STAFF WRITER JENNIFER FIERRO
HORSESHOE BAY — Jordan Shipley attributes his success in football to two unlikeliest objects: couch cushions.
He recounted this story as a guest speaker during the Horseshoe Bay Sports Club gathering April 9.
As a youngster living in Abilene, his father, former Burnet High School head football coach Bob Shipley, told his son where to run and jump in the family’s living room to catch a ball in midair. To soften his landing, the future NFL receiver fell on the cushions.
That’s how one of the greatest receivers ever to play Texas high school football got his start. By the time he graduated from Burnet in 2004, Shipley led the state with 264 career receptions, 5,424 yards receiving, and 73 touchdowns.
However, he was quick to point out that the Bulldogs had more than one talented player in 2002 and 2003, when the team was the state championship runner-up each year, including a quarterback who also went on to play in the NFL.
Shipley smiled as he thought about Stephen McGee, his high school quarterback. He recalled that, after moving to Burnet when his father took the job, people told the Shipleys about McGee. Bob Shipley replied that he had a pretty good quarterback living at home with him.
“(That) didn’t last long when he saw Stephen,” Jordan Shipley said. “He’s 6-3, 220 pounds, fast, and threw hard every time he threw it. We decided I might make a decent receiver.”
Shipley loved growing up a coach’s son, though it had its challenges.
“From the time I was born, I wanted his approval,” he said. “He was the one for me that I always looked up to. To have the opportunity to play for him wasn’t always easy. He had to make it tougher on me than anyone else.”
When it came time to pick a university at which to play, Shipley said that, in the end, he felt more comfortable with the University of Texas and former head coach Mack Brown, though he thought about picking Texas Tech and then-head coach Mike Leach.
He chose the Longhorns because he didn’t want to be known as a product of a system. In the early 2000s, smaller, faster receivers weren’t sought after like they are today.
The biggest difference between playing high school football vs. college is the amount of natural athletic ability on one team, he said.
“You go from having two or three guys who are stud athletes,” he said. “In college, you have 75 guys, two to four at each position. The athletic side is night and day. Even for those guys from big 5A schools, it’s shocking the amount of guys who get it.”
While Shipley wasn’t the typical height for a receiver, he did have the right speed and an incredible ability to catch just about every ball thrown at him. However, a busted knee in 2004 and a torn hamstring in 2005 kept him off the roster, even though he had earned a starting spot. Those first two years at UT were tough, he said. Brown even told the receiver that if he chose not to play anymore, the university would still honor his scholarship.
“That wasn’t up my alley,” Shipley said about quitting. “I knew if I could fight back and keep persevering, something was going to work out.”
He was right. He held many of the program’s receiving records.
One highlight of his college career came in a 2009 Big 12 game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. That contest is remembered as a coming-out party for Huskers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who had 12 tackles, seven for losses, and 4½ sacks.
“I’ve never seen anything like what Suh did to us that day,” he said. “He was like another species.”
Suh’s play was impressive, but was it enough for a Nebraska win?
Then-Texas quarterback Colt McCoy got his team in position for a potential game-winning field goal with one second left.
Before they trotted out on the field, Shipley, who was the holder, grabbed a nervous Hunter Lawrence, the kicker, and reminded him of Jeremiah 17:17, the Bible verse they had held onto throughout the season: “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.”
“We had been studying that every week,” Shipley said. “I gave him that to take his mind off the pressure.”
Shipley noted being a ball holder is a no-win situation. If he does his job, it goes unnoticed, but if he doesn’t?
“You mess up and everybody hates you,” he said.
With one second left on the clock, Shipley set the ball on the ground and Lawrence connected on a 46-yard attempt.
“He kicks it, and the ball starts left. Then, at the end, it goes right and goes in, and the party’s on. It’s the most nerve-wracking thing it could be,” Shipley recalled.
That field goal won the game for the Longhorns, 13-12, and sent them to Pasadena for the national championship game against the Alabama Crimson Tide.
On that most important day, however, McCoy was knocked out of the game during the first series, and the Longhorns lost to Alabama 37-21. Shipley did catch two touchdown passes during the contest.
“We tried and fought and clawed,” he said. “It didn’t work out. If Colt hadn’t gone down, we would’ve won. Count your blessings. It was amazing. The game was fun.”
Despite competing for the championship in 2009, Shipley believes the most talented Longhorns team on which he played was in 2008, the one that lost 39-33 to Texas Tech in Lubbock when then-Red Raiders receiver Michael Crabtree caught a touchdown pass on the last play of the game.
“He was on the far right side. He tip-toes in and costs us a (return trip to the) national championship, I’m pretty sure,” Shipley said. “Lubbock is a weird place to play. The only positive was that was where I had my first punt return for a touchdown. I had never punt returned at Texas before then.”
He also recalled his favorite play in a Texas uniform: a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Oklahoma in 2008. At the time, the Longhorns trailed 14-3, but Shipley’s touchdown swung the game’s momentum and brought the burnt orange faithful back into it.
“It was a feeling that something big was going to happen,” he said. “They kicked it to me, and I hit it as fast as I could hit it. It was one of my most significant plays. It helped us get back in the game.”
The other great part of that game for Shipley was lining up as a flex tight end, where his speed and terrific hands in open space were tough to defend. He finished the game with 11 catches for 112 yards and a touchdown, and Texas won 45-35. He credited former offensive coordinator Greg Davis for that.
“He had stuff (Oklahoma) didn’t know what to do with,” Shipley said.
The receiver was drafted in 2010 by the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 84 overall in the third round.
He said the biggest difference between college and the NFL is the amount of time players spend together conditioning, practicing, watching film, and preparing.
“You’re making football your full-time job, and that creates really athletic beasts,” he said. “They study football and know it. That’s what makes the mental matter, and the physical happens faster. They’re so much more in tune. It’s every emotion known to man. There’s a lot going on from the mental standpoint. Those guys are exceptional. They study tendencies, and it creates a perfect storm of things happening fast.”
When he arrived at the Bengals camp, Shipley met receivers Terrell Owens and Chad “Ocho-Cinco” Johnson. He calls them two of the biggest personalities ever in that position.
Shipley led all AFC rookies in 2010 in receptions with 52 for 600 yards and caught three touchdowns despite suffering a concussion in late September on a hit from Cleveland Browns defensive back T.J. Ward.
Though he got up and walked off the field, Shipley had no memory of what happened or how he got to the locker room. Because he was still wearing his jersey, he knew he had played in a game and realized it wasn’t good that he couldn’t remember.
“From that point on, my wife, Sunny, never enjoyed me playing,” he said. “She was done.”
In 2011, during a Week 2 contest against the Denver Broncos, Shipley tore his meniscus, anterior cruciate ligament, and medial collateral ligament in his knee.
He struggled to fully recover and was cut during the 2012 preseason. He was claimed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and released two weeks later on Aug. 31 but was re-signed Sept. 18 when Preston Parker was injured. However, the Bucs released him seven days later.
The Jacksonville Jaguars signed him Nov. 20, 2012, and Shipley played in six games. He caught 23 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns. Jacksonville resigned him March 21, 2013, then released him Sept. 1 of that year.
He said his wife was all for him retiring from football, so when he had the chance to host a TV show for the Outdoor Channel, he jumped at it. He served as an occasional host for “Bucks of Tecomate” and “Tecomate Whitetail Nation.” He still tests outdoor equipment.
“I’ve been pretty good at doing things that don’t feel like work,” he said with a laugh.
He and Sunny live in Austin to be close to his parents. All the Shipley children live there with the exception of Shelby, another standout Burnet athlete, who lives in Abilene with her family.
Sunny is a Nashville songwriter. She and Jordan have written songs together, and, every once in awhile, when someone calls at the right time, they can catch Jordan in a music studio.
He still talks to his former high school and college quarterbacks. He and McGee will be at the Burnet Bluebonnet Festival and in the grand parade, which starts at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 14, on the courthouse square.
“My dad always said football is going to end at some point, and you’re stuck with who you are. Like (former Texas head coach Mack) Brown said, ‘Don’t let this be the most significant thing that happens to you,’” Shipley said. “If football is the most significant thing I’m known for, I would say that’s a life that’s wasted. Be the men that people say things about us that really matter.”