexico to join the team, so that was a little difficult,” he said. “That’s a great way to spend your first three months of marriage.”

Fortunately, Mrs. Eppler was able to visit a few times before the championship game. Now they’re home in Lake Travis, Texas, working for her dad’s insurance company. Shelton’s been doing that since graduating with honors from Northwestern, selling insurance even while he was in Denmark for eight months in 2021 and in Monterrey this spring.

His shot at pro ball was curtailed, like everything else, by the pandemic. There was no 2020 Pro Day at NSU or many other places. Eppler nosed around and eventually connected with a Danish team. Spending eight months with the Aalborg 89ers, he led them to the playoff semifinals with over 1,723 passing yards and 17 TDs.

He came home last October, preparing for the wedding, selling insurance and open to football opportunities. The life-changing connection dated back to his junior year in high school, when Navasota played a Mexican team while going 16-0 and winning the Texas 4A crown as he threw 71 TD passes.

That team’s offensive line coach is the Fundidores’ offensive coordinator. They needed a quarterback and made Eppler an attractive offer. He was the last player to arrive, due to his wedding, and two weeks later, the season was underway. A bye in Week Two was well-timed. But the key to Eppler’s success and sanity? Navigating the language barrier.

That wasn’t a problem in Denmark, where nearly everyone speaks some English. But not so in Mexico.

“It was so hard to understand. Anything involving food, I pretty much got. Numbers, like calling plays and formations, I understood that, and player personnel was pretty easy. But having an in-depth conversation, getting to know your teammates, was difficult,” said Eppler.

He was among six American imports – three he played against in the Southland Conference, two from McNeese and one from Abilene Christian. Another was a former junior college teammate. The MVP was a Finnish teammate who spoke four languages, including Spanish and English.

The rest of the players came from Mexican colleges. The caliber of play was far above what he encountered in Denmark.

“There, they treat it like a hobby. We only had practice twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday nights after the workday. But in Mexico, we practiced daily and played weekly. The level of play wasn’t D-1 Northwestern State caliber, but it was the best league I’ve been in outside of college,” he said.

There was upside to the slow pace in Denmark after he arrived in March 2021. The 89ers played only eight games in eight months, once every two weeks. There was a two-week break between seasons, when Eppler made a trip to Italy for 11 days.

“Once you were in the (European Union), you were able to travel around the EU. We were the only Americans in Italy at the time, so we got the full experience,” he said.

The focus was all on football in Mexico, something that came second nature for him.

Eppler’s Demon career wrapped up in 2019 with 6,226 passing yards in two seasons among his 18 school records. This spring, he put up comparatively modest numbers, throwing for over 1,800 passing yards and 15 touchdowns. But he is a frontrunner for the league’s MVP award after becoming the first foreigner to quarterback a league championship team.

“It was a crazy ride, but definitely worthwhile. I won’t play in Denmark again, but Mexico is a possibility next year,” he said.

“It is a great chance to keep playing while financially helping my family’s future. They have great ties to the CFL for a chance to see if I could keep playing at the next level. All options are definitely open.”